Wednesday, June 19, 2013

What a novel can do to a reader

Here's a funny (or not so funny) little postscript to our reading group discussion about A M Homes's The End of Alice - a novel concerning the murder of a child by a paedophile - and food for thought about the power of fiction.

I have been in Wales, and yesterday evening, my final evening and a beautiful one, I was walking with my partner on the Anglesey coast path. It was my birthday; the walk was a birthday treat my partner had arranged, and it couldn't have been more perfect: the weather was warm, the sea below the cliffs was glassy, the fields were bright yellow with the biggest display of buttercups I've ever seen, everywhere there were birds, and I saw my first-ever ring-ouzel, that summer-visiting member of the blackbird family.

Then, as the path curved towards the next village, we rounded a corner and walked into the click of a camera: a lone man taking a photo and unaware of our hidden approach. He turned away quickly and began walking on ahead of us. In his hand he was carrying something bright and spotted, and as we walked behind him I made out what it was: a piece of clothing, in fact an anorak, the anorak of a small girl. Immediately for me all the calm and warmth drained from the evening. What on earth would a lone man be doing walking the cliffs carrying such a thing? There was no child in sight. And wasn't there something odd about him? On this warm evening he was wearing a heavy waterproof jacket, and his face was unshaven... Where was the child to whom the anorak belonged? All at once I was imagining her in a ditch somewhere, horribly mutilated: they were coming back, all those images prompted by the rape and murder of my own ten-year-old friend on just such a flower-scattered cliffside, images which, though I dealt with that experience in my novel The Birth Machine (or maybe exorcised it) have since become buried, but were resurrected by Homes's novel.

But, I asked myself, surely if this man had murdered a child he'd hide the evidence, he wouldn't carry such a bright, attention-attracting piece around with him. But then, if you'd just murdered a child wouldn't you be deranged, wouldn't you be deranged to have to do it in the first place? And when the man - who was walking quickly, as if to shake us off - suddenly stopped ahead and took a photo of the path ahead of him, the horrific possibility came to me that he was actually documenting the scene of a murder with the kind of perverted mentality suggested by Homes's novel. And I found myself noting every particular of his appearance in case I had to report it to the police.

And then, just as we reached the village, I heard the cry, 'Dad!' and from round the bend ahead a little girl came running towards him, and then into sight came the rest of the man's family, an older girl and a wife. And suddenly the man looked nothing like a sinister child predator, but an ordinary short man, a father kind enough to carry his little girl's coat, and who'd got left behind while taking photos and was simply hurrying to catch up.

But it left me thinking, and a bit shaken. My childhood was ruled by fear of the lone stranger, and when I became adult I saw this (perhaps not entirely wrongly) as linked to racism, and set out consciously to reject it. And I have revelled in the fact that in recent years, the old formalities have broken down and people are generally more friendly and casual and unsuspicious with strangers. But I have now been reminded that actually, that childhood fear was also to do with some terrible things that did happen very close to home, and that it's all too easy to slip into a comfortable false consciousness and ignore the darkness.

And it's Homes's novel that has done this for me. And that's the power of fiction.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

How much real horror can a reader take?

In the very week that A M Homes won the Women's Prize for Fiction, for her wonderful May We Be Forgiven, our reading group happened to be discussing her earlier novel, The End of Alice, narrated, like Nabokov's Lolita, by an incarcerated paedophile murderer. It's an important book, I think, but for our group its power was somewhat negated by the fact that several members found it just too horrifying to read. An account of our discussion is here on my author blog.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Women's Prize for Fiction

Huge congratulations to A M Homes for winning the Women's Prize for Fiction for May We Be Forgiven, her hilarious, stomach-churning yet moving depiction of the implosion of the American Dream via the disintegrating life of a hapless historian trying to rehabilitate the reputation of Richard Nixon.

Homes is that really precious thing, most particularly in this age of fearful sensibilities: a writer who dares to break the false boundaries of taste and accepted sentiment in order to explore the complex, sordid yet touching truth about ourselves. There seems to me in Homes's writing a total lack of authorial timidity or self-regard, and I salute her.

In the (just less than) fortnight run-up to the prize I set out to read all of the shortlisted books and I managed them all except Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies, of which I've only read a quarter. The thing that struck me most strongly was a transatlantic divide: three of the shortlistees were American and three British, and I found a literary-cultural difference in their books. It's often said that British literature is obsessed with the past, and it isn't only the UK Mantel's straightforwardly historical novel that seems to bear this out. British Kate Atkinson's structural tour-de-force, Life After Life,  is essentially about the horrors of war and plays with the thoroughly contemporary astro-physics notion of parallel universes and alternative lives; however, her focus is historical and the book pivots on a moment in 1910 when the protagonist is born into a Forsterian middle-class idyll about to be shattered by war. While the pivotal moment of Zadie Smith's NW is contemporary, an explicit theme is that of time, and much of the narrative is retrospective examination of how the characters got to the point where they are now.

It's not that the American writers aren't interested in history - Homes's protagonist is after all a historian - but what characterises all three are energetic plunges into the here and now to which history has led us, and a muscular facing up to the huge changes we are undergoing. Both Homes's novel and Maria Semple's very clever and entertaining yet moving Where D'You Go, Bernadette, are steeped in the technology that does indeed saturate our world, and capture the way that it is changing not only the texture of our lives but our psyches. Most urgent is Barbara Kingsolver's stunning Flight Behaviour, set in a place, America's rural bible belt, where climate change is seen as 'God's will' yet is most dramatically experienced.

A great shortlist, and great evidence of the strength of women's writing on both sides of the Atlantic.