Bad Blood by Lorna Sage, Reflections on Creative Nonfiction

I have had this memoir on my bookshelf for a long time and recall first becoming aware of it when I wrote an article for our a newsletter about a genre in literature I wasn’t familiar with called Creative Nonfiction, sometimes referred to as Literary Nonfiction and here in France as essais or belles-lettres.

It had emerged as an evolving and respected genre, encouraged in the US by Lee Gutkind who founded the creative nonfiction MFA at the University of Pittsburgh in 1973, slower to develop in the UK, the first Masters programme in Creative Non-Fiction offered in 2005 at Imperial College London.

In some ways, creative nonfiction is like jazz—it’s a rich mix of flavors, ideas, and techniques, some of which are newly invented and others as old as writing itself. Creative nonfiction can be an essay, a journal article, a research paper, a memoir, or a poem; it can be personal or not, or it can be all of these. Lee Gutkind

It is distinguished from ‘nonfiction’ by its use of language to impart more than just information or facts, it presents observations, history, stories in ways that are compelling, sustaining the attention of the reader. It’s not by accident that a work becomes one of creative nonfiction, it is an art, achieved with practice.

The words “creative” and “nonfiction” describe the form. The word “creative” refers to the use of literary craft, the techniques fiction writers, playwrights, and poets employ to present nonfiction—factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid, dramatic manner. The goal is to make nonfiction stories read like fiction so that your readers are as enthralled by fact as they are by fantasy. Lee Gutkind

Lorna Sage’s memoir, published in 2001, is an excellent example of literary nonfiction, by the time she wrote it, she had been practicing her ‘creative literary art’ for some time as a literary critic, reviewer, and essay writer, publishing widely on women writers and their work. She wrote books on Angela Carter, Doris Lessing, twelve 20th century women writers, Edwardian writers Violet Trefusis & Alice Keppel and a collection of her journalistic pieces Good As Her Word was compiled posthumously.

Though she went into academe, was a lecturer, professor of English literature and Dean of the School of English and American Studies at the University of East Anglia, she resisted its embrace as a writer,

“I always wanted to write like a writer, not an academic,” she said, “to show there’s someone behind the words, someone from a specific place.”

Bad Blood centers around her childhood years in Wales. Her first memories are of living in the vicarage with her grandparents, Part 1 is the story of their marriage, creating the environment that she grew up in, one where her grandmother rarely left the house.

So it is meandering along the church yard path, tugging at her grandfather’s skirt flapping in the wind that forms the opening line and a clue to her influences; followed by further proof of the loveless union he was escaping.

“The church was at least safe. My grandmother never went near it – except feet first in her coffin, but that was years later, when she was buried in the same grave with him. Rotting together for eternity, one flesh at the last after a lifetime’s mutual loathing.”

She barely recalls the presence of her mother during those years, she was there, but the daughter’s recollection of her own mother was of,

“a shy, slender wraith kneeling on the stairs with a brush and dustpan, or washing things in the scullery. They’d made her into a domestic drudge after her marriage – my father was away in the army and she had no separate life.”

She sums up her grandmother’s sufferance in marriage with the observation:

“What made their marriage more than a run-of the-mill case of domestic estrangement was her refusal to accept her lot. She stayed furious all the days of her life – so sure of her ground, so successfully spoiled, that she was impervious to the social pressures and propaganda that made most women settle down to play the part of good wife.”

She gains even greater insight into their marriage and family life thanks to the confiscated diaries of her grandfather that have fallen into her father’s possession and help her reconstruct events of the time and life in the family household. She comes to the conclusion that the family was falling apart because nobody wanted to play the part of parent.

“There is no doubt that Grandma preserved Grandpa’s diaries for 1933 and 1934 as evidence against him. Indeed, the 1933 diary has a couple of scathing marginal comments in her hand – Here the fun begins (Friday, 25 August) and Love begins (fool) exactly a week later.”

Life becomes quieter after the death of her grandfather and they move to a new council house, taking recently evicted Grandma with them. Lorna develops an interest in the neighbouring farm and spends much of her free time helping out, watching nature in her various forms.

“I’d turned into a tomboy travesty of my mother’s little shepherdess, orphaned and anonymous, and utterly absorbed in the world outside. The repetition of farm days made them seem a backwater of time where the future was safely accounted for.”

Though her grandfather had died when she was nine, his presence was not forgotten, his bad influence often mentioned, though in Lorna ‘s memory he hadn’t let her down like he had the other women in his life, he continued on in her mind as a kind of flawed mentor who had ‘vanished into the dark with his mystique intact.’

“When, in my teens, I quarrelled with my mother, she would say in despair and disgust, “You’re just like your grandfather,” meaning that I was promiscuous, sex-obsessed, that the bad blood was coming out. My bookishness was part of that inheritance too, and though she and my father approved in theory of my love of reading, and my coming top in exams, we all knew that books had a sinister, Grandpa side to them. You could always tell which were his books because he had had the bright idea of inking out their titles and authors’ names in case visitors to his study asked to borrow a Dickens or a Marie Corelli.” Lorna Sage

Though childhood takes up much of the book, her teenage years are intriguing, for here the family rises above convention and supports Lorna at a time of great need, in an era when many young women in her position would have been shamed and treated in an inhuman manner, giving rise to more problems and heartache. That she gets through this challenging period in her life, supported by her family and goes on to complete a university education virtually without hindrance, is astounding.

Indeed, marriage, and its changing nature over the years, became one of the book’s themes, and so did secrets and lies. He represents for me now the glamour of the past, and its sinister pull, like the force of gravity inside your life. He refuses to die. When Grandma was packing up to move out of the vicarage I called by on my way from school and she told me that she had met him on the stairs.

Lorna Sage

Further evidence of what can come about when families support each other through a crisis can be observed in the reflections of her daughter, shared on the tenth anniversary of Lorna Sage’s death, at a time when she could better acknowledge and celebrate her mother’s literary success and the choices she made, which sadly wasn’t the case when this memoir won a literary award.

Lorna Sage Source : Wikipedia

I expected it to be more of a ‘misery memoir’ than it was, and hadn’t realised it would be quite as comical as it was, for although the family inflict wounds upon each other, she observes them with a wry wit, that doesn’t make the reader suffer as can be the case with some childhood memoirs.

While she makes family life transparent and shares certain parts in detail, there remains a sense of something preserved  and held back, she tends to put others centre stage rather than focus too much of the narrative on herself, and never allows any of the family characters to be portrayed as the victim.

As another reader commented, it’s a pity that she wasn’t able to write a sequel, as her life after the events of this book, as a working woman and mother,

would have been equally interesting, though even in her professional life, she seemed to prefer to analyse the lives and writings of other women than turn the literary gaze onto her own experience.

Bad Blood won the Whitbread Book Award (now Costa Book Awards) for Biography just seven days before she died from emphysema, two days before her 58th birthday.

Have you read Bad Blood? Do you have a favourite book in the Creative Nonfiction genre?

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Further Reading

Lorna Sage – Brilliant teacher and critic who expanded the horizons of English literature and women’s writing

Past Imperfect – Lorna Sage writing about her grandfather, Guardian

Sharon Sage – talks about her brilliant ‘lioness’ of a mother, 10 years on – Guardian

On Creative NonFiction

Lee Gutkind – What is Creative Nonfiction?

Tim Bascom – Picturing the Personal Essay: A Visual Guide

Book Riot – Kim Ukura – 50 Great Narrative Nonfiction Books  that highlight strong research/reporting along with narrative voice

Maria Popova – Brainpickings – Essays – ideas of a timeless nature – one woman’s search for meaning across literature, science, art, philosophy, and the various other tentacles of human thought

Farewell, My Orange by Iwaki Kei, tr. Meredith McKinney

Farewell, My Orange is an immigrant story set in Australia, centering around the new life of a young African migrant, now a single mother.  Alternative chapters are in the form of letters written by her friend, a young married Asian mother, to her English teacher, and in both narratives we encounter an older European woman whom the younger women  come to know.

For the first fifty pages, I was unsure who was really in the story, I found the blurb a little disconcerting (and still do) because it didn’t seem to tie up with the names in the story I was reading, which distracted from the read. The two women use different names to refer to the same characters and one of the names in the blurb is never mentioned at all in the novel. I couldn’t figure out what the author was doing by this and actually read most of the novel thinking it was a mistake, albeit a consistent one. Of course, being a prize-winning novella, it isn’t a mistake but it was mildly annoying. The book almost needs a message to tell the reader to forget about what appear to be inconsistencies, all shall be revealed, two pages from the end.

The novella introduces Salimah, who found herself a job in the supermarket after her husband left her and her two sons as soon as they arrived in this foreign country. She attends an English class for learners of a second language where she meets a Japanese woman named Echnida who brings her small baby to class, an older Italian woman Olive, a group of young Swedish ‘nymphs’ and her teacher. She makes observations about her classmates and her own life, as she learns the language that is her entry into this foreign place.

The letters her friend writes to her English teacher reflect on details of her new life, with what seem to be the same people, except the names are different.

The woman, whose letters are signed ‘S’ has sent her manuscript entitled ‘Francesca‘ to the teacher, she thanks her for her input and updates her on her life. Following her academic husband around has meant suspending her own university studies, something the teacher encourages her to continue with. In the first letter, she expresses hope to find a teacher like her in this new town and reflects on learning a foreign language:

“While one lives in a foreign country, language’s main function is as a means of self-protection and a weapon in one’s fight with the world. You can’t fight without a weapon. But perhaps its human instinct that makes it even more imperative to somehow express oneself, convey meaning, connect with others.”

In the next letter she has found the ESL class and mentions the older woman with three grown up children itching to look after her baby and a woman she thinks might be a refugee from Sudan or Somalia, who works in a supermarket and is a single mother. Then there is her neighbour, the illiterate truckie, she reads Charlotte’s Web to him on the communal stairs while he holds the baby, an arrangement they have come to, related to the unwanted noise of another neighbour whose incessant drumming has turned them into unlikely allies.

Salimah is asked by the teacher at her son’s primary school to give a presentation on growing up in ‘her African village’, it becomes a significant project for her, that the ESL teacher and Echidna help her with. She reads to the children about her life, narrating it with the simplicity of a children’s story, an oratory that enraptures the younsters, if not the teacher.

When Salimah finished reading, the children sat in silence. The teacher frankly thought that the story was too personal to be much use for the children’s projects. But it was certainly ‘an Africa you could never learn about from the class material.’ What’s more, after hearing the story the children were extremely quiet, and young though she was, she had learned from experience that when children are truly surprised or moved they forget how to express themselves and say nothing, so she waited for them to slowly begin to talk again.

As time passes, new developments replace old situations, opportunities arise, Salimah’s son begins to be invited to play with a school friend, a pregnancy brings the three women together and it is as if they begin to create a community or family between them.

Suddenly everyone in the room was laughing. With her own bright laughter, Salimah felt a great gust of air that had long been caught in her throat come bursting forth, and was aware of something new approaching within her as she drew fresh breath.

It is a unique insight into the intersection of lives that are so foreign to each other and to the culture within which they now live, the old familiar references of little help or comfort, how new connections are slowly born without expectation and can ultimately delight. It is about the common thread of humanity that can be found, when we let go of the familiar and are open to new experiences, helping each other without judgement.

Ultimately, apart from the confusion of names that interfered with my initial reading experience, I loved this novella. After page 50 I highlighted so many pertinent passages and felt the story grow and expand as the lives of these three women did too on the page.

It gave a unique insight into the lives of women from three different cultures and countries and their experience of living in a foreign country where they didn’t have a complete handle on the language, their struggles, their independence, their initial reluctance and inability to engage.

It isn’t a novel about the new culture or interacting with its people, it’s more about their own subtle transformation and the incremental support they eventually find in other foreigners, sharing their experiences, helping each other in small ways that grow their tentative friendship and hint at a hope that perhaps they might find happiness in this place after all.

Over the period they know each other, something changes in their lives, they have the opportunity to grow a little closer and develop something of a new friendship, connection. We see how this human contact and care helps them overcome the adversity of their individual situations. It’s farewell to one shade of orange and its shadow, only to welcome another brighter one they are becoming used to.

I absolutely loved it and was reminded a little of my the experience of sitting in the French language class for immigrants, next to women from Russia, Uzbekistan, Cuba and Vietnam, women with whom it was only possible to converse in our limited French, supported by a teacher who spoke French (or Italian). So many stories, so many challenges each woman had to overcome to contend with life here, most of it unknown to any other, worn on their faces, mysteries the local population were unconcerned with.

Iwaki Kei was born in Osaka. After graduating from college, she went to Australia to study English and ended up staying on, working as a Japanese tutor, an office clerk, and a translator. The country has now been her home for 20 years. Farewell, My Orange, her debut novel, won both the Dazai Osamu Prize (a Japanese literary award awarded annually to an outstanding, previously unpublished short story by an unrecognized author) and the Kenzaburō Ōe Prize (another literary award, the winning work selected solely by Ōe.).

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N.B. Thank you to Europa Editions for sending me a copy of this book.

A Long Way Home (Lion) by Saroo Brierley, Larry Buttrose (ghostwriter)

I saw the film when it was on at the cinema about a year ago and like everyone who has seen it, I thought it was extremely moving. If you don’t know the story, it’s about a 5-year-old boy who is out with his teenage brother, who has told him to wait for him at a quiet train station near their home, and feeling tired, he climbs into an empty carriage, falls asleep and when he awakes, it is moving, the carriage locked and he will be transported, far, far from his home, which he won’t see for another 25 years.

The book only confirms how incredible and moving his story is, on top of the emotion it provokes, was the amazement at how many situations 5-year-old Saroo got into that he was miraculously saved from, often by his own well-honed instinct, other times sheer luck, and occasionally, surely, divine intervention.

Like befriending the teenage boy he trusted and went home with, who would be the first person to make an intervention on his behalf that would lead him to 25 years of safety, before he could find his way back home and be reunited with his family again. In the meantime he would spend those 25 years in a middle class Australian family in Hobart, Tasmania – far from his culture and birth family, learning another language, getting an education and developing a way of life that would benefit them all by the time his story comes full circle.

It’s a bittersweet story with a thrilling beginning as he falls asleep in the wrong place at the wrong time and his life is hurtled, like a rocket capsule, into another hemisphere, with a few obstacles to overcome on the way.

It’s sad because he was a boy who became lost from his family in a large country, he had difficulty pronouncing the name of the town he came from (and even his own name) and in the city he arrived in Calcutta (Kolkata), he spent weeks riding trains hoping one of them might take him back. Nighttime brought an element of danger, and even in the day while having fun with other children in the river, danger was never far away, he would be rescued a couple of times that might have been life-threatening, had not well intended strangers come to his aid.

Saroo with his adoptive mother

The childless (through their own choice) couple that adopted him, were open and inclusive regarding his culture, furnishing his bedroom with a large map of India and items reminiscent of his country of birth, they joined an association connecting Indian families to their culture. However, unwanted memories could arrive unbidden, sometimes reconnecting with stories from India awakened his childhood trauma. He describes seeing the Hindi film Salaam Bombay:

Its images of the little boy trying to survive alone in a sprawling city, in the hope of returning to his mother, brought back disturbing memories so sharply that I wept in the dark cinema, my well-meaning parents unaware of the cause. Even sad music could set off emotional memories. Seeing or hearing babies cry also affected me strongly, but somehow the most emotional thing was seeing other families with lots of children. I suppose that even in my good fortune, they reminded me of what I had lost.

A few years later, his parents adopted another boy from India, who became his brother, the book doesn’t delve too deep into this relationship, however the film did bring out the contrast in their characters and the difficulty his parents, particularly his mother, who was a relatively quiet and calm woman, had in parenting him.

Mantosh and I were very different, partly because of the natural differences between our people, but also because of our different experiences in India. It’s one of the things that makes people who adopt children, especially from abroad, so brave: often the kids they’re taking in come with troubled backgrounds, having suffered in ways that make adjusting to their new life difficult, and which can be hard to understand and even harder to help. I was reticent and reserved; Mantosh, at least at first, was loud and disobedient. I wanted to please; he rebelled.

According to an interview, Mantosh was unhinged by the film, his protracted adoption wasn’t able to be finalised within the two month grace period the children’s home were given, so he was sent back to the large orphanage where lost or abandoned children would encounter all manner of youth, including bullies, criminals and abusers, the time he was obliged to spend there awaiting the administrative outcome scarred him physically and mentally. He didn’t have the good fortune of his brother, whose story is all the more remarkable for him having avoided abuse, though he was certainly close to encountering it, as his story shows.

“[His grandmother] couldn’t keep Mantosh in her care anymore, while he was waiting to come to Australia, once we’d accepted him. So he had to go back to [the orphanage] where he was burnt, raped, beaten, you name it. And I’m very bitter about that.” – Sue Brierley

There is most certainly a very different and equally important story to be told, if one follows Mantosh’s experience; it was interesting to listen to his mother speak on that in an interview recorded here. At least, she says, it did result in him beginning to open up more about his experiences and they were able to seek help for him, he represents the other side of adoption; the adoptive mother admitted they weren’t prepared for what it would mean to raise a child who’d been through such trauma, she didn’t have the support needed and experienced discrimination in the medical community when she did try to seek help.

When Saroo really becomes intent on tracking down his family, (another element that is much more vividly portrayed in the film) no one except his girlfriend knows how obsessed he has become, he has had periods of searching in the past, spurred on by meeting other students who grew up in India, who’d make guesses as to where he might come from based on his memories, but when, with the help of Google maps and tracing railway lines out of Calcutta, he began to spend hours every night doing his research, he kept it to himself, in ways and for reasons many adoptees will recognise.

I didn’t tell many people what I was doing, not even my parents. I was worried they might misunderstand my intentions: they might think that the intensity of my search revealed an unhappiness with the life they’d given me, or the way they’d raised me. I also didn’t want them to think that I was wasting time. So even as it took up more and more of my life, I kept it to myself.

He was fortunate to have such a supportive girlfriend, he felt she would have been within her rights to feel alone in their still-new relationship, he was treading a fine line and would catch her looking at him sometimes as though she thought he was crazy. He was driven, determined and you knew he wouldn’t give up until he’d found something he recognised, the memories and maps in his head so well preserved over the years, surely he would find them if he kept going.

Perhaps to some extent sharing something so fundamental to me strengthened our connection – and that came through when we talked about what it all meant to me. It wasn’t always easy to articulate, especially as I was trying to keep a lid on my expectations, trying to convince myself it was a fascinating exercise, not a deeply meaningful personal quest.

In the book, Saroo spends a lot of time rationalising and expressing his gratitude, it’s clear he doesn’t wish to hurt anyone in his portrayal of the story, he understands he treads the line between two families in a topic that is almost a cause, that attracts fierce activism especially on the part of those who are pro-adoption, however he also acknowledges what many adoptees need to hear, the aspect that was healed in him in taking this journey, by his perseverance.

Rightly so in his case, as he wasn’t abandoned or given up in the first place. The trauma his mother must have gone through in finally accepting that he had disappeared, and what strength and love, to have believed for so long he may return, so strongly she believed it that she refused to leave the town they lived in, to join her other children and be nearer them and their families.

After being lost, I’d been lucky enough to adopted by a loving family, and not only lived somewhere else, but had become someone else from the person I might have been had I stayed in India. I didn’t just live in Australia, I thought of myself as an Australian. I had a family home with the Brierleys and had made my own home in Hobart with my girlfriend Lisa. I knew I belonged and was loved, in those places.
But finding Khandwa and my Indian family also felt like coming home. Something about being in the place just felt right. I was loved here too, and belonged, in a way I’d not thought much about beforehand and found hard to explain. This was where I’d spent my first years, where my blood was. When it was time for me to return to Hobart – a time that came around far too quickly – I felt the wrench of leaving deeply.

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Journey Of The Adopted Self: A Quest For Wholeness by Betty Jean Lifton

I haven’t read an adoption book in many years, and in fact I have only ever read one,  one that is considered a classic in adoption literature Nancy Verrier’s The Primal Wound.

I decided I should increase my awareness and familiarity with the issues, as I’m writing down the story of – as the author, scholar and mythologist Joseph Campbell would put it – my ‘hero’s journey‘, learning who I was ‘born to‘, which is necessary if we wish to learn more about who we were ‘born to be‘, something which is neither about the family we are raised by, nor the one we are biologically related to, but that in-between place, where we carry influence from each, which once unravelled, allows us the space to detach from them both, to pursue a life we can truly claim as our own.

Journey of the Adopted Self, follows that traditional quest, and for each element in the journey, the responding to the call (the decision to search), the departure (actively seeking), meeting the mentor (finding help) crossing the threshold (making contact), the challenges + the ordeal (dealing with the aftermath), the reward (unravelling the mystery), the road back (the new ordinary life) and the elixir (the transformation and the life lesson) the authors discusses a range of issues that can arise and gives examples in brief snippets from the many case studies she has had access to as an adoption counsellor.

Each person has a unique experience, so in the journey there are many reactions likely to be encountered, but the one thing that all adoptees have in common, is that they have experienced what is referred to as the ‘pre-verbal trauma’ of separation from the mother. That may have been immediately after birth or soon after, some babies may never have been held by the mother who carried them for those nine months, others may have been for a few hours or days, or even a few months.

According to the Austrian psychoanalyst and contemporary of Freud, Otto Rank in his book The Trauma of Birth, everyone experiences significant trauma at birth and that trauma or separation from the safety of the womb is healed over time by the bond created and the physical proximity and nurturing provided by the mother, whose heartbeat, smell, voice and very being are a comfort to the baby, who has known these things without seeing them from within.

Adoption adds another layer to the trauma, as the bond with the mother who gives birth is severed and the nurturing is to be provided by another, who has not been infused with the maternal hormones of pregnancy that nature creates to ensure the mother mothers her child. The adoptive mother in her head and heart wills herself to be and provide that role and is a good substitute, but that doesn’t avoid the fact that the baby will have experienced that initial double trauma of separation, first from the womb and then from the human it was connected to that birthed it.

Because this experience happens so early in the life of a baby, it is possible the trauma can lie so deep that for some it may not rise to the surface until very much later, or it may be possible to live without realising or recognising the behaviour patterns that are a common thread to those who have experienced this at birth.

How well adoptees overcome the traumas inherent in adoption and the additional ones they encounter in their specific families will be determined by their genetic susceptibility to stress – some children have more than others – and their ability to find an empathic teacher, friend or mentor to give them emotional support.

The author describes a range of different responses her clients (adult adoptees) experienced in the many aspects of the journey. Any adoptee who reads it, is likely to resonate with a number of passages, which may relate to their own experience in navigating the triad of adoptive parents, birth parents and siblings and the adoptee themselves, in particular if they have been involved in the closed adoption system, where all ties with the biological family are severed, the child’s name changed, legally becoming another person in another family.

This book then, is about the search for the adopted self. It is not the literal search in the material world, where one sifts through records and archives for real people with real names and addresses; but rather about the internal search, in which one sifts through the pieces of the psyche in an attempt to understand who one was so that one can have a sense of who one is and who one can become. It is the quest for all the missing pieces of the self so that one can become whole.

Essentially it is a healing journey, although that may not be something consciously embarked upon, and inevitably in any kind of healing journey, there are likely to be disruptive elements as we realise and confront aspects of ourselves that we haven’t been aware of.

At a psychiatric meeting in Ireland I was asked by a young doctor whether an adoptee must search in order to heal, or whether there were other ways.
It was a very good question and one for which there is no definitive answer. “There are other ways to heal, of course,” I replied. “But if possible, finding one’s heritage is the best, for it enables the adoptee to become grounded in biological and historical reality. The very difficulty of the search is a commitment to the transformation of the self.”

It suggests that adoptive parents should also familiarise themselves with the potential issues before considering adopting a child and that it is a responsible idea to also seek help/therapy while raising an adopted child. This seems so obvious and yet, in the era my siblings and I were raised, society and the system considered us ‘a blank slate’, so old-fashioned parenting would suffice, and everything was dealt with “as if” you were an ordinary child and parents were just expected to get on with it, as if they too had not been through their own trauma that might need healing, prior to the appearance of a child. Adoption was seen as a cure-all, with no healing required.

There are so many passages I could share, however it is a book that will be personal to each reader, depending on their role, perspective and experience. I found it an insightful and helpful read, leaving me with much to reflect on.

I’ll be reading a few books on this subject in the coming months, as part of my research and writing, which is why there have been less reviews and reading of fiction. It’s not easy to read fiction while writing, even though I feel the lack, but I’ll try to keep posting, as I travel the writing path.

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Milkman by Anna Burns

As you may know, Milkman by the Northern Irish author Anna Burns was the winner of the Man Booker Prize 2018

Kwame Anthony Appiah, 2018 Chair of judges, had this to say:

‘None of us has ever read anything like this before. Anna Burns’ utterly distinctive voice challenges conventional thinking and form in surprising and immersive prose. It is a story of brutality, sexual encroachment and resistance, threaded with mordant humour. Set in a society divided against itself, Milkman explores the insidious forms oppression can take in everyday life.’

On finishing it I was left with a similar feeling as when I completed another Booker prize-winning novel, Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings, that is, a feeling of exhaustion and of wonder, how could an author sustain this kind of writing, stay with this voice, day after day for as long as it took to write this? And what must it be like to live in or imagine living in a community as stifling as this. Just astounding.

I am in awe. It is no easy read, for it is written in a kind of double, triple speak, depicting a life and set of circumstances that is constantly in check, a circumventing of self. It describes from the inside how one young woman navigates daily life in a community that has drawn so many convoluted, coded lines of behaviour, that lives by so many unspoken, rigidly enforced violent rules, that has morphed into something so far from authenticity, that only the very ‘different’, appear able to, or indeed risk, living life true unto themselves, except those who left the country forever, their tale not told here, those that got away.

All this is told through the stream of consciousness narrative of an 18-year-old girl, as she observes her community and family insinuate a dramatic story onto her about a 40 something married man they call ‘Milkman’ (not to be confused with “the milkman”), a narrative trussed up by rumour, assumption, gossip, anything uttered or speculated on, except what the young woman has to say.

It doesn’t help that the one time she comes out of her silence and decides to share the boring truth, that there is and has never been anything going on between her and this man, she tells this to her pious mother, the one place she might find support.

During this ma looked at me without interruption but when I finished, and without hesitation she called me a liar, saying this deceit was nothing but a further mockery of herself. She spoke of other meetings then, between me and the milkman, besides the two to which I admitted. The community was keeping her abreast, she said, which meant she knew I met him for immoral trysts and assignations, knew too, of what we got up to in places too indecent even to give the ‘dot dot dot’ to. ‘You’re some sort of mob-woman,’ she said. ‘Out of the pale. Lost your intrinsic rights and wrongs. You make it hard, wee girl, to love you and if your poor father was alive, certainly he’d have something to say about this.’ she said. I doubted it.

‘Middle sister’ as she is referred to, thinks in a kind of coded language full of uttered phrases that substitute for a more succinct opinion, so that even the reader must enter into this “insinuating” talk to understand her thoughts, for nothing is stated plainly, just as nothing is observed or clarified as it really is. And we get good at it, at this revealing what is really being said, even beginning to see the humor in it, when none of it really is funny, there’s too much death, tragedy, sadness, ridiculousness. It’s not a life, it’s a trap.

It is a kind of prison that she manages temporarily to escape from or live with by going running with third brother-in-law, taking French lessons and ‘reading while walking’ literature from other, older centuries. But trying to remain separate and invisible to all the categories, has put her in the worst possible position, ‘beyond the pale’, her longest friend since primary school informs her.

‘Even you must appreciate, that as far as they’re concerned you’ve fallen into the difficult zone.’ She meant the ‘informer-type’ zone – not that I was an informer. It was that miscellany territory where, like the informer, you’re not accepted, you’re not admired, you’re not respected, not by one side, not by the other side, not by anybody, not even really by yourself. In my case though, seems I’d fallen into the difficult zone not only because I wouldn’t tell my life to others, or because of my numbance, or because of my suspiciousness of questions. What was also being held against me was that I wasn’t seen as the clean girlfriend, as in, he didn’t have other attachments. He did have other attachments. One was his wife. So I was the upstart, the little Frenchwoman, the arriviste, the hussy.

And then it is so much more as Dr Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado shares in her brilliant essay in the Dublin Review of Books Gender in Conflict where she describes Anna Burns writing as exploring “the impact in Northern Ireland of a level of violence that has become ordinary and has turned into the cultural norm” in particular that gendered violence is everywhere and unacknowledged.

Burns’ use of surrealism is a highly effective method whereby the author defamiliarises dominant (and often misrepresentative) narratives of the conflict and its legacy that circulate within the media and popular culture. The surrealist mode allows her to represent the psychological effects of trauma – registering what she calls “the feeling reality, rather than necessarily what happened”

“In an unstoppable torrent of words, she gives voice to the women who endured unspeakable violence during the Troubles, making a powerful and necessary feminist intervention into the literary legacy of the conflict.”  Dawn Miranda Sherratt-Bado

It’s an original, thought-provoking, cathartic read that stays with you long after reading, it puts the reader in total sympathy with the character of middle sister and creates a feeling of there being no way out, seeing her almost as the anti-hero for succeeding at least in losing herself through literature and a foreign language, gone momentarily from this nightmare, despite never being safe from the ever-present unwanted attention.

Highly recommended, if you want a more literary read and insight into the difficulty of living within a fraught political community.

The Author

Anna Burns was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, 1962. She is the author of two novels, No Bones and Little Constructions, and of the novella, Mostly Hero. In 2001 she won the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize, and was shortlisted
for the 2002 Orange Prize for Fiction. She lives in East Sussex, England.

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Bitter Orange by Claire Fuller

This is Claire Fuller’s third book and is as engaging as her previous two, her unforgettable debut Our Endless Numbered Days which slowly unravels the story behind a 17-year-old girl who is back with her family after she went missing for nine years and last years Swimming Lessons, which also involved a mysterious disappearance, but was more of a portrait of a marriage.

Bitter Orange is less mysterious and though it is set in 1969, it has something of the feel of a timeless classic, with its setting in a dilapidated English mansion, with two characters employed by the new, absent owner to make a report on the inventory and architecture of the interior and garden, people interested in old things from the past, haunted by them in fact.

The book opens with Frances, unmarried, twenty years after certain events, as she is nearing the end of her life, recounting moments of that summer she spent at the country house to a vicar, the same vicar who was present that summer, witness to some but not all of what occurred. He seems eager to fill in the missing details, to elicit a confession of sorts, while there is still the opportunity.

Frances was there to document details about what was believed might be a Palladian bridge, however it was so overgrown, that she wasn’t convinced there was anything of interest beneath the plant life that was strangling the edifice.

Once settled into her attic room, France spies her housemates, Cara the carefree young woman, who it soon becomes clear is tormented by something and Peter the older lover of antiquities, a man who more than admires, wishes to possess all that he finds alluring.

Though Frances feels like an outsider around this couple, largely friendless having spent years looking after her elderly mother, she responds with great pleasure and anticipation to their invitations and soon the three of them abandon their responsibilities and spend their days like summer guests, plundering the champagne stocks they’ve discovered, picnicking  and enjoying the fruits and uncovered fortune of the environment they’ve occupied just like the armies that came before them.

The longer they spend together, the more it is obvious to Frances that their stories don’t correlate and that something is not right. Rather than confront them, she wants to continue being part of the trio they’ve become, a mistake that will cost her dearly.

In their unobserved curiosity, they cross forbidden boundaries, they participate in and witness activities that entangle their lives, pushing them over the edge from minor misdemeanors into irreconcilable behaviours that will change their lives forever.

For me, it didn’t have the same captivating atmosphere, characterisation and thought-provoking aspects present in Swimming Lessons, which is my favourite of the three books and was a five-star read for me last year, however it excels in demonstrating the murky depths of people, who are often not what they seem on the surface, and even when unravelled and revealed may not be telling things as they really are or were. Yes, watch out for the unreliable narrator,.

Fuller succeeds in penetrating the dark, murky aspects of character in a disturbing ending that surprises, given the elevated perception they have tried to portray themselves as, until that bewitching, bitter end.

N.B. Thank you to the publisher for sending me a copy.

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

A popular book in 2017, it won the Costa Book Award and has gone on to become a bestseller and will become a film starring Reese Witherspoon (who acquired the film rights), an incredible success for the debut novel of Gail Honeyman. To be honest, it hadn’t been on my radar, however when a friend lent me her copy, insisting I read it and a rainy day beckoned, I turned the page…

The book begins with an interesting quote from Olivia Laing’s book The Lonely City:

“…loneliness is hallmarked by an intense desire to bring the experience to a close; something which cannot be achieved by getting out more, but only be developing intimate connections. This is far easier said than done, especially for people whose loneliness arises from a state of loss or exile or prejudice, who have reason to fear or mistrust as well as long for the society of others.”

Eleanor Oliphant has been in the same office job in Glasgow, Scotland for almost eight years, she’s in her late twenties, intelligent, observant and diligent, she likes and needs routine and copes fine with her lack of social engagement, lack of friends, lack of family – with the exception of a weekly conversation with her mother on Wednesdays – and seems not to feel anything even when she overhears her colleagues speaking unkindly behind her back.

So used to her self imposed isolation and predictable life is she, that she seems shocked when a new employee Raymond from IT, whom she calls when her computer freezes one morning, initiates conversation with her outside the office, speaking to her as if she might be just like the others.

In this introduction to Eleanor, we aren’t sure of her, though her obvious intelligence and comfort in routine, he slight air of superiority despite the comments of her colleagues, suggest some kind of cognitive difference and her lack of a filter or self-censoring ability make her abject honesty a cause of surprise to some. Her habit of consuming vast amounts of vodka at home alone at the weekend, suggest something more dire lurks in her past.

Over the course of the novel, more of her early life is revealed and we learn that she has been through some kind of childhood trauma, which might explain some of her behaviours. This really sets up what for me was the main question, was this a case of nature, nurture (lack of) or trauma or a combination of them all. Honeyman leaves it to the reader to decide, but regardless of what influences made Eleanor the way she is, she is ripe for transformation. And she seems to have realised it herself, albeit, lead by a new obsession.

For, at the same time, and from the opening pages, she believes she may have met the perfect man, or is about to meet him, she obsesses about this man and builds him into her image of perfection, as had been defined by her absent mother, and prepares to improve herself physically in preparation of meeting him.

Meanwhile, through Raymond, her actual social connections begin to widen and they awaken something familiar in her, feelings that go with being invited to be part of a community, small acts of kindness, of inclusiveness, and Raymond helps her navigate these interactions, as might a friend.

It is a well written, engaging and thought provoking read, partly because of what is not known and slowly revealed, but the dialogue gives the story pace and there are plenty of new activities and social interactions Eleanor participates in, providing the space for her to grow and develop within.

“I wondered how it would feel to perform such simple deeds for other people. I couldn’t remember. I had done such things in the past, tried to be kind, tried to take care, I knew I had, but that was before. I tried, and I had failed, and all was lost to me afterwards. I had no one to blame but myself.”

I did find the character of Eleanor a little difficult to believe in, the long years of solitude followed by a relatively sudden transformation seem to occur too easily and quickly, however if I were to suspend judgement on the authenticity of the character and the speed of her life change, which wasn’t hard to do, then it becomes a kind of coming-of-age novel about a young woman overcoming a traumatic past and demonstrates (a little too conveniently) the healing that can come from genuine friendship and being part of a family and community and a functional workplace (if there is such a thing).

The introduction of a therapist also allows for the conversations that explore the difference between the fulfillment of physical needs and emotional needs, neatly tying things up and rounding off Eleanor’s late education and self development.

And while it’s not exactly a romance, there are elements of the ambiguity of her friendship with Raymond that certainly are likely to make this a popular film.

An entertaining, light read, that leaves you with more than a few questions.

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