When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy

I began seeing reviews about When I Hit You, Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife late in 2017,  most were stunned by this novel, obviously by the subject, a woman writing about the experience of domestic violence and abuse, herself a victim of it within marriage; but also the analysis of her response to what was happening. This was a highly educated, intelligent and articulate young woman writing. It nudged preconceived ideas about victims of domestic abuse.

The reviews made me wish to read it, but the subject prevented me from picking it up sooner.  And then it made the long list of the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018. I relented.

While it genuinely deserves to be on the list for its literary uniqueness and merit, it’s also relevant given we are in an era where the silencing, harassment and abuse of women is reaching a tipping point, in the West at least. The author now lives in London, however this story takes place in contemporary India, where she grew up.

The statistics on domestic violence in India are appalling, violence by husbands against wives is widespread, nearly two in five* (37 %) married women have experienced some form of physical or sexual violence by their husband, and while the statistics vary according to the number of years of education men or women have acquired, 12%  of married women with 12 or more years of education have experienced spousal violence, compared with 21 percent of married women whose husbands have 12 or more years of education.

This is one aspect that surprises some Western readers, that highly educated women, married to highly educated men (the husband in this book is a university professor) while less likely to suffer, are not immune. No one is.

The title is a reference to James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man his debut novel about a young man growing up, (essentially, his alter-ego). In the same way we see the character of this novel traverse the early months of a new marriage, as a young wife.

Meena Kandasamy

Meena Kandasamy has created an artwork, carefully sculpted, observed and understood from different angles, a work that endures over four months, like acts in a play, before the master stroke, a line she drew, that when her husband crossed, would signal to her the moment to leave. It is written by an unnamed narrator in a first person voice that moves from reflective to urgent, from a place of detached distance to a disturbing sense of present danger.

The novel begins in the period after she has escaped her marriage, in recounting the things her mother says to people, it is five years since her daughter left the marriage and the story has mutated and transformed into something the mother can more easily digest as she narrates.

So, when she begins to talk about the time that I ran away from my marriage because I was being routinely beaten and it had become unbearable and untenable for me to keep playing the good Indian wife, she does not talk about the monster who was my husband, she does not talk about the violence, she does not even talk about the actual chain of events that led to my running away. That is not the kind of story you will be getting out of my mother, because my mother is a teacher, and a teacher knows that there is no reason to state the obvious. As a teacher, she also knows that to state the obvious is , in fact, a sure sign of stupidity.

When she tells the story of my escape, she talks of my feet.

The way the story begins, hearing her mother’s voice with hindsight, introduces the subject with a dose of irony. It is a lead up to the author introducing herself as the writer that she is, and sharing the lessons she has acquired through this writing project.

Much as I love my mother, authorship is a trait that I have come to take very seriously. It gets on my nerves when she steals the story of my life and builds her anecdotes around it. It’s plain plagiarism. It also takes a lot of balls to do something like that – she’s stealing from a writer’s life – how often is that sort of atrocity even allowed to happen? The number one lesson I have learnt as a writer: Don’t let people remove you from your own story. Be ruthless, even if it is your own mother.

She continues with narrating the story, and seeing it as if she is playing a role in a drama.

And in some ways, that is how I think of it: it is easier to imagine this life in which I’m trapped as a film;  it is easier when I imagine myself as a character. It makes everything around me seem less frightening; my experiences at a remove. Less painful, less permanent. Here, long before I ever faced a camera, I became an actress.

The husband, a Marxist who considered himself a revolutionary, a comrade, using communist intellectual ideas and his activities to elevate his self aggrandisement, detests the idea of his wife’s being a writer, an attitude that pushes her to want to antagonise him. The more he wishes to silence her, the stronger is her will to write, to imagine, to create, to express herself.

Being a writer is now a matter of self-respect. It is the job title that I give myself…

But it’s not just about antagonizing him. There is a distasteful air of the outlaw that accompanies the idea of a writer in my husband’s mind. A self-centredness about writing that doesn’t fit with his image of a revolutionary. It has the one-word job description: defiance. I’ve never felt such a dangerous attraction towards anything else in my life.

Given how prevalent it is, it is a brave and courageous feat for the author to have penned this work and for it to be recognised and appreciated in this way, deservedly so. In an interview with The Wire, (linked below) Meena Kandasamy said:

“I will write in the same way in which I lived through all of this: carrying myself with enormous, infinite grace.”

It is an incredible work of creativity, working through the post-trauma of domestic violence.

Meena Kandasamy has taken charge of her story, she retells it in exactly the form(s) that she desires, and I am sure she will move on and create more great works of art, in literary form.

This is not a work to shy away from, especially not now, in these times where women are being supported when they choose to express these narratives, in order to move on from the trauma, because no one wants these stories to define their lives or to be who they are. Healing might come slowly, but I hope it does indeed come, that people like Meena Kandasamy can share their version of resilience and acts of moving forward and on, for the sake of themselves and others like them, albeit never forgetting.

I finish with one more of the many quotes I highlighted from reading:

I remind myself of the fundamental notion of what it means to be a writer. A writer is the one who controls the narrative.

I have put myself in a dangerous situation with this marriage, but even in this complicated position, I’m finding plot points. This is the occupational hazard of being a writer-wife.

Further Reading:

Interview: Meena Kandasamy on Writing About Marital Violence

* Statistics on Domestic Violence in India

Buy a copy of this book via Book Depository

BigMagic, Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

Signature (2)Elizabeth Gilbert, author of the best seller Eat Pray Love and more recently in 2013, the historical, botanical novel The Signature of All Things (reviewed here) has thought a lot about Creativity, so much so that she gave a TED Talk on the subject.

Tapping into one’s creative life can often be referred to as a sea of obstacles, fears, procrastinations and can tend to focus on what one lacks, rather than the small steps we can take in pursuit of it.

In Big Magic, Gilbert writes a lot about how we get in the way of our own creativity, covering a multitude of sins, some that we may find relevant, others not, depending where we are on the path to pursuing it.

The book is separated into six sections, Courage, Enchantment, Permission, Persistence, Trust and Divinity where she discusses many aspects of e creative process, her own experiences and many anecdotes from well-known personalities.

One of the best is from Richard Ford, author of Canada (reviewed here); he gave this response to an audience member who recounted all the things that he and Ford had in common; age, background, themes, the fact they’d both been writing all their life.

The big difference being this person had never been published, they were heartbroken, a “spirit crushed by all the rejection and disappointment”. He added that he did not want to be told to persevere, that’s all he ever heard from anyone.

Ford told him he should quit.

The audience froze: What kind of encouragement was this?

Canada1Ford went on: “I say this to you only because writing is clearly bringing you no pleasure. It is only bringing you pain. Our time on earth is short and should be enjoyed. You should leave this dream behind and go find something else to do with your life. Travel, take up new hobbies, spend time with your family and friends, relax. But don’t write anymore, because it’s obviously killing you.”

There was a long silence.

Then Ford smiled and added, almost as an afterthought:

“However, I will say this. If you happen to discover, after a few years away from writing, that you have found nothing that takes its place in your life – nothing that fascinates you, or moves you, or inspires you to the same degree that writing once did…well, then, sir, I’m afraid you will have no choice but to persevere.”

She writes about her theory that ideas are a separate entity to ourselves and if we do not pursue them when they come knocking in the form of inspiration, we risk them leaving us altogether and being passed on to someone else. When the momentum and inspiration has left us, which can also happen if we put something aside for too long, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to renter the zone to complete it.

She gives an example of a novel she was very passionate and inspired by, an Amazonian novel. She mentioned it to her friend Ann Patchett who was curious as she was at the time writing a novel set in the same location.

042812_1839_StateofWond1.jpgGilbert gave her a brief outline and asked Patchett what her novel was about and she repeated almost word for word the same idea – fitting into her theory that the idea had visited her and because she had put it aside for a couple of years, it left and had been passed on to Patchett to become State of Wonder (reviewed here).

It’s necessary to read her quaint theories with an open mind, Big Magic itself is the label she applies to all those instances of coincidence, luck, the unexplained, it is a form of belief in universal guidance or positive thinking, one conveniently packaged as Big Magic.

Fortunately, we need not put all our faith in it, she pulls back from the inclination of some to urge us to seek out our passion, especially when many struggle to find or identify with such a thing. She favours curiosity over passion.

Forget about passion, pursue curiosity. Curiosity is accessible to everyone, while passion can seem intimidating and out of reach.

‘…curiosity is a milder, quieter, more welcoming and democratic entity…curiosity only ever asks one simple question of you:

“Is there anything you’re interested in?”

Anything?

Even a tiny bit?

No matter how mundane or small?

Curiosity is like a clue, you follow it, see where it takes you and continue along that train of thought or research. It may lead somewhere or nowhere, it doesn’t matter, momentum is what’s important. She gives the example of following an interest in gardening, that lead to researching and eventually writing her much admired historical novel The Signature of All Things.

She acknowledges that the necessity to achieving a creative life of note takes discipline, luck and talent and puts more faith in the former, than the latter.

She doesn’t regard herself as being endowed with greater than average talent, she is not a perfectionist – admitting to flaws in her work she knew were there, that weren’t worth the effort to pursue in the grand scheme of things. An interesting observation, as one of the flaws she mentions was an under-developed character in that same novel, something I noted in my review, that she admits beta readers warned her of, a flaw she deliberately did not remedy. In some cases the effort required to fix something is greater than the reward it will bring.

Overall, a fast, easy read, that can act as a reminder and a motivator to us in relation to any creative endeavour, it’s one of those books to read with a filter, let it pass through you and take the gems for what they’re worth to you now.

“Possessing a creative mind is like having a border collie for a pet. It needs to work, or else it will cause you an outrageous amount of trouble. Give your mind a job to do, or else it will find a job to do, and you might not like the job it invents.

It has taken me years to learn this, but it does seem to be the case that if I am not actively creating something, then I am probably actively destroying something (myself, a relationship, or my own peace of mind).”

Baileys Women’s Prize Short List 2015

From a long list of 20 novels and from a collection of 160 original entries, the five judges have narrowed the field down to 6 novels vying for the Baileys Women’s Prize for fiction 2015.

Five of the authors have been shortlisted previously and one, my favourite (though I have only read two on the list) is a debut author, Laline Paull.

The shortlisted novels are:

It’s another excellent list from this worthy prize that celebrates hard-working, talented and inspirational women writers with a particular talent for creating life-like characters inhabiting believable worlds, whether it’s the smaller canvas of detailed family life in Anne Tyler’s fiction, or the imaginative hive of Flora 717, brilliantly conceived in Laline Paull’s The Bees.

Syl Saller, Chief Marketing Officer, Diageo had this to say about the shortlist:

“From a debut to a twentieth novel, this year’s shortlist celebrates exceptional female writers who display a rich and diverse talent for telling stories. Having always championed women, Baileys is thrilled to be working with the Prize to get these six novels by inspirational women into the hands of more book-lovers around the world.”

And the shadow jury (a group of blogging reviewers who are reading all the books and creating their own short list and winner) organised by Naomi at WritesofWomen, came up with their alternative shortlist below, having read and debated the 20 nominated novels.

Shadow Jury Alternative Shortlist

Shadow Jury Alternative Shortlist

One of the jury members, our much admired reviewer Eric of LonesomeReader had this to say about the prize:

“Whichever book ultimately wins, I am so glad this prize has introduced me to a range of unique books I probably wouldn’t have read otherwise. From Laline Paull’s outrageously original The Bees to Jemma Wayne’s ambitious take on the aftershock of war in After Before to Rachel Cusk’s fascinating chorus of voices in Outline to Grace McCleen’s elegant portrayal of madness in The Offering to Marie Phillips’ hilarious Arthurian tale The Table of Less Valued Knights to Sandra Newman’s challenging mighty tome The Country of Ice Cream Star. In my opinion, book prizes help us notice great literature we might have missed and the Baileys Prize has offered up a lot of excellence this year.”

I recommend visiting either of these blogs mentioned if you wish to read reviews of the books.

So, any predictions for a winner? We will have to wait until 3 June 2015 to find out!

The Bees by Laline Paull

I came across this book The Bees by Laline Paull during the Literary Bloghop giveaway. Deb from The Book Stop was offering it as one of her giveaways and I was intrigued by the premise as it is narrated from the point of view of Flora 717, a worker bee!

Bees2The story begins with Flora’s awakening as she becomes conscious of her surroundings and who she is and what she is capable of doing. For not all bees are born equal in The Hive. Flora is a sanitation bee, one of the lowest kin and perceived by others as the most ugly, neither are they capable of speech. Except Flora. She has characteristics that are not like her kin and is fortunate being a mutant bee that she has been allowed to live.

The majority of the bees in the hive are female, except the Drones, the only male bees and the only kin who don’t work. The bee kins have names like Clover, Sage,  Thistle. They mutter a mantra ACCEPT OBEY SERVE around the more senior sisters and priestesses, they do Devotions, are punished with Kindness, communicate what they have learned on the outside in the Dance Hall, including information about the dangers of the Myriad.

“The golden fragrance drew Flora on, until to her shock she realised she had passed unscathed through the scent-gates on the staircase to the highest level of the hive.”

Their talents and work include cleaning the hive, feeding the newborns with Flow, a substance some bees are able to regurgitate, foraging to collect nectar and pollen, working in the Patisserie, grooming the Drones and tending to the Queen.

Bee Castes

The bees possess a collective consciousness and through it they can receive information from the Hive Mind and Energy and Love from their Queen; their thoughts are able to be read by others through their antennae, unless they close them down, which Flora begins to do increasingly as she crosses boundaries and experiences thoughts she knows could endanger her life and others, should any of the  kin-sisters read them.

“Flora tucked her antennae sleek down her back as she advanced her speed. Never again would she leave her channels open in the hive, for any bee to grab and read. Sister Teasel was old and  could no longer work efficiently – but Flora’s wings beat with a new strength. She felt she could fly a hundred leagues  to serve her hive, and the sky streamed with all the scents rising from the wet earth – including mesmerisingly delicious nectar. Flora locked onto it.”

There are threats both within the Hive and outside.  The beehive is like a cult, its members know their place, their role and their boundaries, however everywhere there are risks and dangers both outside and more dangerously, within. ACCEPT, OBEY, SERVE. They live in a symbiotic relationship that ensures the safe function and progression of the hive. When something threatens that relationship, their safe haven is no longer assured.

Laline Paull has channelled an incredible and yet what read like a totally credible life and universe within a beehive, from the perspective of Flora 717. I know little about the bee world, but the environment the author creates is fascinating, intriguing and imaginative with references to monarchy, spiritual devotion, universal instinct and power. It also contains a subtle environmental reference, one that will be recognised by nature lovers everywhere, without compromising the essence of great storytelling.

Labyrinthe of Knossos, Crete

Labyrinth of Knossos, Crete

Intrigued by the book, I was also interested to learn that Laline Paull was inspired by a Bronze Age Minoan Palace.

“The Cretan Minoan civilization dates from 1700BC, and was very sophisticated and sexually egalitarian, if not biased towards women. It was an inspiration for translating a real beehive into a fictional landscape.” Laline Paull

This description of the Labyrinth at Knossos, the largest of the Minoan palaces, gives you an idea of the influence on Flora’s world.

“Knossos is the largest of the Minoan palaces, and like others it is an agglomeration of rooms clustered around a long, rectangular central court. Only the ruins of its foundations have survived, but these reveal a vast interconnected complex of small corridors, staircases and private rooms containing residential quarters, workshops, administrative areas and many different cult centres.” Christopher Berg, Amazeing Art: Wonders of the Ancient World

The Bees is an utterly captivating read and a masterful feat of the imagination, Laline Paull has the reader on a knife-edge, knowing the dangers Flora 717 faces, yet her discretions feel necessary and we will her to continue, to survive and overcome all the challenges she faces.

I started it slowly and have since read others did find it is a slow start, however once into it, I could not put it down, it has been one of the best and most original reads of 2014 for me.

Art in Nature, Tove Jansson #TOVE100

Coming out of any intense, dramatic period of living can make it hard to choose appropriate reading material.

Recently I found it difficult to sustain reading as it all seemed too far removed from life’s demands that I be very present and attentive to the needs of those around me.

It made me reflect on what and who can I read I turn to during these kinds of periods. Short stories and/or non-fiction. Tove Jansson and The Dalai Lama.

TOVE 100 © Moomin Characters™

TOVE 100
© Moomin Characters™

I chose Tove Jansson (translated by Thomas Teal), because even her stories feel like they haven’t strayed too far from the reality within which they were inspired. I find immeasurable comfort in reading the words of this talented artist, the short form allowing a brief respite without requiring an ongoing commitment of a novel, when concentration spans are short.

Art in NatureArt in Nature is an intriguing collection of character studies, characters who happen to be creative, eccentric, obsessive, all curiously flawed in some way and Tove Jansson observes them in a situation until the cracks appear. They are a slice of life short narrative and any one of them could easily have morphed into a longer story such as her novel The True Deceiver I recently reviewed here.

The first story Art in Nature is about a caretaker watching over an exhibition of work in open air.

“He slept in the sauna down below the great lawn where the sculptures were set out among the trees.”

The day has its rhythm and characteristics and the evenings belong to the caretaker, the quiet contemplative time when he is alone among the unmoving silent works, still, post creation. He observes everything, every inclination, every watcher, he categorizes them and becomes attached to how things are.

“Almost all the feet moved respectfully. If they were with a guide, they’d stand still for a while, all turned in the same direction, and then they’d change direction all at the same time to look at something else. The lonely feet were uncertain in the beginning, then they’d move slowly at an angle, stop, stand with legs crossed, turn around, and sometimes they’d lift one foot and scratch with it because there were lots of mosquitos.”

Until one evening when a couple overstays, middle-aged adults breaking the rules, having a domestic argument. He intervenes, listens to them argue, provokes them with his own thoughts on the mystery of what art is.

Tove Jansson's Atelier © Moomin Characters™

Tove Jansson’s Atelier
© Moomin Characters™

The Cartoonist is a mysterious, insightful look into the daily work of an illustrator, a job that Tove Jansson’s mother did and one she dabbled in herself, making me wonder how much of this was inspired by the environment and circumstance of her mother.

A famous newspaper cartoonist has quit suddenly after 10 years and a new artist is required to assume his role without a break in the cartoon strip, without his fans knowing. The new artist slips easily into the role but becomes plagued with needing to know why his predecessor quit.

The Doll’s House is brilliant and shocking and quite different from anything else of Jansson’s I have read. Like The True Deceiver, it shows her deftness at spotting signs and cracks in character that over time can grow from barely visible flaw into raging psychological dysfunction when neither checked or dissipated.

Two recently retired men who have lived together and shared the same respect for the beautiful objects that surround them, are adjusting to the new routine of no longer having demanding day jobs. Alexander is a craftsman and Eric a retired banker.

“Alexander was an upholsterer of the old school. He was exceptionally skilled, and he took a craftsman’s natural pride in his work. He discussed commissions only with those customers who had taste and a feel for the beauty of materials and workmanship. Not wishing to show his contempt, he referred all the others to his employees.”

In the beginning they have difficulty adjusting to this new way of life, discovering that in such close proximity their interests aren’t as fine-tuned or in harmony as they had appeared when their time was absorbed by outside demands. Eric begins to take on more of the domestic role and Alexander begins a project to build a miniature house. He seeks the help of an electrician called Boy, who becomes his trusted helper.

“Boy came back almost every evening. He often brought little table lamps, sconces, or a chandelier that he’d found in some hobby shop or toy store. He came straight from work in his jeans and trailed street dirt over the rugs, but Alexander didn’t seem to notice – he just admired what Boy had brought him and listened gravely to his suggestions about improvements to the house.”

Just rereading these two quotes, makes me realise what clever insights Tove Jansson’s places into the text, the clues into character are there from the beginning and the simple daily events that follow turn these insights into something raw and dangerous.

Another excellent collection of stories from the Finnish artist and writer who would have been 100 years old next month.

Absolutely gripping!

Check out her books and events at TOVE100.com

Tove Jansson with her brother Per Olov © Moomin Characters™

Tove Jansson with her brother Per Olov
© Moomin Characters™

 

Write A Book Review, Anyone Can Do It

GyannA little while ago I received a request from Corinne, an inspirational blogger from Mumbai in India, who shares her thoughts on keeping life simple, authentic and holistic at Everyday Gyann.

She recently started another blog called Write Tribe – Motivation and Support for Writers and Bloggers.  Write Tribe sometimes offers books for review to its followers and as Corinne is a loyal follower of Word by Word, she asked if I could write a post on How to Write a Book Review.

Write Tribe

I’m not a rule follower myself, but I decided to share my thoughts on this habit I have been practising for the last two years, as when something becomes a regular habit, there develop patterns. So I wrote 10 tips on writing a book review and then added number 11 which is to ignore the rules!

The Review Notebooks!

The Review Notebooks!

If you would like to read my thoughts on writing a book review, you can read them in Corinne’s three-part series over at Write Tribe, just follow the links below.

How To Write A Book Review – Part 1

How To Write A Book Review – Part 2

How To Write A Book Review – Part 3

Thanks again Corinne for the invitation and I hope this might encourage readers of this blog who might have been considering it, to go ahead and write a review too.

Claire

Aimless Love by Billy Collins

Aimless LoveI am a relative newcomer to the poetry of Billy Collins, but thanks to an admiring fan, I was lent a copy of his collection Sailing Alone Around the Room which was an extremely readable, entertaining and at times even hilarious read and so when I saw this new collection was coming out I requested it.

Who even knew that one could study for a PhD in Romantic Poetry? Does that make him of Doctor of Love I wonder?

His poems speak of ordinary things but steer clear of cliché, and Aimless Love as a title for this collection of collections as well as some new poems, seems perfectly apt for all manner of common things he appreciates and shares with us.

Aimless Love brings together selected poems from previous collections as well as some new poems

Here are a few extracts from moments of pure joy in reading Billy Collins Aimless Love:

The Country

I wondered about you

when you told me never to leave

a box of wooden, strike-

anywhere matches

lying around the house because

the mice

might get into them and start a fire.

But your face was absolutely

straight

when you twisted the lid down

on the round tin

where the matches, you said, are

always stowed.

Who could sleep that night?

Artwork by our Allia

Artwork by our Allia

Who could whisk away the thought

of the one unlikely mouse

padding along a cold water pipe

behind the floral wallpaper

gripping a single wooden match

between the needles of his teeth?

And who could not be tempted to read and understand more of this familiar relationship between the poet and his parents in:

No Time

In a rush this weekday morning,

I tap the horn as I speed past the

cemetery

where my parents lie buried

side by side under a smooth slab

of granite.

And this line from a poem called

Monday

Just think –

before the invention of the window,

the poets would have had to put on a jacket

and a winter hat to go outside

or remain indoors with only a

wall to stare at.

There are other fabulous poems like The Great American Poem, Horoscopes for the Dead, and Ode to a Desk Lamp.

But just as good as reading his poetry is listening to him read aloud, he has a melodic voice that lulls the listener into a kind of warm familial comfort, his words caress like a gentle tide of steaming bath water with the scent of Cedarwood. Well, perhaps if you close your eyes while listening, like I do.

Here he is reading just a few days ago, the title poem to this collection Aimless Love, so sit back, close your eyes, listen and be soothed:

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

The Drowning of Arthur Braxton by Caroline Smailes

Completely off the wall, a sliver of magic realism, a stunningly original voice, Caroline Smailes The Drowning of Arthur Braxton is the best work of fiction I have read so far this year.

Arthur BraxtonRight from the beginning it hooked me and I couldn’t wait to get back to it every time I put it down, because I could not guess what the author was going to do next and somehow she made me very interested to want to know.

I’m still not quite sure how she managed that, but at a guess I would say it is a combination of an incredible imagination and a very close observance of reality. That might sound hypocritical, and that those two things should really negate each other, however she uses a sprinkle of magic realism firmly rooted in the mundane world, just as Eowyn Ivey did in The Snow Child, making the reader question whether they are reading fantasy or realistic fiction without alienating them in the process.

The protagonist Arthur Braxton can’t quite make out what is going on either and we are right there with him, going back for more to try and make the unexplained logical – and to find out more about that girl in the pool.

Arthur Braxton lives in a town in the North of England, so if you have never been there or known any young people from up that way, be warned about the vernacular and remember he is a teenager, so many of the things he says and does are appropriate to his age and the area he comes from. I don’t know whether that makes him authentic, but it makes his voice unique and his story compelling to read.

Victoria Baths

Victoria Baths, Manchester

Arthur’s Mum left he and his father for another bloke and neither of them have heard from her since, although she continues to support them financially, so they’re not making a fuss, on the contrary they are keeping a very low profile. Arthur’s Dad isn’t taking it all very well, so Arthur is parenting himself and almost at his wit’s end when he is drawn towards the old abandoned swimming baths, fenced off and due for demolition. And what he finds there keeps drawing him back repeatedly. If you choose to read the book, you’ll also be intrigued to follow him and find out.

“And that’s why I’m now pushing a shopping trolley, with my dad in it, up the hill and away from the sea front in the twatting rain. Dad’s huffing and puffing, like he’s a fucked-up steam train, and I don’t know why ’cause it’s me breaking my back trying to get the fucker up the hill. The wind’s not helping, the rain’s not helping and mainly I’m wondering what the fuck I was thinking. I mean, like owt can cure my dad. I’ve told him I’m taking him to his doctor’s appointment, he has to have a review every couple of months to see if he’s still ill. Usually the doctor takes one look at him and then, no shit, Sherlock, says that Dad’s unfit for work. Dad never even has to speak, which mainly pisses me off, ’cause I can’t remember the last time I heard him talk. I miss his voice.”

I am happy to know there is a bit of a backlist, that Caroline Smailes has written other novels and though some deal with dark subjects, her writing has an allure and originality that I am keen to explore further.

At the end of the book, the author mentions that the inspiration for this novel started with a place – Victoria Baths in Manchester, opened in 1906 and a proud icon of that city and its people. The council decided to close it in 1993 and a campaign to prevent its closure ‘Friends of Victoria Baths’ became a charitable trust and managed to save and restore the building, a venue all the public can visit today, though it does not look like any swimming takes place there.

Victoria Baths

Victoria Baths

Looking at their website today, I discovered serendipitously that this weekend 13 – 15 September 2013 the pool is open and for the first time in many years, full of water to mark the 10th anniversary since the Victoria Baths won the BBC Restoration Project.  Since then more than £5m has been spent restoring the front of the building, stained glass windows and the roof of the gala pool.

A well-known synchronised swimming group Aquabatix entertained the supportive crowd with a spectacular performance Arthur Braxton would have been proud of! Learn more at www.victoriabaths.org.uk

An Interesting Fact: The pools were divided up for first class males, second class males and females. Men in the first class pool had the pleasure of swimming in the water first before it would be drained into the other two pools.

CIMG4752

The Magic of Water

Note: Thank you The Friday Project, an imprint of Harper Collins for sending me a copy of the book.

Champ Harmonique MP2013

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 (used to) write for a magazine.

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 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!

To imagine what the experience might have felt like and to see the view, here’s a three minute video, captured during the time it was open.

NW, life’s passage via the Kilburn High Road

The back cover of Zadie Smith’s novel NW, recently long-listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013 mentions This Is The Story Of A City, the north-west corner of city, however that’s not how I think of it. London is something else, as is The City of London.

NW is a community, a fluid changing community, one of London’s many pulses; for some it is a stepping stone to the next stage, for others it is home. It has been a thoroughfare into London since the days of the Romans and in more recent times, the resting place for Irish immigrants fleeing their country for one reason or another, sometimes dramatic, sometimes not. And following the Irish are the many other groups who found NW their starting point to a life in London, that city of promise and unending challenge. NW is the same, the faces that pass through it, indicative of the era we are living within.

NWNW the novel is experimental, its structure changes with each section and after starting the second part which focuses on Felix, I realised that the narrative voice was being used as a metaphor for the state of mind of the character, a brave step or a risk on the authors part by commencing with Leah, who thoughts are all over the place and is suffering from that anxiety of a young, married woman with a successful career and a husband who loves her, who doesn’t understand why she is not content, or why she can’t admit that she isn’t ready to start a family.

So we start with the staccato stream of conscious thoughts of a woman who would benefit from therapy and/or meditation to still that rampant inner chatter, planting the reader in the midst of prose that is challenging for some and uneasy for those listening to the audio version. Not when chapter 7 is shaped like a tree, though that is one of the least challenging pages, one of beauty in fact.

But once we get to Felix’s section, things calm down, Felix’s major life troubles are behind him, the reading is easy and the pace picks up.  Although he’s not entirely immune to temptation, he seems to have moved on from his more despondent days, he’s been clean for 2 years and plans to stay that way. To me, he is the only character who shows real signs of moving on, however he has not moved out of NW,  his mistake perhaps is in staying and trying to convert those around him.

The other female character Keisha, changes her name to Natalie when she becomes a lawyer, an attempt to outgrow her past; she marries and has two children. She and Leah have been friends since their school days and their connection provides the one strong thread throughout the novel. Natalie, like Leah has risen above her past, but can’t seem to resist undermining it, with her strange behaviour, in what was for me, one of the least believable parts of the novel, in part because the author keeps us from knowing exactly what Natalie is up to online and offline, before she gets caught and flips out. I was hoping she might be more influenced by the role model of  Theodora Lewis-Lane, who tries to advise her.

“The first lesson is: turn yourself down. One notch. Two. Because this is not neutral.”  She passed a hand over her neat frame from her head to her lap, like a scanner. “This is never neutral.”

NW6For me personally, it was in part a nostalgic read, Zadie Smith’s writing comes alive when she evokes place and it is a neighbourhood I lived in and around for many years, NW is the most complete and yet complex character of all, embracing so much diversity, inviting everyone in without prejudice and yet claiming some in the harshest terms possible. There are as many reasons to hate it as there are to love it and anyone who has lived there will likely never forget it.

NW is a melancholic novel about four characters trying to escape their past and leaves the reader with few signs of hope for the future, or at least that future is left for us to imagine. Those who focus on the uniqueness of the writing or who have some experience of /interest in these communities may enjoy it, while those looking for the traditional transformation of character, or any kind of escape may be disappointed.

Despondency is the norm and we will not be rescued from it, it merely lessens with time if we survive.