A Conversation With Kirsty Capes

Kirsty Capes is an author based in London. Her fiction and poetry has been published in Rising, Roulade, Token, Thrice Fiction and Mslexia. She was a Penguin Random House WriteNow mentee and a HW Fisher scholar at Curtis Brown Creative. She is currently finishing her PhD in care-experienced fiction at Brunel University London. Her debut novel Careless will be published by Orion Fiction in 2021.

26-YEAR-OLD KIRSTY CAPES’ ‘VISCERAL, SHARP AND ACHINGLY FUNNY’ DEBUT BECOMES MURSELL’S FIRST ACQUISITION FOR ORION

Charlotte Mursell, Editorial Director at Orion Fiction, has made her first acquisition for the company with debut novel Careless by Kirsty Capes. The two-book deal for World Rights was made with Anwen Hooson at Bird Literary Agency.

An upmarket, timely, feminist story and a hyper-realistic account of the UK care system, Careless is a raw and big-hearted celebration of female friendship and enduring hope against all the odds. The book cuts through class, race, privilege and prejudice to shine a light on the realities of the care system, as well as a woman’s rights over her own body. ‘A coming-of-age story like no other’, the novel follows Bess, who is in foster care and pregnant at fifteen, and her friend Eshal, who is trying to break free of an impending arranged marriage, during a hot, oppressive summer in 1999.

‘Every so often you read a book that knocks you sideways and changes the way you look at the world forever – and this is it. Careless wrapped me in its sticky, gritty clutches from the very first page and never let me go. Visceral, sharp and achingly funny, it’s like nothing I’ve ever read before. Kirsty is a phenomenal talent, I’m beyond thrilled that she has chosen Orion Fiction as her publisher and that we can share her story with readers around the world.’ – Charlotte Mursell

Careless by Kirsty Capes will be published in hardback in May 2021.

It is an absolute pleasure to welcome Kirsty to the blog. I’d like to thank Kirsty for writing about her forthcoming novel Careless – brilliant title – which I am sure will be a fantastic contribution to care experienced literature.

  • Tell us of your journey as a writer.

I have always wanted to write but didn’t start taking it seriously until I started university. While studying my BA and my MA in Creative Writing I had some poems and short stories published in literary magazines. I started working on my novel during my PhD and this has been the writing project that has dominated my life for the past few years, although I still occasionally publish short stories. My debut novel is titled Careless and will be published in Spring 2021.

  • What made you choose to write about care experience?

As a care-experienced person I became frustrated at the lack of good representation of people in care in fiction. When we think of a foster child in fiction the first person to come to mind for most of us is Tracy Beaker, who is portrayed as difficult, a problem child and pre-determined to fail. There have been lots more nuanced representations in recent years, such as Holly in Solace of the Road, Anais in The Panopticon and Leon in My Name is Leon. But overwhelmingly care kids in fiction are represented as pre-determined to fail. They are also often written by people who don’t have care experience themselves. I wanted my novel to not only give an ‘insider’s perspective’ what it’s like growing up in care; I also wanted to offer a more positive, more hopeful, more aspirational narrative for care-experienced readers – and to show non-CEPs that we’re not all doomed to fail.

  • Do you have any personal experience with the care system, fostering, children’s homes etc?

Yes I was in residential foster care and then supported lodgings from the age of 2 to 21.

  • Orphans, those in foster care or children’s homes, often feel they are stereotyped by their past. How aware of this were you whilst writing your novel?

I agree that the narrative of care-experienced children is a hugely negative one and has a seriously detrimental impact on wider cultural discourse about the care experience. It was something I was hyper-sensitive to while writing and something I try to actively disrupt with my care-experienced narrative in Careless.

  • What is the meaning of the title?

My care-experienced protagonist Bess falls pregnant at 15, while still in the care system. The word ‘careless’ is a word so very often levelled at young girls who fall pregnant. The word is a nod to that, but also plays on Bess’s care experience, and invokes questions of the nature of care and how ‘caring’ the care system really is.

  • What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

I’m currently finishing my PhD and still editing Careless ahead of its publication, but I will soon be starting work on my second novel.

  • What #diverse characters do you think are missing from literature?

I think there needs to be more representation of marginalised groups across the board: publishing tends to centre the white, cis, straight, middle class experience and this needs to change. I do think – in the current moment – we are in danger of falling into the ‘diversity tick-box’ trap. One so-called ‘diverse’ book on a list does not equal representation. The way we talk about ‘diversity’ in books and publishing still has a long way to go.

  • If you could recommend one book for your readers, what would it be?

For a powerful portrayal of care-experienced girls that is honest and hopeful, I would suggest The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan.

  • Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why?

I loved Lyra from the His Dark Materials series (also a care-experienced character HAH!) I find it interesting that Pullman chooses not to centre the biological nuclear family unit (as children’s literature often does), and instead unpicks it to expose its many flaws, and allows his young heroine to choose her own family. This is something I’m sure many CEPs can relate to (I certainly do!)

  • What one piece of advice would you give young people leaving the care system today?

Try and build strong support networks wherever you can; don’t be afraid to ask for help; don’t ever think you don’t deserve something, or that you shouldn’t aspire to the things that will make you happy. Remember your experience is unique and valid and there is power in that. Remember you are the only person who can tell your story.

Follow Kirsty on Twitter: @kirstycapes

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A Conversation With Paolo Hewitt

Paolo Hewitt spent eight years in care. He is author of over 20 books including Colour me Father: An Open Letter To My Sona worthy companion to his classic memoirs But We All Shine On and The Looked After Kid. A prolific writer including The Fashion of Football and biographies on Oasis, Paul Weller and The Jam as well as the re-released and updated Bowie: Album by Album is the ultimate celebration of Bowie’s entire career culminating in the critically acclaimed Blackstar.

Colour me Father: An Open Letter To My Son is Hewitt’s tribute to his son Rafi. On August 21st 2015 at 10.30 pm in an Archway hospital, Paolo’s son Rafi Supino Arif was born. As Rafi started to grow, one thought kept repeating itself in Paolo’s mind. Would he write about him or the experience of raising a son? The answer was always no. He goes on to describe how the book grew:

There was no handle for me to grab onto so I put it to one side. Until his first birthday. It was there that Rafi first heard applause and the look on his face hit something inside of me. Within a week I had begun writing Colour me Father. Actually, to be truthful I had started writing a book called On the Dawn of Your First Smile, which I loved as a title but which in those Google days of ours would not work. I fell upon Colour Me Father, passed it by some friends and got the thumbs up.

After I had written about his birthday I then found myself writing about dreams and pigeons and Sister Patricia (May God rest her soul) and fatherhood and Wood Green and Robert De Niro, and it became apparent to me that I should let the words flow, just write what came to mind.

I also saw that I was fulfilling a lifetime mission – that of paying homage, in my very very limited way, to a piece of literature that ranks as one of the finest in my mind – Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis. This is a letter that Oscar wrote to his boyfriend whilst serving his last year in Reading Gaol. (In the first year of his imprisonment the authorities refuse d to allow him to write and I think that one of the cruellest punishments ever heaped upon an artist.)

During the writing of Colour I only read De Profundis. I would start it finish it, start again. My thinking was that if just one per cent of its quality rubbed off on my work, then I would stand a chance of producing something very worthwhile.

My writing process was quite simple. In the morning when walking Rafi to a nursery session, I would plot out the book in my mind. I would then put those idea into a small Dictaphone that I carry with me . Back home, I would write out those ideas and then on Saturdays I would head for the British Library where I would spend all day writing.

Sundays I would rest, Mondays the process would start again.

One Saturday I was in the British Library and had just finished a passage when the thought forcefully occurred, that’s it, you are done, you are finished. Create an ending and then exit. You have said all you need to say. And as I advise Rafi in the book, in life always follow the heart not the head.

That is what I did. I obeyed the thought my heart sent me.

The book is short compared to others but it stops where it needs to stop. To carry on would have diluted its strength.

I think it my best work to date. I hope you do as well.

Credit: Pellicano Menswear

It’s an absolute honour to welcome Paolo to the blog. Colour Me Father, is a beautifully written book which will take your emotions on a stunning journey as well as illustrate the amazing power of love.

Tell us of your journey as a writer.

Got the call at age 14. Read NME and the lightbulb went on. This is what I want to do. Everything went into the pursuit. Told my English teacher at age 15 of my plan. Was laughed at. At age 19 knew that I would have to leave Woking and get to London. Enrolled at North London Poly. First stop, signing up to College Paper to be a music critic. Second important step – the walk to Camden Tube station every Tuesday lunchtime to buy the NME.  One week sold out so bought Melody Maker – can’t get heroin get methadone was the thinking. Opened up paper to see advert for young workers. Sent off pieces written for college paper Tuesday afternoon. In editor’s office Friday evening. Staff writer within a year. Obsession drove me.

What made you choose to write about care experience?

I always knew that at some point I would but I also knew I would have to wait until I was ready to do so. Which meant not starting the book until I was forty years old. I wrote it for two specific reasons. A) I wanted kids in care to have a book that tried to sum up the experience and had the potential to inspire them- especially if they themselves had leanings towards the written word. And 2) I wanted to make as much money as possible and live my life exactly how I wanted to.

Do you have any personal experience with the care system, fostering, children’s homes etc?

Yes I was in care 1958 – 1961 – and then 1968 to 1976.

Orphans, those in foster care or children’s homes, often feel they are stereotyped by their past. How aware of this were you whilst writing your story?

Not at all. I just wrote my story. The biggest compliments I got for my books on care were Care Experienced adults saying that is exactly how I felt. Often moved me to tears often when I so complimented

What is the meaning of the title?

One day I took a break from writing and read in the paper that the then Prime Minister, the brilliant Gordon Brown, was considering giving looked after kids a thousand pounds when they left care. I had never seen us described as looked after kids. And I thought it very pertinent to my experience in that I was looked after – I was given a roof and three meals a day but emotionally and psychologically I was anything but.

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

Scripts now.

What #diverse characters do you think are missing from literature?

British working class.

If you could recommend one book for your readers, what would it be?

Colour Me Father by Paolo Hewitt.

Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why?

I was always drawn to Oliver Twist but later developed a real fondness for the Artful Dodger. Don’t know what that says!

Follow Paolo on Twitter: @PaoloHewitt1

 

*Colour Me Father, read by Paolo is also available as an audio book.

 

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A Conversation With Ben Westwood

Ben Westwood is a musician, writer, poet, author and campaigner for children’s/human rights. Ben spent his teenage years bouncing between the streets of London and foster placements and children’s homes. Throughout his journey Ben always had a passion for making music and singing he can sometimes be found busking on the streets as well as the odd live performance in a bar or cafe venue.

As well as music and poetry, he always had a keen interest in human rights and community/society welfare which most likely has spawned from his early years living on the streets and seeing both the great love that some people can have for others – and the need for more of it out there.

In 2016 he wrote his childhood story ‘Poems From a Runaway’ and self-published it a year later. Ben now lectures about the issues of homelessness with social workers, safeguarding organisations and missing children’s charities.

Poems from a Runaway. is Ben Westwood’s collection of 60 true-story poems about being a teenager in care and a frequent runaway from the West Midlands.

Follow him on a journey from ten years old, wandering from town to town before eventually at the age of twelve, finding himself in the east end of London with drug addicts and prostitutes. A year later he was to be sleeping rough in London’s West end, meeting celebrities and all sorts of folk. It’s a story with many tragedies, but also comedic moments. Choices that would have only been made with a youngsters thinking and angels along the way. Predators, friends, heart-warming times and dangerous moments. Hustles, wind-ups and the way young people entertain themselves along the way. Some moments in life that some may never had knew existed. A collection of sixty poems of various lengths, leading the reader through the reality of this true-story childhood journey. Not only a great read and an eye-opener for general book and poetry lovers, but also a great resource for foster parents, social workers, mental health support services, homeless services, child advocates and care leavers.

Reading this book was a life changing experience…really opened my eyes about the rough life of the people living on the streets.Amazon Review

It’s a great pleasure to welcome Ben to the blog to learn about the writing of his non-fiction true life account written in poetry.

Tell us your journey as a writer. 

I began writing a book in 2016, which was about my childhood growing up, being in care and living on the streets of London from twelve years old as a missing child runaway.

I’d been thinking of writing a book for a few years, but when I once wrote a poem, which was a memoir from my times living rough in central London, I decided that I’d write a whole book in the same poetry style.

After much work on my book project, I successfully self-published it and promoted it on facebook and twitter, speaking to and meeting heaps of great people doing great things in the process.

What made you choose to write about care experience?

I wanted to shed light on what it was like living in children’s homes and foster care, and try to get the reader the gain more understanding of some of the sometimes overlooked thoughts, feelings and experiences of  young people in care.

Do you have any personal experience with the care system, fostering, childrens homes etc?

Yes. I was fostered for the first time at around ten years old, and went on to live in around a further four foster placements and four children’s homes across Staffordshire.

Orphans, those in foster care or children’s homes, often feel they are stereotyped by their past. How aware of this were you whilst writing your memoir?  

Even though I’ve always felt the sense that people that grew up in care get stereotyped, but it was when promoting the book and networking with other care leavers that I began to explore and understand how much stigma there is towards children in care and care leavers.

What is the meaning of the title?

Poems from a Runaway – Does exactly what it says on the tin.

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading. 

Not so long ago I released two other books. One is a poetry book called ‘Welcome To Leatheton’ which is the first of a poetry series set in the fictional English town of Leatheton, and celebrated working class culture and diversity. The other is called ‘How Not To Fit Up a Squatter – When Stitch Up’s Go Wrong’ and is a short story book based on my real life events of being framed under a misleading charge, but proving that the allegations were ‘bodged’ by producing a voice recording of the event in court, in the end the police got sacked. I wrote the book to give people confidence that justice can prevail if you believe in yourself.

Follow Ben on Twitter: @FractalMoon1

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The Stolen Child by Bernadette McBride

Thoughts on W. B. Yeats’s poem ‘The Stolen Child’ in the context of care experience, and a review of The Stolen Child: WB Yeats and Carl Jung – Relationship, Belonging and Compassion in Caring for Children in Care by Maurice Fenton.

The Changeling, 1905 – Arthur Rackham

I had a coffee cup coaster once, emblazoned with the words “Come away, O human child! To the waters and the wild” – followed by the remaining lines from the first verse of W. B. Yeats’s poem ‘The Stolen Child’. It’s a poem I’ve always felt a deep connection to. The romantic changeling imagery; a child eloping hand in hand with a faery and escaping into a wilderness lit up by “moonlight glosses”. The biggest draw to the poem for me, however, was the line: “For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand” which is repeated several times throughout. In Irish folklore changelings are traditionally understood as faeries who had been left in place of a human child or a baby who had been stolen by the faeries, often for one of three reasons; to act as a servant, for the faeries to receive the love of a human child, or for malice/revenge.[1]

Growing up in the 80s and 90s I was on the child protection register for over a decade and in and out of care on an often-weekly basis. My mother was suffering from chronic alcohol addiction and some days I would simply be left waiting at the school gates. The school secretary, would, after a certain amount of unacceptable time had passed and no one had come to collect me, ring social services to see if there was any emergency foster care available that night. If not, I would be sent to the local children’s home. I was often sent away for longer periods when things reached a crisis point, and in all honesty that was preferable to the not knowing, the instability, the crushing sense of rejection, and pitied looks from other mums at the school gates. I don’t think social services would have handled that situation the same way now, I hope not.

At such a young age, I did not understand the complexities of addiction, and struggled to cope living with such day to day uncertainty, my primary school finished at 3:10pm, a time on the clock which left an indelible mark on my physiology for many years into adulthood, as my body physically recalled the fear I had felt over whether I would be collected or not. Whenever the clock struck ten past three, I would often feel cold and anxious – trauma has its own circadian memory it would seem.

In the playground one day, I was wearing a ponytail, and some other children started pointing and laughing at my ears (they both have a slight point at the tip), and they said that I must be a pixie. I imagined that perhaps I myself was a changeling, separated from my real faery family – it would explain a lot – perhaps my mother had drunk because her human child had been snatched away from her and I had been left in its place. I dreamt about the mythical land I might belong to. At this point I was reading a lot of Enid Blyton as a form of escapism, and The Magic Faraway Treewas one of my favourites. In my head I developed a dream world – my own version of Blyton’s stories, where I was a faery child returned back to my rightful land, and I had a home of my own in an alternative faraway tree, which though faraway was always stable.

For me living within my imagination became a form of survival. Often answering a teacher whilst talking to an imaginary character in my head simultaneously. Today as a writer, even if I’m in an important meeting, I’m usually half in a dream world too, because it is how my brain developed throughout my formative years.

I believe my connection to the poem ‘The Stolen Child’ and my care experience stems from the line “For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand” as I related it to myself in two ways. Firstly, that I had been taken away by social services as I could not “understand” the sorrow, suffering and complexities of my mother’s addiction issues. Secondly, in a more dreamlike vision, I was the child in the poem, saved by the faeries, and taken away from a traumatic life, as quite understandably “the world’s more full of weeping” than I could understand.

Many years later I was doing some research for my self-help book Roots: The Eco-journal (pub. The Green Guild, 2018), when I came across a book by Maurice Fenton entitled The Stolen Child: WB Yeats and Carl Jung – Relationship, Belonging and Compassion in Caring for Children in Care. I was stunned to see a book with the title of Yeats’s poem and children in care on the front page together. I immediately ordered a copy, and he kindly sent me an extra book to give to anyone else who might need it. Maurice, also a care experienced author, had felt a connection between the poem and care experience and made it the basis of his book.

In the dedication page Maurice includes a verse from ‘The Stolen Child’ by W. B. Yeats:

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

On why he chose it, Maurice informs the reader that he is no “great aficionado of poetry” but that he believes the poem resonates with the sense of loss he has experienced for the young people he has known who died whilst still involved in the care system, or after leaving care.[2]Maurice points out, that the poem has often been understood as a metaphor for a “return to innocence” and childhood. A fantasy world and the real world depicted and sharply contrasted alongside each other throughout the poem, not dissimilar to the double-edged world inside my head as a young child.

In the first chapter – Belonging, Maurice analyses ‘The Stolen Child’ in several ways. Touching upon the role of the “cultural meaning-making” stories of faeries and “other world” entities, he examines how such lore is embedded in the psyche of Irish folk. My own family on my maternal side originate from Ireland, and care experience within the family goes back over one hundred years, dating back to a 1900 Irish workhouse and a presumed single mother. My mum’s mum was the youngest of a dozen plus children, some died in infanthood, some were removed into the care of The Christian Brothers or The Sisters of Mercy in Ireland due to financial hardship. When my nan became pregnant at sixteen with my mum, unmarried and alone, her parents guided her towards placing her child in the path of care experience also. She was pressured into going to a Mother and Baby home and to give my mum up for adoption, she changed her mind and escaped the home at the last minute. But after that life was very difficult for them, my nan was looked down on by her Irish Catholic parents and society for her decision.

The writer Sydney J. Harris said, “History repeats itself, but in such cunning disguise that we never detect the resemblance until the damage is done.” Her tough start in life affected my mum and she started drinking at a young age as a coping mechanism, then she had us and the care experience cycle began again. In his first chapter on belonging, Maurice speaks of identity formation, and says “It is partly the personal narrative that connects us to each other and creates a sense of belonging.” It is this sense of a personal narrative – a story, a history I can clearly trace – which, in an absurd way still gives me a sense of belonging. As although my story is one of inherited trauma, I am connected to a thread of women who consistently carried on trying to survive their difficulties despite the many obstacles placed in their way.

For Maurice, he is drawn to Yeats’s poem for not just the folklore aspect, and its link to identity formation, but the sense of “pain, loss and sadness” it evokes. Maurice lost his father at the age of 12 and in his book describes how it took many years to come to terms with the loss. Maurice says, “He was stolen from me and also from the promise of his own life he had worked hard to create.” For me, the sense of loss in ‘The Stolen Child’ symbolises not only the loss of childhood, but the loss of stable relationships in infancy, and the loss of my mother who died in my 20s to a progressive illness, after finally getting sober years earlier. It was as though I had lost her twice in my life. When she died, I grieved too for the relationship which had been lost before, in childhood, which could now never be retrieved.

In Chapter 2 – Feelings, Emotions and Objectivity, Maurice discusses the link between a lack of “care” in the care sector, with children often being led to feel as though they themselves are just an object. In situations where there is often a lack of love, empathy and compassion offered by care givers or as some say, “corporate parents”. Factors such as political influence and language are key to how a child can be led to feel about themselves and the world around them and their part in it and sense of belonging, or not. Maurice refers to a potential connection between “the demotion of the relevance of feelings and emotions and the apparent ambivalence exhibited by many professionals with regard to child and adolescent mental health issues.”

In a growing climate of privatized care for vulnerable children and young people and outsourcing via agencies, I personally feel that the emotional safety of our young people in care is in great jeopardy. When money and funding has more of an attachment to an at-risk child than good, compassionate care, this becomes an urgent concern. As in Maurice’s own words it is relationshipswhich “are the currency and productof social care.”

Maurice writes as a person who has both lived experience of being in care and as a professional in social care in his native Ireland. His book offers unique insights into the importance of truecare for young people, and with an emphasis on the transformative power of relationships and interconnectedness. The use of the poem ‘The Stolen Child’ works well as a metaphor for a sensitive exploration of lives and opportunities “stolen” from the most vulnerable young people in society today and past. His aligning of the emotional and mental processes of care experienced folk alongside an exploration of the works of Jung, Nietzsche, and Kafka to name a few, makes for a nuanced and philosophical reading.

The book ends with a feeling of hope and resilience – and it is these two attributes that have carried me forward in my own life (both other-worldly and real) … I still believe there is a small chance I could have been a changeling…  but until the day I’m called back to the faery kingdom, I guess I’ll never know…

Maurice Fenton’s book The Stolen Child: WB Yeats and Carl Jung – Relationship, Belonging and Compassion in Caring for Children in Care is available on Amazon.Related quotes throughout essay body taken directly from the book.

Bernadette McBride is a PhD Candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Liverpool and the author of Roots: The Eco-journal(pub. The Green Guild, 2018). In 2019 she was awarded ‘The Biggest Impact on the City of Liverpool’ by the Liverpool Guild for her work in the community teaching creative writing linked to nature and wellbeing.

Follow Bernadette on Twitter: @b_mmcbride

 

[1]https://www.irishpost.com/life-style/exploring-irish-mythology-changelings-170347
[2]https://www.amazon.co.uk/Stolen-Child-Relationship-Belonging-Compassion/dp/0995550905
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Parragirls: Reimagining Parramatta Girls Home Through Art and Memory.

Book Review by Dee Michell

Parragirls: Reimagining Parramatta Girls Home Through Art and Memory. Edited by Lily Hibberd with Bonney Djuric and in collaboration with Darug women Leanne and Jacinta Tobin.

Back in September 2013, my partner and I headed off early on a crisp, cold spring morning in the direction of Sydney. We were on our way to the Parramatta Female Factory Trace, Place & Identity Workshop being held at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) in the city and the Parramatta Female Factory Precinct (PFFP) in Parramatta, a suburb approximately 24 kilometres west of Sydney.

We had decided to drive the 1300 kilometres so we could visit the Hay Gaol Museum located almost halfway between Adelaide and Sydney. From 1961 for 13 years the museum site was the Hay Girls Institution, a prison for recalcitrant girls. These were girls considered ‘troublemakers’ at the notorious Parramatta Girls Home, girls who at Hay were compelled to be silent for most of the day, condemned to hard labour, and forced to sleep facing open doorways at night.

The Parramatta Female Factory Trace, Place & Identity Workshop was a memorable event. It was beautifully organised with an inclusive array of speakers who presented on the PFFP and its history, what draws people to be moved by objects at memorial sites, how the PFFP can be recognised as a ‘site of conscience’ but also become a joyful place to visit, and the impact of trauma and the place of sound in remembering.

This week I had the pleasure of catching up with what’s been happening at the PFFP over the past 6 years as I read Parragirls: Reimagining Parramatta Girls Home Through Art and Memory.

This is a gorgeous book, full of photographs—of Parramatta Girls Home, art projects and exhibitions, and images of the brilliant Parragirls, a voluntary group of former inmates who, since 2006, have been organising reunions, Open Days, exhibitions, and representing Parramatta Girls at state and federal government events.

Parragirls has 9 chapters which move from some of the history of the PFFP, the founding of Parragirls and the development of the Parragirls Memory Project from the first meeting on 9 February 2013 to the September workshop I attended, through to the Parragirls reclaiming the site for those who were once incarcerated there.

The book is a moving, inspiring record of what visionary activists can achieve. In 2005, Bonnie Djuric stepped inside the main building of Parramatta Girls Home for the first time in 35 years, taking video footage of what she encountered as she walked the halls. Eight years later, the Parragirls Memory Project had a lease on a former classroom which became their home base for doing transformative art.

It is the first week of February 2013, and a small group of artists and collaborators meet with Bonney and Lily [Hibberd]…As we open up the derelict rooms we are shocked at the neglected state of the rooms…Between vacuuming and toilet scrubbing, we share different stories about institutional experience over cups of tea.

Parragirls is also a record of the patient, challenging work that is transformative art.

Physical contact with the site raised unforgettable memories that had been locked away for decades. The abuse that occurred in Parramatta Girls home had also destroyed their trust in all forms of welfare and state care.

But having that classroom as theirs, where they had the freedom to meet and work without surveillance, gave the Parragirls space to begin exploring painful memories and to branch out. For example, to explore the Aboriginal heritage of the site as an ancient gathering place for Darug women.

Parragirls also documents how the Memory Project connects past and present. For instance, the group worked with a landscape designer to cultivate a children’s garden and then held a Children’s Day on 9 March 2014 to commemorate when children were first ‘placed’ in the Parramatta Roman Catholic Orphan School 170 years previously. The photographs of young children enjoying the day are delightful, a vivid testament to the healing work going on at the PFFP.

Parragirls memory projects challenge conventional forms of recordkeeping too. In 2016 the Parragirls began a printmaking project called Living Traces where they brought to the fore the “scratchings” girls made on the walls at Parramatta.

Before this project, the extensive graffiti found at Parramatta Girls Home was only evident to Parragirls…Recalling her time at the girls home, Gypsie Hayes described how messages were shared between residents, with numbers or acronyms scratched with pins ‘into paintwork for other girls’, secretly carved into solitary confinement cell walls, wooden doors and skirting boards.

From this project emerged stunning collagraph prints—some of which are included in Parragirls—as well as a performance video by Gypsie Hayes and audio stories by other Parragirls.

Collectively, these works and the women’s voices reveal that it is possible to contest the official version of an archive and give it an authentic meaning and purpose. This cannot repair or erase the evidence of wrongdoing, but provides the archive with an index to experiences lived in the present…

From little things big things grow” is a 1991 protest song written by Australian singer-songwriters Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody and describing the beginnings of the Aboriginal land rights movement in Australia.

Parragirls is a stunning book documenting how a small group of creative women took their protest about the cruel treatment they had experienced and turned it into the big thing of the PFFP being recognised as an International Site of Conscience and as one of Australia’s “most important heritage sites”.

Parragirls: Reimagining Parramatta Girls Home through art and memory is recommended reading for anyone interested in the history of child welfare in Australia, in empowering marginalised and traumatised populations through art projects, and in reclaiming the past—self and site—through collective action.

Parragirls: Reimagining Parramatta Girls Home Through Art and Memory is published in Australia by NewSouth Publishing, Sydney, NSW.

 

Dr Dee Michell is an academic at the University of Adelaide. She was made a Ward of the South Australian State in 1960 and remained in foster care for 15 years. She worked as an administrator for a multi-national corporation before going to university in her 40s, when she combined study with primary care for her three children. From 2013 to 2016, Dee worked with Nell Musgrove (Australia Catholic University) on a 3-year Australian Research Council funded project on the history of foster care in Australia. Their book, The Slow Evolution of Foster Care in Australia. Just Like a Family?, was published in 2018.

Follow Dee on Twitter: @DrDeeMichell

 

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A Conversation With Dee Michell

Dee Michell is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sociology, Criminology & Gender Studies at the University of Adelaide in South Australia. Dee’s research interests pivot around the themes of lived experience, marginalisation and transformation, and she publishes in the areas of Child Welfare Systems, Equity & Diversity, and Feminist Theology.

This book draws on archival, oral history and public policy sources to tell a history of foster care in Australia from the nineteenth century to the present day. It is, primarily, a social history which places the voices of people directly touched by foster care at the centre of the story, but also within the wider social and political debates which have shaped foster care across more than a century. The book confronts foster care’s difficult past―death and abuse of foster children, family separation, and a general public apathy towards these issues―but it also acknowledges the resilience of people who have survived a childhood in foster care, and the challenges faced by those who have worked hard to provide good foster homes and to make child welfare systems better. These are themes which the book examines from an Australian perspective, but which often resonate with foster care globally.

“The ethos of the work is epitomised in the authors’ avowed view that they ‘have been trusted with people’s stories’, with the aim ‘to represent them fairly and with dignity’ (1). The result is a nuanced and deeply sensitive history which, while examining numerous tragic case studies and identifying many shortcomings of the system, retains its objectivity, dealing with some myths (such as the supposed venality of many foster-carers), and apportioning credit where it is due… The Slow Evolution of Foster Care in Australia should be required reading for everyone involved in the field of child welfare, for the salutary lessons it provides from both the past and, lamentably, the present.”

It’s a great pleasure to welcome Dee to the blog to answers some questions about her new academic book The Slow Evolution of Foster Care in Australia. My favourite chapter is ‘Writing to Heal – The Emergence of Foster Care in Literature’.

Tell us of your journey as a writer.

I’m a lifelong and enthusiastic reader. One of my foster mother’s many complaints about me was that I “always had my nose stuck in a book” and I did. I probably got the idea of being a writer from my reading, but I was in my 20s before I articulated that, and 43 before I had a piece of writing published. In the intervening years I kept a journal, spasmodically. I’m embarrassed to think what’s in my old journals!

The impetus for getting published in 2000 was wanting a scholarship to do a PhD. I’m not sure I would have had the confidence to give it a go without that push, but I sure was happy when my article came out! From then I was published regularly, but it took me years to identify as a ‘writer’ and longer to fully appreciate that as an academic I get paid to write.

What made you choose to write about care experience?

It felt important to ‘come out’ finally as a former foster kid. I’d begun to do so at university; Women’s Studies encouraged women to voice their lived experience and by the time I’d finished my first degree I was feeling entitled to push back against stigma, even as stigma wanted me to continue hiding.

For the second piece of writing I had published in 2001 I talked about my experience as a foster kid. In 2000, I moved house, shifted away from the inner city where I’d lived for decades, and my eldest daughter left home. The disorientation of a new location and grief of separation from my daughter was compounded by old feelings of abandonment and I wrote about that in a reflection on the place of religion and spirituality in my life. I followed that up with another piece in 2002 which was a theological commentary on the metaphor of Mother for God. I’d gotten a bit mad that feminist theologians were banging on about how wonderful the divine Mother is since mothers are so wonderful and there was I with one mother who’d abandoned me, and another who was emotionally and verbally abusive. Anger has often motivated pieces of writing I notice!

I wrote a few other articles on my experience but, from 2013 for 3 years, I worked on a large research project on the history of foster care in Australia with Nell Musgrove at the Australian Catholic University. Ours is the first such history. We did the research because we’d noticed how most conversation about the ‘care’ system in Australia was focused on what’s now called residential care—orphanages, children’s homes, group homes. Foster care was neglected.

Working on this project moved me from thinking about foster care as a personal experience to seeing it in the historical context of a lack of welfare provision, a desire to break up rather than preserve non-conforming families, and an almost careless disregard for the emotional wellbeing of children snatched from family and thrust into the homes of strangers.

For the project we interviewed former foster kids as well as current and former foster carers. We plunged into the archives to investigate old policies and practices and befriend people who’d been in foster care when the system was first implemented. We measured how much media attention foster care received compared to residential care, and we read autobiographical and fictional stories about foster care.

Our book is the culmination of this research. It’s a disturbing story about the past and present of foster care, about social stratification and stigma, and about how the daily struggle to survive can lead individuals and governments to defer action on tough issues, like the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out of home care, and the under-representation of Care Leavers at university.

Orphans, those in foster care or children’s homes, often feel they are stereotyped by their past. How aware of this were you whilst creating your characters?

We were very conscious of the need to tell the hard stories of children being brutalised in foster care and ill prepared for life outside the system as young adults. But we also wanted to remark on the achievements of former foster children, against the odds and despite their lives being scarred by profound struggles and loss. I hope we’ve done this.

What is the meaning of the title?

The first part of the title—The Slow Evolution of Foster Care in Australia—reflects our findings that since the institutionalisation of foster care here from the 1870s, there has been change but much has remained the same. For example, children still die in foster care, children are still separated from siblings and moved multiple times, and children in foster care are still subject to stigma and the careism of low expectations.

The second part of the title—Just like a Family?—reflects our questioning about how like a family foster care really is or can be. How many families reject and eject children whose behaviour they don’t like? How many families put children into respite care so the parents can have a break? How many families turf their children out the moment they turn 18, or even 21?

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

Currently I’m as obsessed as a wasp around a barbecue with telling different stories of people who’ve been in care, a variety of stories, not the same old devastating one of poor outcomes—and shame on the state for that—but ones about where Care Leavers make positive contributions to their communities. It might be keeping their own family intact and raising children who go on to university. Or it might be becoming Prime Minister of Australia and we have examples of that. I tell some of these stories through my blog, Real Life Super Heroes, and I’ll probably write up research articles while I’m figuring out how to create a book.

What #diverse characters do you think are missing from literature?

Something I’ve noticed while doing my blog is that many people who’ve been in out of home care have gone on to become activists and have created significant change in their communities. The Charles Perkins Centre for health research at the University of Sydney, the national Lowitja Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research and the Don Dunstan Foundation for social justice are all named after Care Leavers in recognition of their considerable contributions. I’d like to have more characters in literature like these great Australians.

If you could recommend one #diverse book for your readers, what would it be?

Sally Morgan’s My Place is an Australian classic. Published in 1987, the book tells the story of three generations of Aboriginal Australian women. Sally, her mother Gladys and grandmother Daisy. Both Gladys and Daisy were members of the Stolen Generation.

Sally grew up not knowing that Daisy was born on a cattle station and was the ‘property’ of the station owners. Nor did she know about her mother growing up in Parkerville Children’s home. The older women had internalised the shame of being Aboriginal and sought to protect Sally from that shame.

My Place had a profound and enduring impact on me; I can still remember where I was when I read it.

Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why?

Anne of Anne of Green Gables. Of all the ‘orphan’ stories I would have read as a kid, Anne’s resonated the most. I was no doubt inspired by it to (eventually) go to university and to write.

What one piece of advice would you give young people leaving the care system today?

You have a wealth of lived experience you can call on to make valuable contributions to your community as an adult, and as many CEP already are and have done for decades. Work out how you’d like to live your life, find some mentors (in books, online, in person), and go for it, knowing you’re as capable as anyone.

Follow Dee on Twitter: @DrDeeMichell

(1) Jacqueline Z Wilson (2019), Australian Historical Studies, 50(1), 135-136.

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A Conversation with David Jackson

David Jackson has an Honours degree in psychology and a Masters in business. He is an experienced company director and project management professional with over 25 years of experience, delivering multi-billion pound projects across the nuclear, oil and gas, renewable energy and bio-mass fields, both in the UK and abroad. David is a care experienced adult, having spent his first 16 years in local authority care. His book now forms part of social work recommended reading at a number of universities and social work departments, and is receiving acclaim from both care experienced people and care professionals alike.

Take an eye-opening voyage into the harrowing world of 1960s Local Authority childcare. A world of pain, suffering and abuse, systematically inflicted upon defenceless children, by coercive predatory adults. It was a world of unbridled suffering, and relentless pain.

This is the story of one child who survived

‘…Harrowing, Brutal and Truthful!  Buckle up and read Snowballs heart wrenching account of a life that no child should ever experience- prepare to be shocked to the core, be ready to feel every emotion…’ (Brenda Lee)

This biography was extremely thought provoking and it really made me consider how sheltered we are to the shocking events and experiences of Looked After Children. I gave it a smashing five star rating on Goodreads, and will be recommending it to to others in the future! (Book Blogger GNTxREADs)


I’m thrilled and delighted to welcome author David Jackson aka Snowball to the blog to answer some questions about his autobiographical depiction of a child in care in his debut novel Oi.

Tell us of your journey as a writer.

It’s a short one really.  Writing was always something I wanted to do, but never found the time for. One day it just seemed to be the right time, I started writing and couldn’t stop.  It really was that simple.

What made you choose to write about care experience?

There is a growing need for the issue of care to be understood, and the issues of the past, present and future to be better appreciated, managed, and strategised for the common good.  Children in care are a forgotten, and often unwanted sub-culture in society. Their needs, desires, aspirations and futures must be brought into mainstream society, planning and policy.  Children in care, have for too long been seen as bad kids, when the reality is that the greater majority are victims, not perpetrators. Societal thinking about children in care has to change. Writing the book was an attempt to add to the body of knowledge that will hopefully drive change in the future.

Do you have any personal experience with the care system, fostering, children’s homes etc?

Yes.  My book is all about my 17 year experiences of the childcare system.  They were cold, lonely harsh times. Often brutal and degrading, but like many others I survived and thrived.

Orphans, those in foster care or children’s homes, often feel they are stereotyped by their past. How aware of this were you whilst creating your characters?

It wasn’t really an issue for me in writing the book. It is based on fact. These characters real, and the events too real for comfort. The issue for me was, what to leave out and who to leave out.

What is the meaning of the title?

It’s just a reference to the commonly held terminology of the time. Wordage that as a child I heard and was called.

What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

I am writing two books at the moment, though hitting a bit of writing block. The two book strategy stops me getting bored, though it clearly slows down the finished product.

What #diverse characters do you think are missing from literature?

I think care experienced characters are missing entirely.  I can’t think of a single mainstream book or film, where the focus has been upon a care experienced character and all that being one means.  My book is being turned into a film, and so we will be addressing that, but in general, society has a stereotype of us, that it doesn’t really want to address.

If you could recommend one #diverse book for your readers, what would it be?

My own….LOL!!

Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why?

I never really had access to reading material, beyond comics and the occasional Christmas annual that would surface.  There was no investment in our education.  Nobody really cared enough and so we missed out on the wonderment of literature.

What one piece of advice would you give young people leaving the care system today?

To believe in themselves and forget everything they’ve been told about their lack of life chances.

Thanks to David for the interview and to UK Book Publishing, for the review copy of Oi. 

Find David on Twitter: @OYFtheBook

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Mr Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt

Samantha Hunt was born in 1971 in Pound Ridge, New York. Her first novel, The Seas, (2004) a twisted tale of mermaids, won the National Book Foundation’s Five under Thirty-five prize. Her second novel about Nikola Tesla, The Invention of Everything Else (2008) was a finalist for the Orange Prize and winner of the Bard Fiction Prize. Hunt’s work as been published in The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, the New York Times, Tin House, A Public Space, Cabinet, Blind Spot, the London Times and in a number of other publications. Her books have been translated into ten languages. She lives in Tivoli, New York, and teaches at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.

Her latest book, a contemporary gothic novel, Mr Splitfoot, has been described as ‘literary gold’ (Sunday Express). ‘Her every sentence electrifies’ (Kelly Link).

Mr. Splitfoot is lyrical, echoing, deeply strange, with a quality of sustained hallucination. It is the best book on communicating with the dead since William Lindsay Gresham’s Nightmare Alley, but it swaps out that novel’s cynicism for a more life-affirming sense of uncertainty’. (Luc Sante, author of Low Life)

Nat and Ruth are young orphans, living in a crowded foster home run by an eccentric religious fanatic. When a traveling con-man comes knocking, they see their chance to escape and join him on the road, proclaiming they can channel the dead – for a price, of course.

Decades later, in a different time and place, Cora is too clever for her office job, too scared of her abysmal lover to cope with her unplanned pregnancy, and she too is looking for a way out. So when her mute Aunt Ruth pays her an unexpected visit, apparently on a mysterious mission, she decides to join her.

Together the two women set out on foot, on a strange and unforgettable odyssey across the state of New York. Where is Ruth taking them? Where has she been? And who – or what – has she hidden in the woods at the end of the road?

Ingenious, infectious, subversive and strange, Mr Splitfoot will take you on a journey you will not regret – and will never forget.

  1. Tell us of your journey as a writer

First I wrote a lot of bad stuff. A whole lot of bad stuff, probably ten years of bad writing. I copied people whose work I admired. Then after banging my head against the wall enough, my writing got a little bit better. Now, I work very hard. I revise endlessly.

  1. How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?

I enjoy the extremes of writing: total solitude at one extreme to a wide and deep immersion in the world. I also enjoy having a job that allows me to ask and try to answer questions that pester me. I really enjoy the feeling that there is nothing I am not curious about.

  1. Have you ever created a character who you dislike but find yourself empathising with?

I empathize with all of my characters. Even the nastiest ones. Evil doesn’t occur without a reason and weakness is general. Creating characters with weaknesses is my specialty.

  1. What has been your experience of writing about diverse characters?

In drafting a character, color is not something I usually consider. I’d rather leave that open to the reader. Indeed, a number of readers have told me that they see Ruth from Mr. Splitfoot and her whole family as African-American. Other readers have thought she is white. The characters I create with color in mind — I’m thinking of Colly from Mr. Splitfoot—I do so in order to make a comment on racism in America, a topic no American writer can avoid.

  1. If you could be transported instantly, anywhere in the world, where would you most like to spend your time writing? And why?

It is hard for me to write when I’m away from home. I need to feel alone in order to write which means I need for my kids to be doing something they enjoy enough that they’ll let me be, but if they are doing something too interesting, I’ll want to do it too. Still, I spent last winter in Barcelona with my family and it was a very productive writing time. I finished a piece about One Direction and death that I’d been thinking about for a long time. Read more here.

  1. What is the one book you wish you had written?

As I Lay Dying (1930) by William Faulkner

  1. What advice do you have for would be novelists?

I wrote my first novel by writing 250 short pieces that were all about the ocean and life in small towns. I then spread the pages out on the floor and shaped them into a skeleton for a narrative. Then started to smooth and revise. This is a good way to approach a first book as it is manageable. Write one small piece you like each day.

  1. What are you currently working on? What can we look forward to reading?

I have multiple projects in the works. It helps me to write this way because when I start to doubt, or tire of one project, I can turn my attention to the next project. So, upcoming I have a collection of stories titled Beast. I’m finishing the last story now. I am also working on a book of non-fiction that examines the way in which people get haunted. I am also working on a new novel, but I am sorry, I find that if I talk about novel projects before they are done, they have a tendency to never get done.

Thanks for your questions!

 

Mr Splitfoot (2015), is published by Corsair Books

You can follow Samantha on Twitter: @samanthajhunt

 

*First published on Greenacre Writers
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Plot 29 by Allan Jenkins

Allan Jenkins is the award-winning editor of Observer Food Monthly. He was previously editor of the Observer Magazine, food and drink editor on the Independent newspaper and once lived in an experimental eco-community on Anglesey, growing organic food on the edge of the Irish Sea. He is the co-author of Fish, the J. Sheekey cookbook, and lives in north-west London.

‘When I am disturbed, even angry, gardening has been a therapy. When I don’t want to talk I turn to plot 29, or to a wilder piece of land by a northern sea. There, among seeds and trees, my breathing slows; my heart rate too. My anxieties slip away.’

As a young boy in 1960s Plymouth, Allan Jenkins and his brother, Christopher, were rescued from their care home, fostered by an elderly couple. There, the brothers started to grow flowers in their riverside cottage. They found a new life with their new mum and dad.

Yet as he grows older, Allan feels unsatisfied with the unanswered questions about his past. His foster parents were never quite able to provide the family the brothers needed, but the solace he finds in tending a small London allotment echoes the childhood moments when he grew nasturtiums from seed.

Over the course of a year, Allan digs deeper in to his past, seeking to learn more about his absent parents. Examining the truths and untruths that he’d been told, he discovers the secrets to why the two boys were in care. What emerges is a vivid portrait of the violence and neglect that lay at the heart of his family.

Allan Jenkins blooms. His garden bears fruit. Enter the seasons with him and grow. I love this book.’ Lemm Sissay

A beautifully written, haunting memoir, Plot 29 is a meditation on seeds and siblings. Yet it’s also a celebration of the joy to be found in sharing flowers and food with someone you love.

Tell us of your journey as a writer

I came to writing late, I have been a professional copy editor of other peoples’ work for more than 30 years (editor of national newspaper magazines for near 20) and have loved the collaborative aspect of this. For the past few years though I have also been travelling and writing, increasingly confident in my voice. This is a story of course I was born to write and I was the only one who could.

How do you see your role as a writer and what do you like most about it?

To bring heart and feeling to my work. It was when I realised my voice isn’t like anyone else’s that I discovered my self-expression. A heady place to be.

Why did you decide to write a memoir? And were you tempted to fictionalise parts of your story?

Not sure I did decide to write this memoir as such, I was writing a journal with personal stuff added in: an old man growing food and flowers because a kindly old man once showed him how as a child. But my dead brother Christopher’s voice edged him out, demanded to be heard. A freedom of information request for care records changed the direction. And a chance discovery in Barnardos office shaded the narrative. I did though “honour’ each stage and made myself as open as possible to the shifting sands of the story. I was not tempted at all to fictionalise though some (few) names were changed to protect the guilty.

You said in a Guardian article that gardening is your therapy. Can you tell us a bit more about this?

It is a place to go to grow, a beautiful semi-wild space but also sometimes, somewhere I can go to try to avoid overspill into my family life. It brings me peace, a non-verbal acceptance. I am good at it. Things grow for me. It is also inherently about nurturing small helpless infant things (of course)… and it comes with flavour, food and colour.

How important have books been in your life? What is the one book you wish you had written?

When I was lost and had not much hope of making a life, I read, addictively, avidly, twentieth century American mostly: Hammett, Brautigan, Wolfe, Kesey, Roth, Bellow, even Mailer. I am not sure I wish I had written it, but the greatest writer I have worked with (and they include Amis, Barnes and Mamet) was Rian Malan, whose My Traitor’s Heart is still my benchmark.

What advice do you have for would be memoirists/writers?

Write. Write. Write. Anything. Find your voice and stay true to it if you can.

When you were growing up, did you have a mentor/role model? What motivated you?

My foster father gave me a home and safety, I will always owe him that and am aware of the debt I owe (though more clear-eyed now about the downside). Motivation? I wanted my brother and me to be happy, though later I also wanted to escape the claustrophobia of small village life.

Has becoming successful made a difference and has this affected your self belief/self worth?

I think it mostly affects the way people sometimes treat you. I came to journalism late (I was already well into my 30s) and had an ambition to work for a good paper if possible, to be part of a community, like a doctor, teacher or nurse. I was 45 when I became an editor (ancient, like the Queen mum), so “success” came very late though I have always I think had self-belief even when there wasn’t much evidence it was shared. None of it come close to meeting my wife in a late night cinema but close perhaps was finding out I can write, not sentences like Roth, or books like Malan, but like me.

How does it feel now that people regard you as a role model, especially those with care experience?

I am not sure this is the case. I was born lucky (or at least luckier than my brother) and am acutely aware that my luck isn’t widely shared among people brought up in care.

Who is your favourite literary character from childhood and why?

Huckleberry Finn is hard to beat. Though I have a weakness too for Long John Silver.

Plot 29 is published by Harper Collins

Follow Allan on Twitter: @allanjenkins21

 

(First published on Greenacre Writers)

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple life. She is happy. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled life. Except, sometimes, everything.

No one’s been in my flat this year apart from service professionals; I’ve not voluntarily invited another human being across the threshold, except to read the meter…It often feels as if I’m not here, that I’m a figment of my own imagination.

At the office where Eleanor has worked in accounts for nine years, she’s an outsider and a bit of joke. People talk about how weird she is behind her back. It’s at a works do that she falls in love from afar with the singer of a band. She has to wait until the Monday to find out more about him as she doesn’t have a computer at home. Her work computer crashes and this is how she meets Raymond Gibbons, a down to earth kind man who smells of cooking and cigarettes.

He loped off with a strange bouncy walk, springing too hard on the balls of his feet. A lot of unattractive men seem to walk in such a manner, I’ve noticed. I’m sure the training shoes don’t help.

Eleanor struggles with appropriate social skills and tends to say exactly what she’s thinking. She is a creature of habit, wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day, buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend and is a bit of a loner.

I have always taken great pride in managing my life alone. I’m a sole survivor – I’m Eleanor Oliphant. I don’t need anyone else – there’s no big hole in my life, no missing part of my own particular puzzle. I am a self-contained entity. That’s what I’ve always told myself, at any rate.

Closed off, alone and unfamiliar with the world, the reader discovers Eleanor has spent time in care and has to endure visits from social workers who stare at her scars.

Mummy always told me that I am ugly, freakish, vile. She’s done so from my earliest years, even before I acquired my scars.

Though she still speaks to the caustic-tongued “Mummy”, who the reader suspects is incarcerated possibly in prison or an asylum, every week on the same day at the same time.

One simple act of kindness pierces the walls Eleanor has built around herself. And with the start of a friendship with Raymond, she must learn how to navigate the world that everyone else seems to take for granted – whilst at the same time, searching for the courage to face the dark corners she’s avoided all her life.

I’d tried so hard, but something about me just didn’t fit. There was, it seemed, no Eleanor-shaped social hole for me to slot into.

After they witness an old man who falls in the street, Raymond invites Eleanor to visit him in hospital. Whilst getting ready she ponders whether she could become a musician’s muse and this in turn leads her to reflect on her image both internal and external and we learn that Eleanor survived a fire and emerged like a ‘little phoenix’.

Despite her compulsive routine, it’s the obsession with the imaginary love of her life, a singer, whom she hopes “Mummy” will approve of, that leads Eleanor to start to make changes to her appearance. She decides to make herself over from the outside and work her way in. After a visit to a beauty parlour and much pain – something she tells us she is familiar with – she is horrified at the Hollywood bikini wax, this was not the answer she was looking for.

Humour works to reduce the pathos and strangeness of a character who speaks with a comical and strange mix of archaic Victorian primness and precision. Food is also an issue for Eleanor and she remembers being invited to a friend’s house where they had fish fingers and beans which she had never seen before. And when asked by the family what she usually ate, recited a rather precocious list of cuisine.

Asparagus veloute with a poached duck egg and hazelnut oil. Bouillabaisse and homemade rouille. Honey-glazed poussin with celeriac fondants. Fresh truffles when in season, shaved over cepts and buttered linguine…Of course after I was taken into care, I rapidly became acquainted with a new culinary family; Aunt Bessie, Captain Birdseye and Uncle Ben all featured regularly…It was one of the ways in which my old life and new life differed.

Hilarious and tragic; Eleanor’s past relationship with food highlights how mealtimes, food, or even just new living patterns can for some young people in care can be torture where everything feels strange and is so different from whatever routine they have been used to.

‘Being in care wasn’t always much fun. I mean, it was completely fine, I had everything I needed, but it wasn’t all picnics and pillow fights…They call young people in care “looked after”. But every child should be “looked after”…it really ought to be the default.’

The mystery of what really happened in Eleanor’s past is also a mystery to herself which keeps the reader interested in her future. As clues are dangled, events that took place begin to unfold. We are fed some details of her abuse, her time in care, but this novel is not supposed to be an in-depth story about trauma or care experience. It is not a serious narrative about the system.

When Gail Honeyman was asked if service-providers could have done more to alleviate Eleanor’s loneliness, her answer gives insight into why some readers might find the narrative problematic:

That’s a difficult one – I don’t really think I’m qualified to answer that question. I don’t dwell on the details of her experience in social care in the novel because I didn’t feel it was appropriate for me to try and tell that particular part of her story, not without having done a lot of detailed research beforehand.

Honeyman’s response explains why possibly some readers may have difficulties with the care experienced aspects of this character. This is not memoir or autobiography. I took the novel for what it was, Pop-fiction, Chick-lit, a fictionalised and possibly at times a too light-hearted portrayal of the legacy of trauma. A writer though, who has done her research homework around the silence that accompanies this and the ultimate loneliness that difference and reclusiveness can create. Eleanor’s story is all too familiar to those who have experienced the ‘care’ system, arriving traumatised and often leaving even more broken. Told with warmth, humour, and a sad poignancy, Ms Oliphant: weird, quirky, and eccentric; will have you laughing and crying simultaneously. Here is a fictional character you will really care about.

As a reader, there was enough reality in the novel for me to identify with the character and enough fiction for me to enjoy the story. I was pleased to see this quirky character grow. Her metamorphosis although started by a fantasy love, is about the growing friendship with Raymond. Ultimately this was a book about loneliness, the isolation of difference, of other.

 

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