Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald

Zelda_Fitzgerald_portrait

Zelda Sayre

Born with an exotic name that lent itself to bright lights and a spirit that loved nothing more than to dwell under them, it is not surprising that Zelda Sayre’s life was illuminated and became of interest to so many who were less daring themselves but fascinated with her life and antics.

But just as light cannot exist without shadow, she would discover the darker underside of a life lived in the shadow of her husband, when she dared to pursue her own desire to be recognised as a professional in her own right.

ZZ: A Novel of Zelda is an excellent companion novel to The Paris Wife and one of an expanding collection that gathers around that group of artists, writers, wives and hangers-on of the “lost generation“, a term coined by a young French mechanic who was reprimanded for giving insufficient priority to repairs on Gertrude Stein’s Model T Ford and thus complained to his patron that they were all a “generation perdue“, those young people who served in the war, respected little and indulged themselves to immoderate excesses.

Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast is a logical follow on read, having now read the fictionalised accounts of the two wives of these well-known writers and great friends who were in the midst of that post WWI group that sought a kind of writing utopia in Paris.

scott and zelda

Zelda and F.Scott Fitzgerald

While the utopia may have eluded them, their experiences would provide rich material for their writing, even if at the expense of some of their friends and loved ones. It is interesting to note that while their output during those early years was largely even, the Hemingways‘ lived quite frugally with an awareness of their financial struggle, while the Fitzgeralds‘ lived hedonistically in complete denial of theirs.

Zelda was reluctant to be lured away from Montgomery, Alabama by a complete dreamer and in the early days of their courtship actually threatened to dump F.Scott Fitzgerald unless he proved himself worthy and obtained his first serious publishing contract.

“I was so sure of our love then, so determined to prove to Mama and Daddy that we weren’t doing things wrong, just differently. There was no way to know that certainty  would one day become a luxury too.”

save me the waltzWhen Fitzgerald succeeds in getting that commitment  from his publisher to publish This Side of Paradise, she is ready to join him in New York and their life of adventure will begin.

From New York to Paris and the south of France, where Zelda throws herself into her own professional dance ambitions and is rewarded with an offer, which makes this reader wonder, what might have happened if…

“Scott and I both were awed by how cultured all these folks appeared to be, how intact they all were. For a change, Scott listened more than he talked. They spoke of painting and music and dance – their own work as well as other artists’ – with knowledge and candor and passion. If they felt rivalries, they expressed the situations as challenges, not jealousies.”

I came to this novel with no idea about Zelda or the role she played among the writing set of Paris and while much has been written in personal letters and hospital records documenting her mental health challenges and treatments, I find Therese Anne Fowler’s depiction of the character Zelda to be both realistic and sensitive  and portrayed in a way that is compelling to read. It has made me interested to read more about Zelda Fitzgerald and that period in history she was a part of; she was one of, if not the first young women referred to as a “flapper” of the 1920′s, a kind of “it girl” whose rise in society came about alongside a public contempt for prohibition and was described by Dr. R. Murray-Leslie, who criticized

“the social butterfly type… the frivolous, scantily clad, jazzing flapper, irresponsible and undisciplined, to whom a dance, a new hat, or a man with a car, were of more importance than the fate of nations.” Times 5 Feb 1920, p 9

They were a significant step away from accepting the lives of their mothers before them and while they accepted the lesser role in support of their husbands and were not quite suffragettes, they developed an awareness that women could be more outgoing and present in the relationship and even pursue a career, something that usually required marriage to be forfeited for.

highland hospitalThe sad truth was that all that freedom and lack of  meaningful purpose was not good for their mental health and whereas today one might be prescribed medication for depression, bi-polar disorder or spend time in rehab, in the 1920′s/1930′s it was off to the psychiatric asylum for electric shock treatments and a prognosis of hysteria or even worse schizophrenia, if  one showed signs or symptoms of not coping with it all.

If you enjoyed The Paris Wife or A Moveable Feast, this book should certainly be on your list to read. A riveting read and a thought-provoking insight into an exciting and turbulent period of cultural history.

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Death in the Vines

Death in VinesMystery, murder and mayhem among the vineyards of Rognes, a quiet Provençal village about 15 kilometres from Aix-en-Provence and one of the settings for this third in the Verlaque and Bonnet Provençal mystery series for M.L.Longworth, one time resident of Aix-en-Provence, who has herself decamped to one of the smaller villages of Provence, no doubt set to inspire more enticing destinations in future adventures of her detecting duo.

I reviewed her first mystery Death at the Château Bremont last year, when the author visited the book club I participate in. Since then there has been a second book Murder in the Rue Dumas and now we pick up with Judge Verlaque and his law professor amoureuse Marine Bonnet, in the third book, with as many gourmet references as we have come to expect previously.

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Château Paradis, Puy Sainte Reparade

The story begins in Rognes, with a wine theft and a missing persons report, a suspected walkabout. Some of the Bonnard winery’s best wines have disappeared, although the key to the cellar remains where it has always been and tensions are running high among family members, all of whom have become potential suspects.

Back in Aix, Madame Pauline d’Arras appears to have gone walkabout without her dog, most unusual according to her fretting husband Gilles, who has never gone a day in forty-two years of marriage without his wife preparing lunch for him by twelve-thirty. He is concerned as she has been exhibiting signs of possible early dementia.

In the village of Éguilles, a young woman leaves work early and is found later by a colleague in a bad state having been assaulted, she is taken to hospital and will soon become the subject of a suspected murder investigation.

Longworth has fun with not one, but three mysterious incidents and in particular some of the false leads which allow the Judge and us readers to go on various jaunts around the countryside, cross a famous bridge and dine in celebrated locations  he would otherwise have had to wait to indulge in his own time.

Knowing the routes they take, this book offers more than just a tale of mild suspense, it is like an invitation to explore more of Provence, to imagine sampling its wines, observe its pastimes (boules) and picture the lives of its villagers and long-established wine cultivating families.

TGVtrainJust as the region itself is changing, the TGV(train à grande vitesse or high-speed train) line attracting more Parisian commuters and foreigners wishing to invest in the continuation of artisan expertise in the French vineyards; so too is the city of Aix changing, an entire new quartier of modern buildings housing cultural centres of opera, dance, music, a new shopping area, an upgraded bus station with Europe’s longest living wall, showing off the architectural stamp of Kengo Kuma, a name more at home in Tokyo, New York or Beijing. This town is ensuring it will continue to attract visitors interested not just in its intriguing and ancient past, but that it can show itself worthy of contemporary interest also.

However the long-established, multi-generation residents don’t always embrace the new and Longworth allows her characters to despise the new developments in the way of a local population and national character that loves nothing more than a good long debate, although she doesn’t indulge them quite that far.

The Mayoress of aix en Provence  Maryse Joissains-Masini

The Mayoress of Aix-en-Provence
Maryse Joissains-Masini

The changes reflect a 21st century renewal and political statement, the creation of a legacy by a Mayoress who isn’t afraid to spend big on infrastructure during a recession and to court the popular vote. She spends with the frenzy of a woman who sees the finishing line in her sights. Will she survive the mayoral elections in 2014? It will be an interesting campaign to watch.

Overall, an entertaining and enjoyable light read that is all the better for allowing the reader to dwell among the vines and villages of a beautiful region.

Any book that allows one to travel when circumstances dictate that it not possible to physically go there, is the next best thing in my book.

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

The Cleaner of Chartres

Cleaner of ChartresI could not miss the opportunity to read Salley Vickers new book set in the region of Beauce in central France and the well-known town of Chartres with its famous cathedral, its mysterious labyrinth (which has inspired many authors to pen stories) and an intriguing blurb of the redemptive power of love and community in the famous French town.

Agnès is found as a baby wrapped in a basket by a peasant farmer, the only clue to the parentage of the young nursling, a single turquoise earring lying in the bottom of the basket. The farmer, unsure what to do with the infant, but knowing it beyond his capability to take care of a newborn, deposits her at a convent, leaving the nuns to take care of her. Which, in their own way they do, though it does not prevent her from being judged and misunderstood by the pious community, even though it might be inferred that it was they who made her vulnerable to the events that would follow.

“Agnès is the saint to whom young women pray for husbands, and, since Jean Dupère, who had found the baby, presumed the foundling’s mother had none, he named the anonymous woman’s daughter after the saint.”

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The labyrinth of Chartres

The story is narrated simultaneously during two different time periods in Agnès’ life, as a young girl during her various stays in mental health institutions and as an adult in the town of Chartres, where she lives an independent life cleaning the still famous Notre-Dame cathedral as well as various other local villagers homes, characters who bring the pages to life with their flaws, foibles and fantasies, whom Vickers just manages not to let fall into becoming cliché.

There is an underlying sadness to the story, as it seems that Agnes attracts bad luck and as a reader, we can’t help wishing for a lucky break or that people around her could just be kinder or more observant of who she is as a person and not to judge people on how they look or what has been said of them.  Like Deborah Batterman’s character Charlotte in her excellent short story, Crazy Charlotte, Vicker’s shows the potential destructive power of that evil tongue, community gossip.

“Agnès had no clear idea why she had fled to the crypt, but for her, unlike Father Bernard, it was the very opposite of the haunt of the diabolical. On the contrary, it had always seemed to her a hallowed place. Old and still and unjudging.  Unjudging was what she most craved.”

Chartres CathedralWhile The Cleaner of Chartres is no comedy, Vickers depiction of a French town/village reminded me a little of Julia Stuart’s delightful book The Matchmaker of Perigord, a fabulous light read that also excels in depicting the essence of local French villagers. Some of the most enjoyable moments in reading are in the simple narration of everyday life, the interactions between two people, in particular where those meetings bring about a small positive change. So many of Agnès’ interactions have the potential for this, the fact that so few of them eventuate, makes them all the sweeter when they do.

Overall, a pleasant read, although I was a little disappointed with the ending, which I felt should have revealed more than it did.

Note: This book was an ARC(Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

The Great Gatsby

Though largely ignored when it was first published and even upon F.Scott Fitzgerald’s death, the thousands of anticipated copies sold would sit gathering dust in a warehouse, it has since become much more appreciated, hailed as a classic and studied in schools across America.

great gatsbyIt may be that in its time it was too contemporary, its characters variations on the lives people lived, each harbouring their own secrets, many trying to be or become something they were not. It is something that is easier to look on and remember the superficial elements that made it an era to remember, a time of lavish parties and abundance, when friendships were shallow and loyalties non-existent. Set in the jazz era, critics have said it represents the American psyche, to me it represents illusion and aspiration.

AFF_CANNES_22X30.inddBaz Luhrmann’s adaptation with Leonardo DiCaprio playing Gatsby, will open the Cannes Film Festival on May 15. It promises to be a lavish affair and I can see why a filmmaker would be attracted to this story, the author doesn’t paint much of a picture of the surroundings, except to place them just outside New York, the weekend playground for the young and aspiring. The evening soirées are not significant to the plot, but they create wonderful images to entice a film audience.

Ironically, it is in the first pages of his novel Tender is the Night in which I find not only the kind of writing I love to read, but a paragraph that describes Cannes itself, a town Fitzgerald was no stranger to:

In the early morning the distant image of Cannes, the pink and the cream of old fortifications, the purple Alp that bounded Italy, were cast across the water and lay quavering in the ripples and rings sent up by sea-plants through the clear shallows.

In addition to the film remake, Therese Fowler’s, Z – A Novel of Zelda, based on the life of Zelda Fitzgerald was released this month, with comparisons being made with The Paris Wife, Paula McCain’s book about Hemingway’s first wife Hadley Richardson and the years they were together. It has been said that Gatsby is drawn a little from Fitzgerald’s own experience in wooing Zelda, a young woman from outside his social strata and therefore in ordinary circumstances, unattainable, just as Daisy was to Gatsby.

GatsbyThe Great Gatsby is narrated by Carraway, a bonds trader in New York, a young man who lives in the small house next to Gatsby, which is not far from the home of his second cousin Daisy and her husband Tom. He is a narrator of convenience to the story, a sympathetic observer we don’t learn much about, his purpose to share that summer he became Gatsby’s neighbour and witnessed the events that occurred. Although, he is a mere bystander, he is the one friend Gatsby may have had in truth. Not much is known of Gatsby either and Fitzgerald keeps it that way, none of the characters getting too close to him, or indeed the reader.

The history of the summer really begins on the evening I drove over there to have dinner with the Tom Buchanans.

A visit to Daisy reveals the philandering ways of her husband Tom, when he takes a telephone call from his mistress, a fact that is clear to all present. Daisy and Tom come from ‘old money’ and unlike the middle classes or nouveau-riche, their indiscretions are rarely secret or indulged with regret, it is accepted, it is their way.It is those who hail from more humble beginnings who harbour illusions of romantic love, who carry emotional expectations and suffer in consequence.

Daisy is connected with Gatsby, although they haven’t seen each other in five years; Carraway’s arrival next door signals a turning point in their association.

There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams – not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man can store up in his ghostly heart.

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The Fitzgerald family

Overall, I find the book a little perplexing, it seems more a symbol of a past era, the 1920′s America and although it doesn’t feature in the book, there is undoubtedly the author’s connection with Paris, the French Riviera and The Lost Generation, that group of writers who made France their home and way of life, a subject that continues to fascinate every generation since, more so in current times perhaps than it did in their own.

The language used and the guarded distance from its characters I found a little annoying, though to be expected of a book of its era perhaps.  More than this, it felt as if the author were holding back from his own past through Gatsby, thus a kind of cathartic writing experience, only he might risk losing everything by being too honest, so he deliberately keeps things vague. Having said that, I am going to read Tender is the Night and already find the first few pages, a lot more free and open in its language, though I suspect Fitzgerald of having ulterior motives in his storytelling.

ZThe Facts: 10 Things You Should Know about The Great Gatsby – in pictures

The Film Trailer: Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation will open the Cannes Film Festival in May 2013 starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan

Z is for Zelda: – the novel out in April 2013 about the life of Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of F.Scott Fitzgerald

Champ Harmonique MP2013

crédit photo : © Vincent Lucas

This poetic musical installation, entitled Harmonic Fields in English, came to my attention three months ago when I was searching for something interesting to write in the ‘To Do’ section of the destination guide on Marseilles I write for the Easyjet inflight magazine. April’s copy had to be submitted in January.

I knew it wouldn’t be too hard to find something spectacular, as Marseilles has been designated cultural capital of Europe for 2013, a prestigious event on the cultural calendar and one that has resulted in much-needed expenditure giving this seaside city something of a facelift.

I will save the wondrous changes in the city for another post, but yesterday my children and I drove into Marseilles and along the corniche to Les Goudes. I do love that word corniche , the English equivalent doesn’t evoke quite the same warm, exciting, air of anticipation feeling as corniche.

The village of Les Goudes, Marseilles

The village of Les Goudes, Marseilles

The corniche (roughly translated as ledge, more naturally translated as cliff road or coast road) winds its way from the very centre of Marseilles, La Vieux Port past all the beaches and seaside restaurants, beach parks, cafes, cliff-front residences, joggers, sun-seekers and finishes in Les Goudes, which signals the beginning of Les Calanques, huge limestone cliff faces which make it nearly impossible to access the coastline between Marseilles and Cassis, except by boat or on foot. But the rewards for doing so are spectacular.

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The beginning of Les Calanques

Champ Harmonique is the brainchild of Pierre Sauvageot, inspired by the wind and natural instruments of Indonesia, which require no player but the wind and can hang from trees or be placed in nature, allowing her to be playful, moody or melodramatic.

The coastline of Marseilles in the region of Provence could not be more perfect, natures favourite elements here are the sun and the wind, the one we know best from the north-east is the Mistral, but there are many others and yesterday we had a less dramatic, more playful wind, speeding up, then slowing down, her presence never more known and her subtleties never more appreciated than when given something like this spectacular installation to play with.

Nature gets to play here with cellos, drum shakers, glockenspiels, bamboo poles that sing, spinning music boxes, and a lot of other things I can’t even begin to translate like hélices-sirènesépouvantails balinais, tepees chromatiques, graals pentatoniques, arcs sonores, arbres à flûtes, cannes à pêche à lacrotale… 500 instruments in total.

It is a poetic symphony to experience and cannot (and should not says Pierre Sauvageot) be captured easily on film, but the stunning environment must be shared and if you have the occasion to visit the south of France during 2013, this is merely a taste of the events happening during the Marseilles Provence cultural capital celebrations.

CIMG3841Champ Harmonique is open until the 28th April in Les Goudes, Marseilles. It’s free to enter and the installation is supervised on Thursday, Friday and Saturdays and although it is open and accessible at all other times, some of the instruments are disabled during the unattended periods.

In true French style, (a sit down leisurely lunch remains a significant priority here for all), the installation is closed every day from 12–2pm.

And there will be a special open air concert on the evening of the 25th, the night of the full moon!

A Quiet Obsession

Rain in AixIt’s Saturday in Provence and my elderly neighbour in the apartment downstairs is leaning over her balcony telling me she is depressed and waving her hand skywards. It is spring and it has been raining for a couple of days every week consistently since the end of February.

With a smile I can’t suppress, I tell her it feels like home to me, the home I knew as a child anyway, that country down under where it rains every week but where there is sun every week too, and everything looks clean and green and grows constantly. But our residents in Aix-en-Provence aren’t used to it and the grey skies reflect their mood.

Aix sous la pluie by the artist Barbarion

Aix sous la pluie by the artist Barbarion

But not me.

Today is the English Book Sale, a rare event that I have missed on the last two occasions and I know I don’t need any more books, but I have to go just to see what is on offer and to hang about in the presence of other souls quietly obsessed with books.  You know, that old-fashioned kind, hardcover, softcover, some with post it notes and book marks, one with an attractive business card inside, I left that mystery for the next person to find. And the rain is not keeping people away here; I find the last space left in the car park and join the growing crowd of ex-pats and Anglophones scouting for book treasure.

One of the first books I find is a Virginia Woolf biography by Quentin Bell, and so soon after reading Susan Hill’s Howard’s End is on the Landing, and remembering Valerie’s comment about regretting having released all her Bloomsbury books to a sale, I rescue this volume from its fate and bring it home in readiness for its mate, the diary I will be picking up from Persephone Books on my next London visit.

The next book I purchase for my Dad, whom I will be seeing in exactly one month, in Istanbul. My father is a retired farmer who had a love of horses all his life, they were the main mode of transport around the farm and at the weekends, we would pile into his converted furniture removals truck, horses in the back, to watch him play an unsophisticated, remote countryside, farming people’s style polo. He will enjoy this true story of an equine beauty by Laura Hillenbrand I am sure.

My Booksale Haul

My Booksale Haul

I am detecting a bit of a theme here, I buy this Rose Tremain novel The Colour, because it is set in New Zealand and it has been recommended numerous times and though I have picked it up and even taken it from the library once, I have never read it – and there is something about the cover on this version that makes me want to own it.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go I pick up without hesitation, I loved his recent collection of short stories and this one has slipped by unread thus far.

I see a fellow book loving friend who thrusts Lisa Scottoline’s book Look Again into my hands and tells me she stayed up all night last night reading it. It’s disturbing but unputdownable she says. Ok, always room on the shelf for a book that grips one from the first page and perfect holiday reading material, though perhaps not the upcoming Turkish holiday, I don’t want to read about lost children before taking mine to a large unknown city.

The cute little Julie Otsuka novel When the Emperor was Divine, I can’t resist. I want to read The Buddha in the Attic, but this is the book that presents itself first, it’s more of a novella and the seductive testimonial on the front cover is enough to tempt me, one who rarely buys into contrived book cover descriptions, but mesmerising, lyric gifts, narrative poise, a heat-seeking eye for detail, there are enough enticing adjectives in that one blurb for me to appreciate, living in an era of twitter fiction, so I take it.

A Political Tragedy in Six Acts

A Political Tragedy in Six Acts

And the pièce de résistance, a hardback, first edition of John Keane’s biography of Václav Havel A Political Tragedy in Six Acts. I don’t know a lot about Havel, he was a renowned playwright turned President of the Czech Republic and a daring dissident in his youth, yet the little I do know of him, makes we want to know a lot more. He died in Dec 2011 but I believe that there are lessons to be learned from the life he lived.

And so, with my arms straining under the load of seven books, I look up to the balcony of my neighbour and tell her to do what I would do if I felt that way about the day, find a good book and escape into it for the afternoon, and don’t worry, the forecast is for sun tomorrow.

At last she smiles, ‘Yes, that I can do’, she says and ‘Bon Livre’ as I disappear inside with my stash of books, a hot roasted chicken, 2 fresh baguettes and 3 chocolate éclairs. Life is good!

Ignorance

It was the book I read following Michéle Robert’s novel Ignorance that gave me something to reflect on regarding the meaning of that loaded word she uses as her title.

In Maya Angelou’s latest autobiography Mom & Me & Mom (review pending), she speaks of ignorance and quotes her mother:

She said, “Ignorance is a terrible thing. It causes families to lose their centre and causes people to lose their control. Ignorance knows no binds. Old people, young people, middle-aged, black, white can all be ignorant .

An apt epigram for this war-time novel set in occupied France.

IgnoranceTwo young girls from a rural village are sent briefly to live in a local convent, Marie Angèle because her mother is about to have a baby and Jeanne, because her mother is unwell and in hospital. Marie Angle is the daughter of local middle class grocers, Catholic and raised with something of a sense of entitlement and superiority over her lesser friend Jeanne, whose mother, a widow converted to Catholicism when she married, but lives in a community that rarely allows her to forget her Jewish past. Marie Angèle expects to inherit half of her parent’s shop, she expects that the well-connected young Maurice, the man who can obtain anything during wartime will do the right thing by her.

I could hide my ignorance most of the time, because if he felt like talking he just wanted me to listen. One day, however, parked in the woods, he said : talk to me….I left Jeanne out of these tales. We’d been thrown together as children, purely by accident, we’d had a sort of friendship for a certain time, but we couldn’t mix now. I preferred to concentrate on positive things. That was how we were getting through the war.

Jeanne rarely thinks of her friend, she knows she is loved by her mother, observes their second class status in the way the nuns treat her compared to her friend, their quickness to judge and to listen to gossip as if it were fact. She is not ignorant of the activities that take place in the house where she works, but she like her mother is realistic about her opportunities, she doesn’t allow herself willingly to be taken advantage of, she learns from her past, though it will be insufficient to save her from the consequences of the misguided morals of her childhood friend.

Marie Angèle however, believes  that Jeanne, by working in such an establishment has thus become one of them, a common tart, she believes the village gossip, judges her former friend’s improved dress and appearance.  She portrays her own husband as a man unrecognisable as the same man Jeanne describes as one of the clients of that establishment. Even when confronted with an inkling of this truth, the wife’s inclination is not to question her husband, but to seek revenge against the bearer of the message, a penance that will continue to be paid into the next generation, as Marie Angèle manipulates control of Jeanne’s daughter Andrée and both their futures.

Womens prize logoThe novel is split into sections which view life in overlapping time periods from the perspectives of the two girls which couldn’t be more different, in particular on the part of Marie Angèle concerning not just her friend, but the plight of other families that must go into hiding. Towards the end there is also a section given to Andrée, Jeanne’s daughter and another from Dolly, one of the nuns, complicit in an act of betrayal.

The simple narrative structure exposes the ruinous attitudes, religious hypocrisy and shamelessly uninformed  morality of the ignorant and how it continues to be perpetuated by gossip, fed by jealousy and fueled by ill intention. It reveals that destructive instinct humanity sometimes imposes on the weak and those who are different from the rest. Devastating.

Ignorance is on the long list for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013. The short list will be announced on April 16. Will this title be on it I wonder?

Note:  This book was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Episode 9: She Speaks the Language of Birds

Apart from mild surprise when reading my mother’s entries in the baby book she kept for me, which lists the number of words I could say at 12 months and various intervals beyond that, I never really noticed too much that Allia didn’t speak words that could be recognised. Because she talked non-stop. She communicated incessantly with much enthusiasm and wasn’t shy.

She spoke a language tongue that we referred to as bird-talk, it was long streams of dialogue that went up and down in intonation which I was just on the verge of understanding if I listened hard enough, I was sure. Like listening to Italian or Arabic, languages that incorporate much body language and expression which communicate mood, tension and excitement without the need to understand their words.  It was very much like listening to the French language on the television or the radio in my early days of living here – somewhat familiar sounds with that feeling that surely if I did listen hard enough, it was just a matter of time before something in my brain clicked and “poof” I would understand everything.

It wasn’t until her brother arrived on the scene a year later and started using recognisable words in his rambled dialogue very early on that the contrast became noticeable – I think he understood the bird-talk because they would chatter away to each other and to us without hesitation. I wondered then if something was perhaps amiss, I say perhaps, because I am against making comparisons between children, they develop at their own pace and depending on what they are working on developing, other aspects can lag behind.

When people started suggesting we video her speaking like this, I realised it really was a little out of the ordinary, it was almost as if she had her own language, something like a twin language – but no twin. Unlike today when making a piece of film footage is child’s play, I wasn’t comfortable filming her as a kind of spectacle, I was more concerned with just interacting with her and giving her the freedom to express herself, waiting for her language to become something like one of the three languages she was hearing at home.

Next Up: in A Silent Education: Our Quiet Challenge in Provence

Episode 10: The Move Down Under and a Shocking Diagnosis

Previous Episodes

Christmas Draw

CIMG3620Yesterday we put our Christmas tree up and it looks different to other years, the children deciding against the multi-coloured, let’s use everything look and sticking to mainly silver and red, with the exception of the gold bird, because after all, what is Christmas without the reminder of wildlife and animals – at least that is my nine-year-old son’s view. Even Noisette, the cat seems to agree as he has found a new place to sleep, sniff and climb.

CIMG3615So while the hat was out, we put all your names in and drew out PB Rippey, from PB Writes, a copy of Paul Durcan’s Christmas Day is winging its way to your door and let’s hope it does indeed arrive in time for Christmas Day.

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Thank you everyone for participating, reading and commenting in the Christmas Bloghop and to Stephanie for organising it. I look forward to the same next year!

Joyeux Noël!

Episode 2: We are not living in France!

The leaves are starting to fall outside La Loubiere, the 16th century château where we are spending this last weekend of the autumn school holidays and with the kitchen door open early while everyone sleeps, I listen to the mesmerising sound of the wind in the trees and think about the change of the seasons. It does not seem so long ago that spring was here, when the bulbs that had lain dormant for the winter were poking their green stems through the surface.

Now we wait for the period of stillness and hibernation, something we know very well, because in a sense we too have been in a kind of perennial hibernation, waiting for our daughter’s voice to emerge in the classroom and speak for the first time in school.

Now our spring has come and just like the association of supportive parents Ouvrir La Voix, she has finally opened her voice after more than five years of silence. She now speaks to almost all her classmates and we have one hurdle left, level 10 in the book that has become my bible – to speak to a teacher or adult in school.

It is hard to believe it has been five years. It is hard to believe that for the first three years we didn’t know what we were dealing with, that it even had a name. Perhaps if we had lived in America or Great Britain, we may have discovered those words earlier – or maybe this condition would not have even manifested.

Here in the south of France, selective mutism is unknown and with our daughter in a French school where interventions to assist children are commonplace and often successful, we were happy to follow the advice and recommendations of the school psychologist (every school has one), an orthophoniste (speech therapist), a psychiatrist and our doctor, all of whom were willing to help and in the case of our doctor, advised and reassured us that it was just a matter of time.

Three years on, having made zero progress, it was all to change late one evening after a telephone call with my Uncle, when he mentioned that he had been speaking with a friend in Los Angeles whose daughter had the same thing as ours.

“What thing?” I said.

“You know” he said, “the not speaking in school thing.”

“It has a name?” I almost shout. “Call her back now and ask her what it is.”

He did and through his friend then passed on those two words selective mutism, or mutism selectif in French, two words that not one of those health professionals had known of or discovered to suggest to us.  We weren’t looking for a label, we were searching for a solution and we’d been looking in the wrong place.  Our programme of intervention was about to take a different path, one used successfully by parents in the know, only we would not have the same support, as to take this route was effectively to reject the existing system.

But to tell this story properly, it is necessary to go back even further, to understand events that lead up to this moment and because despite trying to change the title of this episode and make it shorter, my creative daughter who has already finished the artwork, is telling me to write this second part now and include her picture. So here’s the bit about not living in France!

We are not living in France!

*

When I was six months pregnant we came to France for a 2 week holiday from London. We were toying with the idea of moving here, at least I was, for my husband it would be a return.

My body was changing and the world around was about to change significantly. One afternoon I returned to the hotel in Marseille to rest and as I passed the reception, I noticed all the employees looking at the television, watching what looked like the demolition of a couple of council buildings. I thought it strange that all the staff were watching TV in the middle of the afternoon, so when I got to the room I too turned on the television. I couldn’t understand the words spoken in rapid French, but I could read the subtext. It wasn’t a couple of council buildings at all; it was the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York.

During that holiday, we looked at a couple of apartments and houses, I sat through long-winded appointments with real estate agents, tried to understand menus and the rapid-fire French coming from that TV, all on a roller coaster of emotions and hormones, understanding little beyond Bonjour and Au Revoir, two basic expressions I thought I could pronounce, but listening carefully, I realised I’d been giving their syllables way too much emphasis, goodbye sounded more like ‘of waa’ than the expression I’d learnt to say.

I became disillusioned with the idea of living in France, I had long ago discarded that child-like submission of accepting things the way they are, being secondary to decision-making. Making decisions and understanding what leads to them is not something one gives up and neither was I interested in putting it on hold while coming to terms with a new language. I freaked out. No way was I coming to live here, a new language, a new city, a new baby, all things where I would be required to start again from the beginning. Absolutely no way I told myself.

Returning to London, the queues were horrendous, airport security was tight and there was no other subject being discussed other than the events that had occurred in New York. And they were beginning to have a trickle-down effect. I was concerned because I worked in the travel industry which was sure to be impacted and sure enough, within two weeks of our return, I was advised that my job was no longer required at a time when I knew I had no chance of finding another, not with a very obvious baby protruding from my mid-section.

Next up: Episode 3: The Benefits of Contra-Indicated Essential Oils!

Click below to read Previous Episodes of A Silent Education: Our Quiet Challenge in Provence

Introduction

Episode 1 The Benefits of Insomnia