‘The Wonder’ (and growing up Catholic in New Zealand in the sixties)

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My No.1 Book Group chose ‘The Wonder’ by Emma Donoghue for our November read. I hadn’t read ‘Room’ and I was wary of all the hype. But, very quickly, I was immersed in 1860’s Ireland, and astonishingly, recognising so much of my own childhood as a 1960’s Catholic girl. It was confronting. I was wearing my new-age, non-Catholic, 21st century sensibility, but I was also recognising and understanding so much of what was happening. I knew that when book group convened, I would need the one other Catholic in our group to offload to.  Because truly, so much of the crazy cult-like thinking of the times, can only be understood, if you have lived it. What was so shocking for me, was that I understood so clearly what was driving the characters in the story.  I wasn’t surprised by the prayers, by the fatalism, by the unravelling narrative and denouement.  It made perfect sense, in all it’s weird and shocking ramifications and revelations. Most shocking was, that my memories were of 1950’s 1960’s New Zealand and this novel was set in 19th century Ireland.

Emma Donoghue got right under my skin.  She lifted off my skin, and she burrowed right there into my once Catholic soul, the guilt, fear, the superstition. And of course, I thought I’d tossed it all into the bin of yesteryear. But listening to my friends at book group and trying to explain why certain things happened and hearing that they had no understanding, not in the way that these things rang so true for me – I realised that you never truly lose this thinking, this darkly embedded (skewed) world view.  We’ve often said at book group, that you can tell the way an ex Catholic will respond to a narrative.  Indeed, as our book group has been together now for twenty years, we can often guess how all of us will respond to different narratives, our likes and dislikes.  But, ‘The Wonder’ took the lid off my carefully construed and civilised self. I knew how to beat my breast and recite ‘though my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault’, recognising how faulty this really is. I knew the prayer to my guardian angel.  How lovely… I once had one.  What a treat.  I believed. She kept me safe. I’d forgotten all about her. I’ve learned to live on my own without her now, but when fatalism is your creed, back then a guardian angel was a lovely prop.

And then, my non-Catholic friends wanted to know what the holy picture cards were all about. I promised next time, to bring some along. I have cards printed for my mother’s death, my brother’s death, three aunts, and a few extras, such as St Theresa the Little Flower, whose name I took at my confirmation, along with Our Lady of Perpetual Succour… the name of the church we attended. Virginal women reigned supreme.

I understood unequivocally, the need to suffer, so Anna’s brother could be released from purgatory. Of course, I knew how crazy it was, but I understood too. Suffering the road to redemption. I remember my confessions and the need to say penance.   Bless me Father for I have sinned.  It’s four weeks (maybe three weeks), since my last confession. Since then I have:  disobeyed my mother and father, sworn and had impure thoughts… I think this was the extent of my sinning, the impure thoughts consistently pervading my growing pains. Guilt was ever present and of course, you had to have sins to confess.  Possibly I admitted envy now and then, for surely that’s the beast of sins, but usually one we outgrow, or age diminishes the sting of. As for the impure thoughts, I grew to like them.

I was from an ordinary working-class family. I didn’t attend a Catholic school because my parents couldn’t afford the uniform and bus fare into the city. The story goes, we got a Papal dispensation. As part of that dispensation, I was shipped on a bus, in the August school holidays to the convent to be indoctrinated in Catholicism.  The nuns at the convent we attended, told us terrifying stories.

The story that has lingered the longest and never left me, goes like this and bears some resemblance to a tale in ‘The Wonder’… I’m guessing there are many more stories of a similar ilk out there.

A young girl dies.  As per the custom of the Church, she is buried in a white coffin, the sign of purity for a child. During her funeral service, there is a knocking sound heard coming from the coffin at the front of the church. The knocking continues. There is nothing else for it, but the priest must open the coffin to see who is knocking. Inside the coffin is the young girl and her tongue is sticking out. Her tongue is black and upon this black tongue lies the host.  As the story goes, this young girl, while still living, had dared to receive Holy Communion while in a state of sin.  The Priest removes the host, the child’s tongue returns to it’s normal colour and the coffin lid is shut again.

Can you imagine how terrifying this story must have been?  Add to this, the dilemma of distinguishing between a venial and mortal sin.  Dying with the stain of a mortal sin on your soul, meant going direct to hell.  I can’t recall, but I’m guessing that receiving Holy Communion while not in a ‘state of grace’ as the saying went, would be borderline mortal… anyway, we never found out if the poor child went to heaven, but the story as you can tell, has never left me.

I read a short bio on Emma Donoghue and almost relieved to know she attended Catholic convent schools in Dublin… for where else would she have gained this incredible insight and understanding of the motivation of her characters, her empathy for them in all their blind faith.

This is not a book review. If anyone is confused about the lack of detail and reference to the plot, the parts that the characters play, I apologise.   I am simply moved, to respond to the impact this novel had upon me.

But also, this novel is more than just the things I have responded to. To quote Justine Jordan of The Guardian “Her new book is based on the many cases of “fasting girls” reported across the world from the 16th to the 20th centuries: women and girls, often prepubescent, who claimed to live without food for months or even years.”

And too the desire by the Church for worldly proof that there is another world leading to fabrication and blind faith in the search for such perceived blessings.

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The alchemy of memory

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What is a Memoir? This question came up at my book group a few years back after we had read A History of Silence by Lloyd Jones. I was complaining that after reading Lloyd’s story, I knew more about his family, but not as much as I had hoped about Lloyd. My fellow book group members disagreed with me. They vehemently defended Lloyd’s right to write whatever he wished in his memoir. Was I really wanting to read an autobiography? It sounds like a quaint term now doesn’t it? It used to be quite mainstream, but mostly now when we look for work about a writer, we find their memoir.  The on-line Merriam-Webster, gives this definition of memoir a narrative composed from personal experience. This sure sounds like quite a bit of leeway.

More recently, at another book group, after reading Ashleigh Young’s Can you Tolerate this?, the question was raised ‘What’s the difference between an essay and a short story?’  As a writer of both essay and short fiction, I was taken aback to have this asked. It seemed to me to be self-obvious but then we began to discuss and I was left floundering a little, to substantiate clearly the actual difference. Of course, I expostulated, a short story may well be true in essence, but it is fiction. So, my fellow book-clubbers insisted, isn’t that what Ashleigh Young has done? And indeed, I quote Bill Manhire on the blurb, who says of the essays ‘Some of Ashleigh Young’s personal essays feel to me like beautifully told short stories – they just happen to be true, or true-ish.’

I read A History of Silence as a writer wanting to know more about another writer – Lloyd Jones’s life, his development as a writer, what drove his creative impetus and what important milestones developed his unique character as a person. I felt the author always at a slight distance from me throughout the memoir. And then, I came to the conclusion, after a lively discussion with my book group, that this slight distance, was in fact a truth about the character of the author.

Around the same time, I read The Lie that Settles by Peter Farrell.  His memoir could just as easily be titled A History of Silence. It explores similar themes of family secrets, again, and in particular, the secrets of a mother and grandmother. Farrell is an immigrant to New Zealand, and the sense of dislocation is both geographic and genealogy. But the same themes recur to reinforce the stoicism of that era, the complicity of communities in upholding these secrets and the often devastating impact of those secrets on future generations.

Then, I was given a memoir What Lies Beneath by Elspeth Sandys to review for Landfall. It struck me how similar the themes were in these three memoirs. The search for identity, the secrets that inhibit this and the social fabric of the time as dense material evidence of how these secrets were able to be sustained for so long with such devastating consequences. For the one thing that truly strikes to the heart of these three memoirs is the incredible pain caused through being denied access to identity, acknowledged links to biological family.

In contrast Ian Wedde in his memoir, The Grass Catcher, knows exactly who his biological family is, but somewhat unusually, his parents, in the sixties, abandon conservative Blenheim for a life in Pakistan with their twin boys who were still young.  It is this uprooting from the familiar and the consequent and perhaps slightly unusual freedoms that this new environment offers, the author looks back on. He compares his own character with that of his twin brother, and tries to find meaning in why he views the world one way and his brother the other. Although there are no dark secrets to uncover, there is the exploration of the relationship between the two boys and their parents. Again it struck me, that this relationship is at the core of many memoirs and is a driving force in any identity quest. Who are we? Who were our parents? And then, what we do or have done with this information.

Although not a memoir, I’ve written about my own father in an essay published in Landfall about how he was raised by his grandmother, the bastard child of her eldest daughter. He was told by his grandmother, (who was resentful at having to now raise another child, having already raised seven of her own), that he’d been found under the cabbage patch. He had a loving relationship with his grandfather that sustained him through his youth, but no contact with his actual father. This was in small town New Zealand where surely everyone knew everyone’s business. But yet, in the last few years, we have uncovered through DNA testing, the family of my now deceased father – five siblings who never knew about him, and yet they grew up in the same small town. How could this happen?

The back story to this is a family legend, second-hand, a hand me down story.  It is a story our mother told us (note the absence of my father telling the story – he was typical of his generation, a POW, who didn’t talk a lot about the war or his childhood.) According to the story, our Dad was about to go off to war, so he rocked up to the local pub, had a drink for Dutch Courage, stood next to his father, and said ‘Shout for me, I’m your son and I’m off to war.’ His father ignored him.  Now that we’ve met the ‘new’ family and they, in trying to make sense of this new information about a man they adored, tell us he was profoundly deaf in one ear. And even if we don’t quite believe it, and still nurse a grudge, we allow this story air… we nod in acceptance of a new idea, that perhaps their father didn’t hear our father. We willingly embrace a new dimension, because it alleviates us, leaves room for possibility, smooths the narrative between us.

I begin to like this man they call Pappy, my father’s father. Evidently a dapper individual with a high profile in his community. A good man, a family man, at odds with our childhood story of his abandonment of our Dad.  With this story in my own background unravelling, I reconsider my review of Elspeth Sandy’s memoir about her own illegitimacy and adoption. She chose the device of recreating ‘actual’ (but actually imagined) conversations and even thoughts. I found this very disconcerting, as it assumed quite a lot, even if backed up by family lore or legend. It seems to me that we can never inhabit the internal dialogue of anyone, to discern their motives or their hearts desire. But yet we long to. In retrospect, having been somewhat harsh about Elspeth Sandys re-creating dialogue to cast her own father in a poor light, I have more empathy for this tactic. Why not I think, because after all, a father who abandons can be judged, arguments for and against, but the truth forever buried.

And too, I recall being startled one day recently when I realised that poetry was in the non-fiction section of the library. Why this had never caught my attention before, I don’t know. But I was so startled that I tackled our local librarian as if she had made a mistake. She carefully explained the Dewey system to me. I began to interrogate my idea of poetry. Was it truth disguised, or was it fiction made fact? What is poetry? Is it memoir crossed with essay and fiction in the form of stanza, verse, rhyme, so I googled it, and found poetry could be divided into four sub categories: epic, lyric, narrative, satirical, or prose.  All my own poems seem to ferment from out of the personal, a way of expressing a truthful recollection, but in the moment of transformation, elements of fiction enter the alchemy along with play, hubris (to sound poetic), editing for cadence and meter, truth abandoned for impact or impression. But it is the distillation of all these elements that provide us with a truth that we choose. Each reader brings their own version of events to the reading, thus rendering the truth more, or less according to their view. I recall being taken aback when poets who had not been affected by the Canterbury earthquake, wrote poems about it. It felt inauthentic, and yet they were good poems. Part of me felt that actual survivors had more right to the writing of such poems. But am I right. Probably not. It is possible to evoke a visceral and emotional response from the reader with a poem that has no bearing in fact or experience, but one that speaks either a universal, or an intimately personal truth (and not necessarily that of the poet).

The 4th Floor Journal called for submissions this year under the currently popular euphemism ‘alternative facts’. I knew immediately what to do. I had a story I needed to tell, about me and my sister. It’s a fight we had when we were both still at school and walking home late one night from the movies. My sister older than me, was my chaperone along a dark path from the cinema to our house. We both wanted to rush home and tell our parents about something in the movie (what that something was, neither of us can now recall). But we do recall, that my sister abandoned me on the dark path so she could run home first to convey the important story. I called the piece of writing ‘alternating facts’, because whenever my sister and I tell this story, we have our own version of it. We’ve agreed to accept each other’s version and yet we are both drawing on imperfect memory, and recreating the memory in each retelling. It is a narrative from personal experience, our very own memory. My original version of the story was entirely about my own grievance and with age, I have managed to inhabit my sister’s memory, place myself in her place, and consider how it was from her perspective. This works on two levels. I feel magnanimous and my sister momentarily feels validated, but truthfully, even in my magnanimity, there is at my core, an attachment to my own story.

 I have to some extent a photographic memory (although not of the exceptional kind) but yes, I can recreate memories through images, snapshots I consider frozen in time, evoking what I have come to believe as exact emotions felt at the time. This led me to believe and to convince my family, that my memory is better than theirs, but as I grow older I become less certain of this. These images and emotions are my alibi. I’ve honed them to reflect my version of events, myself as a person of integrity, my version, my fiction, my personal memoir easily dipped into.

A biographer interprets other people’s memories, and chooses what to include or leave out, and thus, these choices are influenced by their impedimenta, and will be different from the subject’s choices if they were to write a memoir.  On reading the biography of the extraordinary Jane Digby A Scandalous Life by Mary S. Lovell, I was frustrated on many occasions by the author’s digressions, seemingly to establish factual asides that drew my attention away from an engrossing story. I wanted to stay on track, in the moment, moving with this fascinating woman on her amazing journey from husbands to lovers, to Palmyra on camel-back and nurturing her garden in Damascus.  But I was hampered, by what to me was extraneous detail, the author straining to convince me with facts that simply annoyed me, seemed out of context and intrusive – not allowing me to draw enough of my own conclusions. At the heart of this, is me, the reader, wanting a story.

It seems, that the conclusions we draw as a reader, come from our own flawed memories and experiences, casting approval, doubt, or affirmation, finding truth in fiction and fiction in the truth. Ashleigh Young has most likely embellished her memories to make a better story. She hasn’t lied to us. She’s given us her personal story. In doing so, she risks what the fiction writer avoids, the embarrassment of family or friends who are part of her story, but they lend weight in the way that a fictional character might not, and too, as writers we all know, people see themselves in our fiction, even when they are not there.

In the middle of writing this essay, I attended the Auckland Writers and Readers Festival and purchased the memoir My Father’s Island, by Adam Dudding, writing about his father Robin Dudding, editor at one time of Landfall and somewhat scandalously sacked from that position and creating the now legendary (a story that relies heavily on a variety of memories) Islands.  Indeed, in the latest issue of Landfall celebrating 50 years, there are three interesting essays from writers who were around during the period that Robin Dudding was ‘sacked’… and their version of events are not entirely similar or unalike.  The piece in Dudding’s memoir of his father that most interested me (apart from all the wonderful juicy tit-bits about people I have heard of, or know) is near the end, when he admits that a story he quoted in Chapter 2 of the memoir, and his memories of this story, after research and fact checking, are misaligned, and factually incorrect. But beautifully, he decides not to restore the Chapter to a more factual account, but leave it there as evidence, a clue perhaps, to the unreliability of memory (his or memory in general) and perhaps also to allow himself leeway – look this is my account of my dad, but don’t believe it all, it’s just my version.

So, does memoir gives access to the truth in the same way that fiction does? We know that autobiography tends to claim a certain accuracy and sometimes even requires a chronology, date specific, verifiable facts, as we perceive them to be. At the Auckland Writers Festival where George Saunders spoke about the ‘limits of our own perceptions’. So perhaps we can say that a memoir is the limited perception or perspective of the author of any memoir. And we should bear in mind, that the reader brings their own impedimenta to the reading.

At the funeral of a much-admired woman from the literary world, several people gave eulogies that recalled different aspects of her life. Indeed, the deceased had made a recording and spoke to us herself, mentioning most poignantly, some of her regrets. She was dying when she made this recording and we talked about it after the funeral, cup of tea in hand, sausage roll, some holding wine glasses. Did those regrets she mentioned only become apparent because she was dying and was making the recording. If she hadn’t been facing death in such stark terms, would those regrets have ever surfaced, or were they there all along, and she hadn’t spoken them?  We can’t know the answer to this, we can only speculate. It was her life ending, and this was the final story she chose to tell us.

There’s a beautiful alchemy to memory, I now see. It is a chemical distillation. The particles assemble and disassemble. They choose to be this or that, depending on the day, the date, the year, the collection of years, the age of the person whose remembering, the relationship to the people remembered. Often the pieces missing, even more important than the pieces recalled. And the missing pieces when they are found, can be construed in a myriad of creativity to convey one point of view or another, the story, our story, the one we wish to tell, today.

 

 

Common girls and empanadas

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Common girls and empanadas (or flash pies).

It’s my day off.  I slept late and followed the RoguePOTUS twitter account from my surface pro in bed. I need weaning from this addiction. Lies, lies and more lies from the realDonaldTrump. How very unreal. So, what nicer than to meet a friend for coffee late morning.  I could offload about vertigo to a sympathetic ear, sip my soy latte, and chill in the company of real friendship.

On the way home, I realise, after all that talking, I need food, so I slip into a local café and queue.  Behind me in the queue is a woman of a similar age to myself.  I hear her asking me in a loud voice.

‘Were you a ballet dancer?  I’m only asking because of the way you are standing with your toes pointing.’

I’m flattered of course.  I’d always wanted to be a ballet dancer. I turn towards her and say ‘No, I was a marching girl.’

And, predictably (to me anyway), she responds, ‘Oh, I always wanted to be a marching girl, but my mother wouldn’t let me.’   She goes on ‘My mother told me only common girls marched.’

I’ve heard this many times before. It’s a middle-class cliche.  It’s said with total recognition of the snobbery it implies and yet gives an authority to the very same thing.

‘Yes, that’s me, I was a common girl,’ I say loudly but laughing too at her and myself.  Then shamelessly, I go on…‘There’s a book called About turns written on this very topic. It’s about marching girls and book clubs… are you a reader?’

‘Yes, I read…. Can I get it from the local library?’

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘You can.  I wrote this novel.’

‘What’s your name?’

‘Maggie Rainey-Smith’.

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There’s a chuckle from her friend, who says they will remember it, after all, Maggie Smith is hard to forget.

And then we view the food cabinet together like old friends.  The woman whose mother said only common girls were marchers invites me into their conversation about the food in the cabinet. We’re all looking now at a filled roll really but they want to know how one should say ‘Brie and Cranberry Pide’ – was it Peed or was it Pied?  We all agree, it looks very much like a Panini and wonder why it is called a Pide.  I never do get to hear how to say it because out from the kitchen, steaming and fresh from the oven, comes a plate of Empanadas… looking exactly like a pie or Cornish pastie.

 

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‘Yum,’ I say, loudly, possibly too loudly, possibly overly self consciously and mischievously. ‘I’ll have the pie. We common girls love pies.’

Unperturbed, my new friend asks if I am still marching and I laugh and explain that no, I’m not. And here I have to check myself for my own snobbery, as goodness me, of course I’m not!  Hoist on my own petard so to speak.

My new friend confides…She recently saw a group of older women who were still marching and goodness she tells me confident I will laugh… they were so fat… she jokes that she thought they ought to be marching faster. Followed by a hearty chuckle (both of us – for what else should I do with a new-found friend from the queue by the food cabinet).

I do hope my new friend manages to find the novel About turns in the local library… and that the Librarian realises Maggie Smith didn’t write About turns…. but I do fear, that all those clichés that I tried to gently nudge when writing the novel, might very well float right over my new-found friend’s head.

Everything is here except Elvis

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‘Everything is Here’ by Rob Hack

 

I really like the profile on the Escalator Press website that says this about the poet…

Rob has lived in Paekakariki  since 2005, after a third attempt to live across the ditch. He has been an insurance salesman, greenkeeper , builder, personal trainer, gym owner, factory hand, gardener, shop assistant etc and currently works as a handyman, to buy second-hand poetry books, and petrol so he can visit his grandchildren each week.

There’s a nice anarchy here, the poet as an insurance salesman, which grabbed my attention immediately. And then there is the interesting fact that Rob was born in Invercargill but spent his childhood in Niue. It’s hard to imagine such a striking shift in landscape and indeed, the landscape is preeminent in his poems.

 

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Everything is Here’ is the title of his collection, a series of poems. The poetry is freighted with an emotional energy connected to family, milieu, place, and displacement. It speaks to a New Zealand childhood that I recognise. The poem ‘Canons Creek Four Square’ could easily be my home town of Richmond, but then there is disconcerting twist, the poet as an outsider.  The boy from Niue sent by his Mum to buy a tin of peaches. Innocuous, but powerful and nicely underplayed where racism is mollified with a lifesaver lolly.

The collection resonates with a spiritual thread from one sea to another across the Pacific and as far as Europe. It is a poetic memoir traversing connections to the two sides of his family.  They are snapshots into a life, or lifestyle, at times cinematic, but often leaving the reader wanting to know more. An example is a poem ‘High Noon in Avarua’ which feels like a second-hand local myth retold, handed down, and turned into a poem. And yet I wanted more, I felt I’d only glimpsed ‘Te Kope, the adopted son of the late Nui Manu’. At times, I was reminded at times of Tusiata Avia’s ‘Wild Dogs Under My Skirt’. ‘Blue Laws’ a list poem with fines for misdemeanours including, my favourite ‘If a man cries at the funeral of an unrelated woman $10.00’.

Another poem I really enjoyed with a fabulous long title is ‘James Cook couldn’t land and Elvis never sang on Niue’… which ends with a great three lines

Dad said, Elvis would’ve come to Niue

if he saw your mother dance

but he’d have to leave his hips at the door.

The poems have warmth and humour, they are easy but not light, warm and heart-warming. There is darkness written lightly.  Rob is a true bard. I’ve heard him read now twice (the first time at open mike at the Writers Symposium at the National Library) and then at Litcrawl. He has a strong presence as a performer and these poems lend themselves to the oral tradition. They have an anecdotal conversational air about them.

 

Adoption and a Xmas stocking filler story

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My friend Robyn Cooper is a born storyteller. She has a quirky way of inhabiting the world that I admire. Whenever I meet up with her, she is bursting with stories that are full of wit, chaos and the joy of being open. She does what most of us try to avoid doing… she allows a kind of chaos to enter her life, instead of plotting and planning to prevent it. It means she keeps an open heart to story and to the people around her.

 

I first met Robyn when I was in Timaru and she was in Days Bay.  I was on my much written about 21-week sojourn to be a writer and Owen Marshall, who had met Robyn, handed me her memoir and suggested I might enjoy reading it – and that I would probably like Robyn seeing as we lived in the same bay.

Her memoir is called ‘Don’t ask her name?’

 

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It is a powerful adoption story from both a mother’s and the adopted children’s experience.  The children’s stories are different, because they are from different birth mothers and these encounters are retold with tact, understanding and absolute affirmation. One of the great joys Robyn has shared with me is being present at the birth of one of her grandchildren with the birth mother of her daughter. Two expectant grandmothers sharing the same unbelievable joy.

Robyn’s own personal story has tragedy and yet it also has beautiful romance.  I am now friends with Robyn and her husband, Roger. Their love story after the death of Robyn’s first husband is truly perfect romance. It is essentially a tribute to the gorgeous quirky open nature of Robyn that this romance happened. She is open to the world and unafraid to take chances. Roger and Robyn travel together, and share a great love of people and a deep sense of enquiry about the world. He is a scientist and she is a story-teller, a rather perfect combination.

I am hopeful that her memoir will soon be an E-book as it is now out of actual print, but available in many local libraries if you would like to go and find it.  For anyone who has adopted children or been adopted it is a warm and life affirming book about this sometimes-difficult journey that is made all the more wonderful by the open heart of the author.

I just found this recommendation on the Wheeler Books website which says the book is no longer available.

This is an “unusual and moving story of adoption in New Zealand (that is unique in its power, scope and warmth. While it is harrowing it is also optimistic, without being sentimental.”

Now, I want to tell you about Robyn’s latest book  ‘Snails, spells, and snazzlepops’ written for children.Robyn now has grandchildren and has always been their ‘storyteller. Over the years, she has made up stories for them whenever they came to stay at her house.  This innate ability has now been transferred to the page.

Snails, spells and snazzlepops

An absolute Christmas stocking filler.

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I loved it.  I bought it for my granddaughter but I read it first.  What a wonderful romp of a story! Full of verve, energy and wit. A writer who understands children and adults.  The dialogue captures so well the gap between children and adults and how they see the world. It is fast-paced, lightly tripping over big topics like bullying and your mother having a new boyfriend and moves deftly from funny to wise with a dose of magic realism.  There is a fabulous granny character who like the author herself, is open to the imagination of the children and willing to go along with their crazy plans which include (close your eyes or block your ears if you are squeamish), cooking snails, but better than that, sorting out the bully. Also, hats off to Makaro Publisher for the lovely production from cover to lay-out and trailing snail through the chapters.

 

Here is a photo of Robyn Cooper and publisher Mary McCallum at the launch.

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As you can see, the book has a marvelleous cover and has the heads up from the wonderful Barbara Murison in her Around the Bookshops wrap-up and from Bob’s Books blog

 

 

 

 

Love as a Stranger

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Love as a Stranger

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This is vintage Owen Marshall. A contemporary novel about a baby boomer ménage à trois (although that might actually be an exaggeration and perhaps affaire is more accurate). It begins in a cemetery in Auckland where we met Sarah and Hartley, total strangers, who engage in a conversation about a fascinating inscription on a small headstone for a grave that has collapsed in on itself. Emily Mary has been shot on her way to bible class.

Sarah, is a woman in her late 50’s, who hails from Hamilton but who is temporarily domiciled in Auckland in an apartment with her husband Robert while he is undergoing chemotherapy treatment. Sarah has time on her hands and as a result, she bumps into Hartley again… and again.All three key characters, Sarah, Hartley and Robert are very ordinary, leading fairly un-extraordinary lives and this is where Marshall shines. He knows how to unwrap the ordinary and show the reader the interiority of what could otherwise be quite banal lives.

The story unfolds gently, the circumstances of how Hartley and Sarah begin a sexual relationship. It seems quite natural and unspectacular. Robert is sick, Sarah has time on her hands, Hartley is widowed and looking for company. It’s not the be all and end all take your breath-away sex, it’s companionship with sexual benefits. But here is where Marshall takes risks. He writes of the whole messy business, details that writers often skip over, and it’s not sordid or prurient, it’s quite charming instead. Or does that mean it is believable?

As always, Marshall’s keen observation of the human condition and people shines through. My first laugh out loud moment came early in the book when we are introduced to Hartley’s ex mother-in-law:

‘Her mother kept the conversation going by listing the features that made Devonport unique, and then the superiority of her own part of Auckland. It was an indication of the sort of woman she was – preoccupied with the instruction of other and the emphasis of her own significance.’

And this
‘Irene was thin and always well dressed, but age ravaged her and although she kept out of the sun her skin darkened and loosened until it seemed as if she wore stockings over her limbs. Towards the end there was so little of her that she appeared in the process of mummification, with only her dark, jewelled eyes glinting from the wrappings.’

My next chuckle came when the author builds a picture of the lovers as they might be observed by an outsider.

‘To others they could pass as husband and wife, except perhaps to the more insightful observer of the close attention they paid each other. A tall, slightly heavy woman in what might tactfully be termed late middle age, well and casually dressed, the colour of her thick brown hair salon reinforced.’

And so an affair begins with Hartley and Sarah that seems to some extent benign in its simplicity and almost inevitability. Sarah’s husband Robert is in the shadows at this stage, as a vague figure who is being treated for cancer. Hilariously, as Hartley becomes more besotted with Sarah, he wants to buy her a frivolous gift and says:

‘I’ll buy you French undies.’ But Sarah is having none of this. ‘Like hell you will. You can buy me slippers. I need a pair. All grandmothers do.’
Hartley becomes curious and wants to meet his ‘rival’ Robert. ‘Robert was a large, intelligent, self-centred man who had run down into needy dependence.’ They do meet, and Sarah doesn’t know they have and Robert doesn’t know who Hartley is either.

As the story progresses, Sarah has to balance the joy of this new affair against her responsibilities as a wife, mother and grandmother. In contrast, Hartley recently widowed with a son living in London, has no such constraints and he begins to imagine a future with Sarah. Hartley begins texting Sarah when she is at home in the apartment with Robert. Sarah is disturbed by this new insistence and it amplifies the deceit as she has to rush to another room to read the text and then to lie about who is texting.

Marshall very cleverly deconstructs the mechanics of a love affair. The various components ‘there’s always an element of vanity in love’, the competing personal imperatives as to why and how an affair might happen and then, the other lives that will be impacted.

It’s a terrific story and builds to an ending that is both gripping and in some strange way on reflection probably inevitable, but I doubt many readers see it coming. I certainly didn’t and I think it is a masterstroke and takes the novel into the literary thriller genre.

Highly recommended.

Did you like my novel?

Standard

‘I like your novel. I enjoyed it.’ She says this plainly, a mere fact, but there’s no mistaking the rising inflexion making joy into a query… a statement of surprise.

‘I’m reading your novel.’ Nothing more. Just what should be a reassuring statement. But what does it mean? Has she finished the first chapter, where’s she up to? She doesn’t say.

‘I loved your novel,’ with a notable circumflex. But that’s over the top and you don’t believe her. It’s gushy, can’t be true. And a noted circumflex indicates there’s more to be said, but she says nothing more. What is it she won’t say?

Then there’s the silent friend, who came to the launch and never mentions your novel, ever again. Her silence more potent even than a notable circumflex or rising inflexion.

‘I liked your novel.’ The past tense. You feel robbed somehow. Only liked it.

Then a good friend goes on Goodreads and gives your novel four stars. You’re delighted and then you think… why not five stars? You check other books they gave five stars to. You try not to feel aggrieved. Now the distance between four and five stars becomes the distance between friends.

At last, a critic. You pay careful attention. Someone who read your novel and didn’t like it. They tear it apart skilfully, piece by piece, analyse its flaws. The flaws you already knew about and hoped no one would notice. You are riveted, you read every terrifying thing they write, not once, not twice, but over and over and over. You become greedy and Google your own novel become convinced that none of your friends know half as much as this really negative woman on Amazon. It feels good, you know you deserve this.

Praise is overrated.