Literary separations – children with vanishing mothers

La Belle Sauvage, Philip Pullman (Penguin, Random House)

Sal, Mick Kitson (Canongate)

The Girl in the Tower, Katherine Arden (DelRey)

How to write for, of and about children and young people in an increasingly dysfunctional world? Finding a balance between an adult sounding narrative voice (and character arc) to make a book of interest to as wide a readership as possible  and yet maintain a sufficiently age appropriate voice is a difficult task. Then too how to write parents? Our world of parenting is becoming savagely complex like some sort of demented computer game with so many traps  one wonders who would ever want to start playing. Many writers with child protagonists in their stories avoid parents altogether by using orphans, or they turn parents or other carers into wicked stepmother style clichés in order to exaggerate a malign influence.  I have just polished off three books which in their different ways grapple with these issues.

The Book of Dust, Volume One. La Belle Sauvage. Philip Pullman

This first volume is intended as a prequel by Pullman to the His Dark Materials trilogy but I found I couldn’t live it or believe in it the same way as the original books.  The plot is based around unprecedented rains which have caused the Thames to burst its banks.    This saga which picks up the story 10 years before the beginning of Northern Lights concerns the trials and tribulations of one Malcolm Polstead as he attempts a journey by boat – through the inundated landscape which was once Oxford towards London – to protect baby Lyra from the forces of the scary sounding Consistory Court of Discipline and other baddies who are chasing them.

Against this post-apocalyptic background, sinister forces gather and only poor Malcolm is there to sort it all out. Like some sort of Blyton-esque adventure on steroids, he and his friend Alice get into increasingly surreal scrapes and escapes from witch haunted islands, a graveyard, a masque in a grand house where the intrepid heroes go to beg food but find themselves utterly invisible to the assembled gathering. A good metaphor at least for how young people are treated in 21st century society.

But here was the problem for me.  That Malcolm at the age of 11 (or it may be 12) comes across as an insufferable know it all who never puts a foot wrong.  Fortunately for him, his friend Alice gets taken along on the journey so he doesn’t actually get to change Lyra’s nappies himself.  Heroes don’t change nappies, do they?

The second book is Sal – the debut novel of Mick Kitson. Sal (short for Salmarina) is a 13 year child from a highly abusive and dysfunctional family background. She finds herself on the run with her ten year old sister, Peppa, and the two are forced to live wild in a forest in Galloway, at least for as long as it is feasible to do such things in the 21st century where every bus ticket is a digital footprint and every visit to town an occasion for surveillance.

Sal is much influenced by, and no mean interpreter of, the SAS survival handbook, building shelters, fires, trapping rabbits and generally, well, surviving.   Both this novel and Pullman’s use the trope of taking the child/adult heroes and heroines outside of the real world – or at least a recognisable everyday version of it – and casting them into situation where they must survive by their own wits and largely without assistance from outside sources.

This is nothing new in literature, for children who must constantly refer back to some adult for instructions don’t make very interesting protagonists.  But author Jenni Fagan points out in her review of the Kitson book[i] that there is another angle to this separation of children from the adult world and one that does not relate to narrative convenience. That is children or young adults are finding ways to separate themselves from a world that neither understands nor seeks to protect them. Fagan notes too that 4.1 million children live in poverty in the UK.[ii]  That’s 30% or 9 out of every class of 30. Child poverty is a form of abuse is it not? Even if it is a systemic one rather than a familial.

Fictional representations of mothers are not faring well in these particular novels.  Malcolm Polstead’s mother is a homemaker, a bringer of ample puddings and comfort.  Sal’s mother on the other hand is a drunk, a bringer of random men home at odd times of the day and night, one of whom turns out to be an abuser.  Both women exist at either end of the cliché spectrum and neither is a fully developed character.  Women are not stereotypes guys. It really is time for authors to give up reaching for the lazy allusion shelf of puddings and vodka bottles when writing mothers.

The Girl in the Tower, Katherine Arden

has an intrepid young heroine called Vasya who has been cast out of her home and is alone or almost alone. As this is Russian folktale territory, there is no SAS survival handbook.   Instead Vasya has the assistance of a frost demon who can make fires from snow and diamond like ice combs and knives and who brings food when she runs out.  Such a demon we should all have.  She also has a talking horse called Solovey with a weakness for porridge laced with honey, all so exquisitely drawn that it really doesn’t seem like cheating.   In order to survive her chosen life of travel, Vasya has to pretend to be a man.  Plus ça change. But this is a great story with lyrical descriptions of a frozen, semi-mythical Russian forest, perhaps long since eradicated.

[i] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/mar/14/sal-mick-kitson-debut-review-sisters-children-runaways Accessed May 2018

[ii] http://www.cpag.org.uk/content/child-poverty-facts-and-figures

Eleanor Oliphant is completely magic realist

Gail Honeyman. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Harper Collins 2018

This deceptively simple narrative charts the rise and rise of a thirty year old woman from somewhere she didn’t know she was, to somewhere she didn’t know she needed to be. I’m trying not to give the plot away but the book primarily concerns itself with skewering our 21st century culture of not giving a damn.

The Eleanor in question is a thirty year old office worker who appears out of step with the modern world to a startling degree. She doesn’t even own a mobile phone at the beginning (although, phew! she does by the end). The book sections are divided into ‘Good Days’ and ‘Bad Days’ and ‘Better Days’. It is slowly revealed throughout the course of the narrative just how bad the bad days were for our poor heroine and why she behaves somewhat oddly. There is a distressing backstory which slowly reveals itself, but this is not at all a distressing or depressing book. Upbeat rather with its message that even if you are falling apart from loneliness you can still be fixed.

Within the pages of this fixing there is a degree of magic realism. Eleanor makes a friend along the way who appears well cut out for Sainthood. Influenced and quoting from Olivia Laing’s fast-becoming-iconic study of loneliness The Lonely City

‘…the lonelier a person gets, the less adept they become at navigating social currents.

Surprisingly this is a page turner – with a twist at the end which I half saw coming. I finished it over two days of rain and snow in a half–empty hotel near Caernarvon, waiting to attend the harp festival.

This is a book to curl up with and if you are feeling a tiny bit sorry for yourself it will magic you better. Indeed you cannot help but compare yourself with Eleanor and feel better – unless your backstory is even worse than hers. In which case dear reader you are much to be pitied.

Poetry makes everything happen

A review of Larchfield

by Polly Clark

Not only do we have Terence Davies film of Emily Dickinson as well as a film about Neruda, the excitement of new letters by Plath making headline news and now a young W.H. Auden is brought compassionately to life in the pages of Polly Clark’s novel Larchfield.

The name is taken from a boy’s public school in Helensburgh on the West Coast of Scotland where the young W.H. Auden taught for two years in his twenties, after leaving Oxford. It is not a posting the young poet much relishes.

“It’s not his choice exactly. His trust money is about to run out, and he needs a job. His friend Cecil Day-Lewis has nominated him for this post of schoolmaster at Larchfield, though he has no experience of teaching and a severe mistrust of the school environment.”

The book covers his life during these two years partly on a fictional and partly factual basis, showing how Auden fares in the run up to the second world including visiting his University friend Christopher Isherwood in Berlin where the two have a frightening encounter with blackshirts.

 Christopher Isherwood and Wystan Auden
photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 6 February 1939

Alongside this historical narrative, is a modern story in which the protagonist is a young woman called Dora, whose life so far has consisted of a PhD, a job offer at a University publishing house as a lexicographer and the beginnings of a career in poetry, finds herself married, pregnant and moving to Helensburgh very near the school where Auden taught. As she unpacks her belongings in her new home, a divided house ironically entitled ‘Paradise’, she places her small volume of published poetry on the shelf and prepares to adjust to a very different life.

But that adjustment is hard

Things quickly fall to pieces as they can do when a new baby arrives. To add to her problems the neighbours in the flat upstairs start acting up horribly and Dora becomes isolated, stressed and depressed. Finding solace in Auden’s poems and in tracing details of his life she decides to pay a visit to the site of the old school at Larchfield and so the mystery begins.

The gate was tall and wrought iron, with the name Larchfield looped in gold. Ivy crept along the front of the building, and the tall windows looked out over a Helensburgh that was essentially unchanged in appearance since his time. She could imagine the poet emerging from the stone porch, the sounds of children.

The book is based on the author’s real experience. Indeed it is hard to see how this book could have been written without that experience so genuinely is the suffering of the young female protagonist felt.

The novel treads a high wire act between the real, the  possible and the imaginary; what is imaginary in the mind of an unhappy and isolated young woman with no visible means of support other than a well-meaning but absentee husband may be real.  As real as the feelings of loneliness and otherness which everyone can experience to some degree.  The book also – dare I say it – deals with the redemptive power of poetry.  That one can run and run.  But the only person who is qualified to say if poetry redeems is one who feels him/herself redeemed by it.

The author says:

“Some years ago I moved to Scotland. I seemed to ignite anti-English feeling wherever I went, I couldn’t drive and became very isolated.

“When I had a baby, my ruin was complete. That’s when I first read ‘The Orators’ by Auden — and this poem changed my life.

“It’s a thrilling meditation on paranoia and repression, set in Helensburgh.

“I set about recreating Wystan Auden, from his notebooks, biographies and artistic details in ‘The Orators’, and paired him with Dora, my modern-day woman losing her mind in the suburbs.

“Finding human connection to Auden in our shared place of Helensburgh saved me.

The theme of isolation continues in Auden’s part of the narrative.

“And the future? What of it? He cannot imagine a future where he fits.”

Auden finds himself alone, both as an Englishman and as a new school teacher. When he tries to protect one of the youngsters at the school form the routine and institutionalised abuse that was part of the public school system at that time, he finds that his compassion is easily and wilfully misunderstood.

Auden was a homosexual at a time when to be so was a criminal offence. He was also just another lonely young man. Lonely enough to cast a message into a bottle and toss it into the sea in the hope someone would find it. In the book someone does, but perhaps it is not the someone any of us expect.

As Dora is friendless, most of her story is internalised and the author occasionally makes us doubt her as a reliable narrator.  This acutely reflects how other characters around Dora are doubting of her. If enough people doubt us, then do we not begin to doubt ourselves? Is this kind of mistreatment an all too common form of abuse of women? And is it often perpetrated by other women in positions of power over new mothers?   One of the ideas lying behind the novel is to point up a general failure of society to even recognise let alone deal with the fact that the shock and trauma of childbirth – even a medically ‘normal’ childbirth which Dora’s is not – can last for years. Decades even.

Larchfield is at its most disturbing as a picture of the pressure placed on vulnerable young mothers to conform to some hypocritical health visitor’s idea of happy families, pointing up that the borderland between protection of the child and abuse of the parent is a line which is disastrously ill defined in modern day Britain.

However this is not at all a depressing book – quite the opposite it is a hopeful book – by a writer who thoroughly understands that life can be lonely and difficult, but it can also come liberally laced with snatches of sublime poetry.