Just over a month ago I took part in a meeting with agents and editors organised by the Geneva Writers’ Group. We had to submit the 15 first pages of our completed novel and a synopsis for individual consultations. I had been sick and tired of Novel No. 1 for months by now and was raring to get going on Novel No. 2, but I dutifully sent out No. 1. But I had somehow never quite cottoned on to what a synopsis is supposed to be: a chronological description of everything that happens in the book, including giving away the ending. So, instead, what I sent was this:
‘Beyond the Woods’ by Marina Sofia
‘You think Eastern Europe is still part of Europe… but it’s an entirely different world. None of your rules or your notions of right and wrong apply here.’
Matt Johnson is content with his life: he has a promising scientific career ahead of him in London and a glamorous Romanian girlfriend, Cristina, whom he intends to marry as soon as she secures a divorce from her estranged husband back home. But suddenly his world collapses. On her trip home to see her parents, Cristina has a fatal car crash. Her friend, Eli, doesn’t believe it was an accident – she suspects that Cristina’s husband, Luca, now a rising star in Romanian politics, killed her. Matt is disinclined to believe conspiracy theories, but agrees to join Eli in Bucharest and figure out what happened.
As the mismatched pair trace Cristina’s last steps and conversations, Matt finds out things about his girlfriend’s past that he hadn’t known or wanted to believe before. Enlisting the help of a sympathetic local policeman, Matt and Eli begin a game of cat and mouse with Luca, who thwarts their efforts to find proof at every turn.
This is not just a simple whodunit. 1990s Romania is a society on the brink of collapse after the fall of Communism, where uncertainty is rife and no one seems able or willing to give straight answers in a murder investigation. How can you ever hope to uncover the truth or punish the perpetrators in such a place?
The comments I received were that it sounds like a good hook, but it’s not technically a synopsis. However, I now feel free to share it with you, because I have moved on to Novel No. 2 for the foreseeable future. How does it strike you? Would you want to read more? And what has your experience been with synopses?
Forgive me, readers, for I have sinned… against my TBR pile. I had plenty of good reads waiting for me there. I had plenty of reviews begging to be written. But then I went to the library and saw this book just freshly in:
I remembered the intriguing review of this book that I read over on Caroline’s blog, so I couldn’t resist. I brought it home on Wednesday, started it that very evening, had to lay it aside during the day on Thursday but woke up early this morning to finish it. And I don’t regret it gate crashing my party at all! But it’s going to be quite a lengthy review, so be brave! It got me so busy analysing it from all angles.
It’s the kind of novel where nothing much happens: essentially, it’s about a mother and a daughter alone in a house in a snowstorm. Yet the suspense is so cleverly built up, so well handled, that you find yourself unable to let go. It will haunt you even after you put it down. It’s a bit like a well-made horror film (although there is really no overt horror here, it’s all in the mind – of the protagonists and of the reader). The chill factor is cranked up and, just as you think you can handle it no more, or that it’s nearing an explosion, things revert back to normality. Or a semblance of normality. You start to question everything, because you begin to realise that the narrator, poet and mother Holly Judge, may not be your most reliable witness or interpreter of events.
Yet it’s not really a novel to be rushed through. I will probably go back and read it again to really savour the language and the nuances. Every interaction and each sentence seems to be loaded with additional meaning. The author is a poet as well as a novelist, and you can feel her loving attention to details and to the unsayable.
There is so much tension between teenage daughters and their mothers, perhaps even more so when it’s an adopted child. I’ve sometimes stared at my own (biological) children and wondered what strange changelings have taken their place in the cradle. It gets even worse during the adolescent years, hence all the stories of teenage vampires and possessions by poltergeists. Yet the book stays well clear of that, although the reader will always bear that in mind as a possibility.
Holly seems besotted with the beautiful girl they adopted from a Siberian orphanage, but there are hints that all is not well, that there are some resentments, some apportioning of blame. Strange incidents have dogged their lives ever since they came back from Russia. Even though she is quick to say:
Not Baby Tatty!… Not Tatty the Beauty. Gorgeous Russian dancer, howler monkey, sweetheart, wanderer, love of their lives. Not Tatiana.
It does seem like the lady protests too much… After all, what person who has a way with words would call their daughter ‘Tatty’? There are many baffling aspects here, many unanswered questions and gaps. For instance, I would like to find out more about the husband Eric, who is conveniently absent for almost all of the book. He never really comes alive in his own right – we perceive him merely as a reflection of Holly’s own obsessions and needs. There is a hint at some point when she reaches his voicemail and hears something unexpected that she suspects him of being unfaithful. There are a few indications that he does not fully understand his wife nor agree with her:
‘Just sit down and write,’ her husband would say, but Eric would never be able to understand this frustration, her frustration, the clear sense Holly had that there was a secret poem at the center of her brain, and that she’d been born with it, and that she would never, ever, in this life, be able to exhume it, so that to sit down and write was torture. It was to sit down with a collar around her neck growing tighter and tighter the longer she sat.
There are many external circumstances to explain Holly’s anxieties: the early deaths of her mother and her siblings, the genetic flaw which has made her opt for exhaustive surgery and rendered her infertile, the fraught process of adoption from Russia, her writer’s block (which has lasted more than a decade). Although she has made it a tradition to celebrate Christmas at her house, preparing for a large gathering of family and friends, she is also resentful of the fact that she is expected to cater for everyone’s needs. She feels desperately lonely when they all cancel on her because of the blizzard, but at the same time there is a secret sense of relief. Yet the many repetitions (which may annoy some readers, but which come with a subtly different interpretation of events each time) show a mind that is stretched too tight.
It seems to me that what Holly craves is perfection: the perfectly healthy body, the perfect family, the beautiful unblemished child, the idyllic lifestyle complete with chicken and roses… and to be the great poet she had thought she would become. Anything that doesn’t quite live up to the ideal is frowned over, worried over or else deliberately avoided. Holly is very good at self-deceit, at looking away when things become too painful. There is a passage in the book expressing her delight with having learnt in her counselling sessions to suppress her feelings by snapping a rubber band whenever she feels overwhelmed. This is understandable self-preservation, since poets tend to feel everything far too acutely. As Sylvia Plath put it:
My head a moon
Of Japanese paper, my gold beaten skin
Infinitely delicate and infinitely expensive.
Ultimately, it’s Sylvia Plath who comes to mind when reading this book, although the title itself is taken from a rather chilling Wallace Stevens poem. The opening line of Plath’s ‘Munich Mannequins’ is quoted here and makes for a fascinating, possibly creepy contrast to what I said above about the obsession with perfection:
Perfection is terrible, it cannot have children.
Perhaps because the word ‘perfect’ also occurs in the opening line of Plath’s last poem, I rather anticipated the ending of the book, although there were some additional twists which caught me by surprise. However, this is not a book to be read for its suspense alone (although you may find yourself rushing through it as I did) – it’s a book that can be interpreted and appreciated on many different levels.
Oh, and I’ll be watching out for more of Kasischke’s novels and poetry collections!
Warning: this post is incredibly loud and extremely personal. Viewers of a more generalist or nervous disposition should skip ahead to the next book review.
I heard that, with small exceptions, the Oscars ceremony on Sunday night was overly long and dull. I was never planning to watch it and was only mildly interested in the winners. [I have only seen 2-3 of the films across all nominated categories, most of them on airplanes, such is my social life]. But I struggled downstairs with a terrible migraine, so got to see live reactions on Twitter to the music, the surprise awards, the speeches.
Ah, the speeches! Some of them were political, rebellious, personal, memorable… good for them. Typical acceptance speeches, of course, are all about gratitude, acknowledgement and thanks to collaborators and supporters. ‘I thank my parents, my spouse, my children, my dog…’
What to do, however, if those nearest and dearest are not at all supportive? I’ve written about it before. I’ve written a poem about it from the point of view of the supportive (and hitherto neglected) spouse. I’m not going to repeat myself. I don’t want to whine. I’ll just share with you a collection of anecdotes. Some of them are personal, some of them have been told to me by others. I suspect there is a glint of universality in most of them.
I really, really want to become a writer. All my teachers tell me I have talent. — What a waste of your intellectual capacities! You could do so many other things. Do that as a hobby, once you have got a good job under your belt, such as medicine or economics.
I did get to study what I was passionate about: languages and then anthropology. I even briefly got to work as an academic, but … it’s not like social sciences are real sciences, right? Surely an academic job in real science takes precedence. Why don’t you find a nice portable job, that you can take with you wherever you have to go to follow your husband?
This consultancy job is taking off, and you may be paid three times as much as your spouse, but it’s not really conducive to family life, is it? If you want to raise happy children, shouldn’t you find something more part-time, more flexible, even if it’s lower paid?
Oh, come off it, being a trailing spouse isn’t that bad, is it? So you had to quit your job, but just look at your lifestyle in what is considered one of the most livable cities in the world! You can meet your lady friends for coffee and lunch, you can go to the gym, or, better still, explore the lovely nature surrounding you. You’ve got time on your hands, such a luxury! Lonely – psha! You can Skype your friends and family anytime. Anyone would envy you!
What do you mean, you want to start your own business? But who is going to handle all the organisational things this family needs? After all, you’re the only one who can speak the language…
What do you mean, you want to cut back on your work to focus on your writing? Writing will never pay the bills. If you’re not the next J K Rowling, you might as well not bother. Focus on your real job – just don’t travel so much with it. I can’t handle the kids all day – there’s very little time to do anything while they are in school.
OK, sure, honey, I’m supportive. When are you going to finish that book? Why are you wasting time on poetry? What have you been doing all day, why are you so tired? When are you going to get your book contract? Why should I go to the parents’ evening instead of you, so you can write – haven’t you had enough time during the day?
This past weekend I had good news. After years of unseen labour and cold showers, I had very positive and personalised feedback about my writing from editors and agents at a conference organised by the Geneva Writers’ Group. They encouraged me to keep going, to finish my second novel as quickly as possible and to send it to them. Yes, I know there’s a long, hard road still ahead of me, that there are no guarantees. But it’s that first step, and so much better than I had ever allowed myself to hope for.
I come home in a disbelieving, golden haze, basking in their warm words. I open the door very nearly breathless, eager to celebrate with my loved ones, bring out the bugles, roll out the red carpet, open the champagne. Instead, I don’t even get the question: ‘So, how did it go?’
I’m realistic about the attention span and degree of empathy of little boys. In my exuberance, I pour out my joy regardless… but soon get bogged down in dinner questions, homework completed, cooking, setting the table and preparing schoolbags for the first day back after the holidays. I get to hear about levels completed on Super Mario Galaxy during my absence, while the older ‘child’ barely raises his head from his phone to listen to my anecdotes about the day. I expect to be brought down to earth by family commitments and daily life – but not necessarily a ball and chain weighing me down just as I am soaring.
Finally, at supper, I open a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé that I’ve been keeping for special occasions and say, ‘Here’s to me!’ as we clinked our glasses.
‘Oh,’ replies my supportive spouse, ‘Why you?’
This is whom I’m going to mention in my acceptance speech:
Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation was one of those books that I really expected to like. If I just quote the blurb, you will realise that it sounds exactly like my existentially angsty cup of tea or coffee:
Dept. of Speculation is a portrait of a marriage. It is also a beguiling rumination on the mysteries of intimacy, trust, faith, knowledge, and the condition of universal shipwreck that unites us all.
And it is, indeed, beautifully written in parts, certainly thought-provoking, with glimpses of universal recognition. It’s the story of a nameless woman (initially narrating in the first person, then gradually distancing herself to become ‘she’ or ‘the wife’), who dreams of becoming a great writer, but becomes domesticated, married, a mother instead. Maternal love surprises her with its intensity, the pain of being a betrayed wife is ferocious (yet much more civilised and philosophical than the raw cry of abandonment of Elena Ferrante’s heroine). There is something of the tragicomic musings of Jewish introspection of the early Woody Allen movies – or is that just the New York style? A layer of wit to make the pain more bearable. It is a very personal and often funny story of how, little by little, we get snowed under by life’s demands. We compromise and dead-end. In the end, life is made up of these small everyday emergencies such as bedbugs, soul-destroying jobs that pay the rent, a colicky baby, trying to keep up with the organised mothers at school. At some point, however, we stop to ask ourselves: is this what I really want? How did I end up like this? So, in many ways, this book is an extended description of mid-life crisis
There are whole passages that I want to underline or keep in my quotations folders:
My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.
I would give it up for her, everything, the hours alone, the radiant book, the postage stamp in my likeness, but only if she would consent to lie quietly with me until she is eighteen.
Enough already with the terrible hunted eyes of the married people. Did everyone always look this way but she is just now seeing it?
The wife reads about something called ‘the wayward fog’ on the Internet. The one who has the affair becomes enveloped in it. His old life and wife become unbearably irritating. His possible new life seems a shimmering dream… It is during this period that people burn their houses down. At first the flames are beautiful to see. But later when the fog wears off, they come back to find only ashes. ‘What are you reading about?’ the husband asks her from across the room. ‘Weather,’ she tells him.
And yet… and yet…
Much as I admire the courage to experiment in literary fiction (and wish publishers would allow more of these books to reach us readers), I do wonder if a daisy chain or even a string of pearls makes for a satisfying book. I’m probably being too severe here, but, even though there is a narrative arc here, the apparent random clustering of one idea after another just feels slightly lazy to me.
Have you read this book? And what did you make of its style?
No matter how horribilis an annus horribilis is, there is always a mirabilis aspect to it as well. Translation: no year is so bad that it doesn’t have its golden moments. Readers of one of my more self-pitying previous posts will know that 2014 was not that great for me. But what are some of the things that I will remember with pleasure?
1) Reading: quantity and quality. 189 books, roughly 56200 pages, exploring new horizons, huge diversity in terms of languages, themes and genres. 14 of those got 5 star reads on my Goodreads ticker tape (mostly poetry and non-fiction, oddly enough). Only 1 got one star (Katherine Pancol, in case you’re wondering. Not that my modest opinion will affect her outstanding sales figures!). And although quite a large chunk of the books I read were published after 2000, there was quite a good spread of decades, going back to 1908. I’m not sure how they count the classics published before the 20th century!
2) Poetry: I’ve not only started reading more poetry this year in printed format (full collections rather than the odd poem here and there online), but I’ve also completed a poetry course via Fish Publishing, from which I learnt so much (even if it has temporarily paralysed me a little with self-censorship). I’ve also been much braver about submitting poetry, even if it has tailed off in the last few months of the year. I submitted to 17 literary journals and anthologies (multiple poems in each submission, I hasten to add) and have had a total of 9 poems published. (I’m still awaiting a couple of responses.) One of my poems was also longlisted for a poetry prize, which was an additional boost to morale.
3) Community: It may seem sad, but the online community of writers, readers and bloggers has become more real to me than the people who physically surround me. Call it expat isolation, arrogance or depression, but I choose to put a more positive spin on it. It’s easier to establish common ground and become friends with people who share your passions, even if they are scattered all over the globe, rather than try to pretend common passions with the people with whom you just happen to be living in close proximity. As a global nomad, I’ve become used to the fact that most of my best friends are an email or telephone call away in another country, rather than within easy visiting distance. It simply makes the times we spend together even more precious!
Having said all of the above, I should add that the Geneva Writers’ Group has been a wonderful ‘real’ community of people passionate about literature. Even if I haven’t been able to attend all of their workshops, it is a wonderfully diverse, supportive and inspiring group of people.
4) My Cat: This year in February, a cat finally came into my life, after about 4 decades of hoping and wishing for one. I say ‘my’ because she is most certainly ‘my girl’, rather than the family cat. She ignores my husband, tolerates my sons and even sometimes plays with them… and adores me. She follows me around everywhere, and is happiest when she is cuddling up to me, kneading the blanket and sucking onto it – I must remind her of her mother. She may be a bit of a wuss when it comes to other cats and dogs in the neighbourhood, but she’s a good climber and outdoorsy type. She is the most gentle, affectionate, obedient cat you can imagine. She has taught me so much about patience, unconditional love, quiet support (with a purr and a rub) and just generally being calm and relaxed.
5) My Boys: Well, you didn’t think I was going to forget about them, did you? They’ve been one of the greatest sources of stress and anxiety this year, but also one of the biggest joys. Intelligent, opinionated, argumentative, droll and completely unsentimental, they make me laugh and cry many, many times… each day! I just hope I won’t mess them up too much on their way to adulthood.
Hope you’ve all found plenty of positives in your year, and here’s to wishing you all a very good 2015! Thank you very much for your wonderful company and see you in the New Year.
especially if they die of tuberculosis or worse or alone.
But garrets are passé, starving is forever,
and audiences matter.
As long as you don’t let it show.
Unnecessary, it seems to me,
your sighing, your plaintive distress.
We know, we’ve been there, no need to tarry.
Mere hint and then whisk over.
Sunlight lingering on a teardrop
Is more effective by far than a November soaking.
Madam, if I may… tell you that you whinge
and use a hundred words
where a spatter of six will do.
Your ears so waxed with self-pity and doubts,
your voice so coarsened by years of neglect,
that you forget to listen and render with fidelity,
you lose the joy of using a microscope.
Cut smaller still your canvas,
till you can stitch it to perfection.
Be precious, not so greedy to spit out the half-digested…
Polish your gemstones for years.
Mock, but with purpose,
yourself before all others.
And then perhaps some decades hence
you’ll learn to make it look
Perhaps not quite the right response to the prompt about winning and losing for dVerse Poets, but I am having an internal dialogue with my writing hero, Caragiale, Romanian playwright, journalist and short story writer. Every word perfectly chosen and placed. Unlike my gushing, spouting self. I know I will be a winner when I finally learn to control the rawness and shape the internal world more gracefully.
As writers, we may be able to write in a bustling café, on a crowded kitchen table, in a cave with poor lighting, even in the shower with the right tools . But if we did have an artists’ studio, with perfect lighting, wouldn’t we be able to write even better?
Bonus point: all those paintings/illustrations/pictures are really inspiring! But perhaps, after a while, you just get so used to them hanging around on your walls that you no longer see them. Over at dVerse Poets, Björn has us re-examining the familiar, disassociating ourselves from it, so that we can see it with fresh eyes once more. I’ve chosen the third of Tolstoy’s techniques – use of dialect or a foreign language – to create this sense of ‘strangeness’.
Tablouri, desene, întinse pe jos,
pe pereţi, o dezordine în care nu găseşti
şi nu gândeşti
Bitte schwätz langsamer…
(Just playing around in Romanian, Japanese and Swiss German. Translation is roughly: Paintings, sketches, scattered on floors, on the walls, a mess in which you can find and think nothing but inspiration. What? Really? Please talk more slowly…)