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.

Riding the plains on a borrowed horse…

I never made it to the end of War and

Peace. I struggled even to watch the TV series – I’m not sure why. It is not so much the tome-sized tome , the style of address or the massive cast of characters.     It is more an oppressive sense of doom – the doomed world of the Russian aristocracy already in self-destruct from Page 1.  The same with Anna Karenina – the train has in a manner of speaking already left the station.

I had none of this difficulty however with the hugely readable trilogy The Writing on the Wall by Miklós Bánffy, despite comparisons with Tolstoy being inevitable. These books too operate within the twilight of an empire – although this time the Austro-Hungarian empire in the decade leading up to the first world war. Like Tolstoy the author is part of the fabric of the vanishing aristocracy.  There is a love story but it is more a love story to a fading landscape and history, than to any particular woman.   The main character, based on Bánffy himself, spends his time riding from baroque castle to baroque castle, attending balls (which never seem to end before 7 in the morning – what did these people do for sleep) parties and race meetings. Duels are fought over comments considerably less offensive than any trawl of twitter would produce on a given day.

Writing the foreword to the English translation of Bánffy’s work, travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor remembers his own travels in this region when in 1934 aged 19, he walked (as you do) from Holland to Turkey writes:

“… nobody likes having a new nationality forced on them, still less, losing estates by expropriation. This of course is what happened to the descendants of the old feudal landowners of Transylvania.”

“…Though enormously reduced, remnants of these old estates did still exist, and at moments is almost seemed as though nothing had changed. Charm and douceur de vivre was still afloat among the faded décor and the still undiminished libraries.”

Traces of great empires are hard to extinguish – we no longer have a great empire and by ‘we’ I mean anyone on the planet – but we do have societies, environments and a lot left to lose. Strange how you can see the impending destruction of a society only with the benefit of hindsight.  Or perhaps it is less a lack of seeing than knowing what to do, pressed as we are to the front of that speeding train , we elect leaders who sometimes mean well and sometimes don’t. Then sit back and wait for something right to happen. Should we be surprised if it doesn’t? Take away the baroque castles and we all ride those plains on borrowed horses.