Is it time for a holiday yet? As I finally allow myself my one and only week of holiday this year (which will in fact mean finally finishing the first draft of my WIP), here are some wonderful places where you might want to escape, all available for rent.
Agnes Ravatn: The Bird Tribunal (transl. Rosie Hedger)
A book so ice-cold and chilly, that you will have to stop reading and put on an extra jumper! A sense of growing menace and discomfort on every page, yet it achieves all that without any hardcore violence or shocking language. It is so civilised, so discreet, barely a few ripples on a very calm fjord, belying the treacherous waters below.
It is also an extremely claustrophobic read. Yes, most of the action takes place outdoors, in a rather beautiful natural setting, but this is nature at its most sinister. The violet mountains of the fjord seem to close in on the remote, run-down property where Allis works as a housekeeper/gardener/cook for the mysterious Sigurd Bagge. The garden is ‘a grey winter tragedy of dead shrubbery, sodden straw and tangled rose thickets.’ There is an infestation of mice, but the traps she sets catch nothing but birds. Robins crash against the window panes, there are locked doors of Bluebeard memory and remnants of burnt objects in the woods. Even the full moon is not romantic, but tainted by a lunar eclipse. Yet Allis chooses to ignore the threats, most of the time, focusing instead on the gentle lapping of the water, the balmy summer evenings, sharing an occasional bottle of wine with her employer.
The claustrophobia is heightened by the fact that there are only two characters circling each other, swooping in and out, like rapacious birds. Their actions are strange and unpredictable. Bit by bit, we eke out pieces of Allis’ story, how she is trying to escape from the notoriety which surrounded an affair she was embroiled in. Her desire to go underground and hide, her instant attraction to the Heathcliff-like moodiness of her employer, her curiosity about his missing wife and her utter revulsion at the nasty gossip hinted at by the local shopkeeper all show her to be a less than reliable narrator. We also find out more about Sigurd, but only from their conversations; we are never in his head. The dream-like atmosphere is further emphasised through their storytelling. Allis tells Sigurd about Norse myths, especially the story of Balder, god of patience and forgiving, and how mischief-maker Loki seeks to destroy him. Meanwhile, Sigurd talks about a bird tribunal, something that seems half-imagined, half-real.
The way this book builds up tension, the currents of feeling rippling below the surface, reminded me of two other Scandinavian novels: Therese Bohman’s Drowned and Tove Jansson’s The True Deceiver. This is calm, collected prose, where you need to allow every word to sink in, so precise and exquisite in its English incarnation (and probably in its Norwegian original). Or perhaps it’s poetry…
Another winner from Orenda Books, proving they have books for all tastes and all seasons.
Restless seeking to find stability, worthless seeking to fill sense of self, call it evasion, elopement or ostrich flight syndrome… the book buying spree is ongoing. But all of the books I bought below come from personal recommendations, mainly via social media.
After posting a review about Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, dear blogger friend Susan Osborne recommended Kathleen Jamie’s nature essays, while Dorothy Nimmo and Steve Erickson were mentioned with some admiration on Twitter. Dorothy Nimmo apparently spent the 1960s as a ‘trailing spouse’ in Geneva, and her intriguingly succinct bio says: ‘DN was an actress for ten years, a wife-and-mother for 25. In 1980 she started to write; in 1989 she ran away from home.’
My Canadian friend and fellow book fanatic Sylvie sent me the small volume Lire la rue, marcher le poème (Read the street, walk the poem), a series of short essays and ‘provocations’, workshop notes and samples of written work to inspire teachers to use poetry in the classroom. Meanwhile, the indefatigable Daniela Petracco of Europa Editions has sent me the proof copy of Saleem Haddad’s moving novel about growing up queer in an Arab country.
This one has a more complicated lead-in. When Sarah Savitt (then working at Faber) visited the Geneva Writers’ Group in 2015 and gave me some feedback on my WIP, she was very excited about a book which she was about to launch, Kate Hamer’s The Girl in the Red Coat. I was initially somewhat sceptical, having overdosed on books with ‘girls’ in their title, but when I read it, I thought there was a very different and unique voice at work there. Nearly two years later, my novel is nowhere near completion (sorry, Sarah!), but Kate Hamer has written a second one, which will be released in February 2017. When Sophie Portas from Faber asked who wanted an advance copy, I knew I had to request it, especially since it appears to once again feature a young girl’s view on life.
Speaking of which, today is the fifth International Day of the Girl, so here’s to all the wonderful creatures and future generations of women out there! May your way be much smoother than the previous generations’. Here’s a poem by Phoebe Stuckes written just for you.
Let us build bonfires of those unanswered prayers.
Let us learn how to leave with clean and empty hearts
Let us escape these attics still mad, still drunk, still raving
Let us vacate these badly lit odd little towns
Let us want none of what anchored our mothers
Let us never evolve to be good or beautiful
Let us spit and snarl and rattle the hatches
Let us never be conquered
Let us no longer keep keys in our knuckles
Let us run into the streets hungry, fervent, ablaze.
Are a mighty thing
A captive animal, woken with a taste for blood.
You Amazon, you Gloria, you Swiss army knife of a woman.
In case you think it’s all doom, gloom and complaints in my life at the moment, there are the occasional perfect autumn days to rejoice every little cockle and mussel of my heart. There are few things more beautiful than an English garden, but perhaps one with artworks to discover and a son with a map determined to see every single one of them (and exclaim at the prices) is the best garden of all!
Savill Garden is an enclosed, well-tended part of Windsor Great Park, but not that easy to find even with a GPS. It’s considered one of the finest ornamental gardens in England, is part of the Crown Estate, and until 31st October it hosts an exhibition of 61 sculptures.
No, I clean no other toilets than my own. I only stand on my feet all day on the days when I deliver training courses and run through airports to catch my flight. I don’t usually get my bottom pinched by drunk customers, though the occasional leery look down my shirt is par for the course. I may be up all night because of jet lag or because I suddenly have to change my course at the last minute, but I don’t have to do night shifts. So I make no claims to be working as hard as the average single mother on a minimum wage job.
I also know how to count my blessings. The children are older and can do many things for themselves. I get paid reasonably well when I do work, even though the gaps between those moments are sometimes too long. Yet the precariousness of this freelance existence is brought home to me every time I fall ill or have a less than stellar experience of business travel. Let me give you an example:
I have a contract for a piece of work which pays the fixed sum of 500 euros for a day of classroom training plus a follow-up virtual session of half a day. Sounds quite good, right? Luckily, in this case, the sum was fixed in euros rather than pounds, so I am going to see a bit more £££ for my effort: 450 at the current exchange rate (which may change by the time I am paid, usually a month or two after the event).
However, that rate does not take into account the following:
1 two-hour meeting with the client, 3 one-hour teleconferences, numerous emails and many hours of course design – all unpaid – I estimate about another 3-4 days of work at least.
While some of my travel expenses are paid for, it does not include compensation for the cancelled flight and airport parking from the previous week, when I was too ill to attend the initial course, so I am out-of-pocket to the tune of about £100.
For 7 1/2 hours of training, I spent 15 hours travelling, contending with flight delays and massive queues at airports. Bear in mind, this was in Europe and for a relatively short flight, but I occasionally have courses in Asia and the US.
Luckily, I have supportive friends who looked after the children while I was away and another friend in Geneva who housed me overnight, but if I’d had to pay for all that, the course money would probably not have covered my expenses.
I’ve never been able to eat on the days when I deliver workshops, plus, as I age, I discover my body is less and less able to cope with the strain, the strange sleep patterns, the jet lag, the negative feedback. I usually end up with a migraine during or after such events, and am prostrate for a couple of days afterwards.
I don’t even get much satisfaction out of it, as quite often I cannot structure the course whichever way I please (despite the many hours of discussions and design efforts, I am only the lowly trainer-deliverer), so I’m often between a rock and a hard place when expectations are not met, the client is dissatisfied and the training provider goes on the defensive.
This is, to all intents and purposes, a zero hours contract: I have no idea when my services will be next required. I get sudden requests for help at short notice that I have to turn down because of the difficulty of making childcare arrangements. Flexibility may be wonderful during the children’s holidays, when I can be mostly at home with them (albeit often preparing materials or doing teleconferences). Not so wonderful however, when you have no income for 1-2 months at a time, then only a dribble the third month. Also, I have no proper pension or other form of security, no insurance, no security of any kind.
This is the kind of job that single people or those without children excel at. Or else those whose families are extremely supportive (or who have a Teflon nanny whom they pay in gold nuggets). Even so, I have friends who have whittled their savings account to zero during lean years (and counted themselves lucky that they did not have children to support).
By this point, that nasty, suspicious little noisy wren is turning somersaults and screeching in my ear: ‘Is it worth it? Can’t you do anything else?’ But of course I’m told everywhere that it’s too late to change career to something more bookish, that I’m over-qualified for a more administrative role, and over-specialised to do a more senior generalist position. While any other in-house training role will require just as much travel.
So forgive me this fest of self-pity. I’m actually trying to highlight a plight for many single mothers out there, regardless of what level of income they are at. Both single and ‘coupled’ mothers in many households I know have been doing the work of both parents anyway, organising complicated childcare arrangements for the times when they travel (plus handling all the laundry, housekeeping, school meetings, medical appointments and homework upon their return home), but (unlike me hitherto) there often isn’t even a reluctant someone there who could, if pushed and nagged and reminded daily, take the kids earlier one day for a school trip and maybe even remember to pack their passports or lunches.
Yet the corporate world has nothing but disdain and impatience for this ‘lack of focus’ and punishes women’s careers accordingly. The divorce courts allow more compensation for wives of millionaires who haven’t worked a day of their lives, rather than the very real loss of earnings of working women who have tried to find a balance and do the best for the sake of the family.
After all, nobody asked them for this sacrifice, right?