The Girl With All the Gifts by Mike Carey

Every morning, ten year old, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class. When they come for her, Sergeant Parks keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don’t like her. She jokes that she won’t bite. But they don’t laugh.

When Melanie is all strapped into the chair, and she can’t move her hands or her feet or her head, they wheel her into the classroom and put her at her desk…The best day of the week is whichever day, and some weeks she doesn’t come at all, but whenever Melanie is wheeled into the classroom and sees Miss Justineau there, she feels a surge of pure happiness, like her heart flying up out of her into the sky.

Melanie, along with twenty or so other children are being kept on an army base in a post apocalyptic Britain. Miss Justineau is one of the teachers and Melanie’s favourite. Bright and intelligent, she is obsessed with the tales her Miss Justineau has told her, tales about heroes fighting monsters, about overthrowing the titans who formerly ruled the world, and about Pandora, the girl who unleashed so much misery upon mankind. She wonders about her parents.

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Whose children are we, Miss Justineau?” In most stories [Melanie] knows, children have a mother and a father, like Iphigenia had Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, and Helen had Leda and Zeus…We’re in an orphanage,” Anne guesses. (The class heard the story of Oliver Twist once, on another Miss Justineau day.)

…The ghost of her parents’ absence hovers around her, makes her uneasy.

Melanie thinks of an exception to the mother and father rule, Pandora, who was made out of ‘gloopy clay’. She thinks this is better than having parents who you never get to meet.

Although Melanie is content enough with the world that she knows, she is concerned when children from her class suddenly disappear; taken by the aggressive Sergeant Parks to Dr Caroline Caldwell’s lab, never to return.

You should ask yourself … why you’re so keen on thinking of me as the enemy. If I make a vaccine, it might cure people like Melanie, who already have a partial immunity to Ophiocordyceps. It would certainly prevent thousands upon thousands of other children from ending up the way she has. Which weighs the most, Helen? Which will do the most good in the end? Your compassion, or my commitment to my work?

This argument of course refers to more than just this narrative and alludes to the wider arguments of research ethics. Is Caldwell’s drive to save humanity, motivated by a desire for power or possible lunacy? Ophiocordyceps is the name of the disease that the children have, though it’s more than a disease. Caldwell uses the children in her experiments without compassion.

You want this one?” Sergeant asks…”Our little genius?” Dr Caldwell says. “Wash your mouth out, Sergeant. I’m not going to waste number one on a simple stratum comp. When I come for Melanie,  they’ll be angels and trumpets.”

The structure of the narrative divides the story between five characters, telling their story from their own point of view and providing the text with its own natural breaks. As well as Melanie and Miss Justineau, there’s Private Kieran Gallagher who has a lesser part, Sergeant Parks, the man in charge of the base, and Caroline Caldwell, the scientist who wants to experiment on Melanie to find out why she’s so intelligent.

But, before she can do this, there is an invasion and in the confusion that follows, Melanie escapes along with the four main characters who form an unlikely band of (nearly all) heroes. When outside of the army base, she sees a burnt out house with heat shadows of an adult and a child. Melanie measures herself against the smaller shape.

What she thinks is: this could have been me. Why not? A real girl, in a real house, with a mother and a father and a brother and a sister and an aunt and an uncle and a nephew and a niece and a cousin and all those other words for the map of people who love each other and stay together. The map called family.

The novel’s title is a reference to Melanie’s favorite myth, that of Pandora, whose name means “all gifts.” Melanie is a mystery to herself and, as she begins to open the box of who she is, she finds both the capacity for terrifying evil, but also for strength, love and resilience.

And then like Pandora, opening the great big box of the world and not being afraid, not even caring whether what’s inside is good or bad. Because it’s both. Everything is always both. But you have to open it to find that out.

The children in this story are orphans, deprived of parents or even an adult who cares for them except for Miss Justineau. The story though, has much more than orphanhood in it, things that I can’t mention by name otherwise I will be eaten alive. You will have to read it yourself and find out. At its heart in its simplest but most powerful form, is learning how to trust one another, and how once you have learnt to trust, love will follow.

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M.R. Carey reading from The Girl at Finchley Literary Festival 2015

I loved this book. From page one I found myself rooting for Melanie, whatever was going on I wanted her to to survive. The story gripped me and wouldn’t let go. If you’d like to try a different genre and are not sure what to read, give this a go, I promise, you won’t be disappointed.

The world premiere film The Girl With All the Gifts, directed by Colm McCarthy, starring Glenn Close, Gemma Arterton, Paddy Considine and newcomer Sennia Nanua, opened at the 69th Locarno Film Festival this week and is due in cinemas mid September.

Follow Mike Carey on Twitter: @michaelcarey191

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Orphans in Fiction with Antonia Honeywell

My favourite part of organising the Finchley Literary Festival is getting to meet the authors. Often we get to know them via Twitter or when we invite them to take part in A Conversation with Greenacre Writers. Our only other requirement is that authors are relatively local to Finchley or have a Finchley connection. Though this is not always the case.

28871560When a book is hugely popular on Twitter, you can be pretty sure that it is well-written and has made an impression on its readers. Such was the case last year when we kept seeing references to The Ship written by Antonia Honeywell and whom we subsequently invited to last year’s festival. The one thing that is immediately apparent on meeting Antonia, is her passion for books and writing.

Earlier this year, I had the honour of reading one of Antonia’s WiP, The Dolls Hospital. This is because the narrative includes a care leaver and she wanted my opinion. There is also an older woman in the novel who gave up her baby for adoption.

Some years ago I was involved with an organisation that was trying to get an apology from the UK government for the way single women who became pregnant in the fifties, sixties, and seventies, were treated . An apology was eventually given in Australia but not here in the UK.

Sadly, many of the mothers were left with mental health problems due to the trauma of having to give up their sons and daughters. Many were unable to live a normal life ever again. Not only has Antonia captured the plight of a young care leaver who has been left to struggle, she has also encapsulated what it must have been like to give birth to a child and the horror of having to give him or her away. Antonia’s book is as powerful as Philomena, if not more so.

Meanwhile, there was talk that I would present my PhD research, the representation of orphans and care leavers in literature, at the festival. Having read The Dolls House, I thought Antonia would be a brilliant addition, and so began a conversation which came to fruition as part of the Literary Delights.

We wanted to make the event as dramatic as possible so we included readings of well-known orphan stories by myself, Antonia, Mr Greenacres and Lindsay. We began with Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens, one of the most famous orphan narratives ever written.

Fostered, adopted and parentless children are written into the body of our literary culture. Orphan heroes and heroines are familiar characters in children’s literature. Wrenched from their parents at birth or abandoned, they first have to endure a struggle, though later will be destined for extraordinary heroism and glory. Jane in Jane Eyre, Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, Moll Flanders, Tom Jones, Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden, Frodo Baggins, Harry Potter, there are quite literarily hundreds of orphans in fiction.  And where would we be without our orphans?

If you couldn’t be loved, the next best thing was to be left alone – L.M Montgomery

antoniaAntonia spoke about getting rid of the parents: ‘Getting rid of your parents is a childhood fantasy, and it’s no accident that the adventures of the children in novels by Enid Blyton, or E. Nesbit, take place in the absence of parents – a kind of temporary orphanhood, that bestows unlimited freedom.’

She also spoke about Wolves of Willoughby Chase, one of her favourite books:

Sylvia was an orphan, both her parents having been carried off by a fever when she was only an infant. She lived with her Aunt Jane, who was now becoming very aged and frail and had written to Sir Willoughby to suggest that he took on the care of the little girl. He had agreed at once to this proposal, for Sylvia, he knew, was delicate, and the country air would do her good. Besides, he welcomed the idea of her gentle companionship for his rather harum-scarum Bonnie. 

Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken 1962

I went on to discuss the orphan outside of the family unit. People are drawn to these characters because they appear to exist outside the camouflage of conformity. Such as the orphans that threatened domestic bliss. They were dangerous, seeking to fracture that institution – the family, for example the ‘villain’ Heathcliff, in Wuthering Heights.

Antonia brought up how some orphans in literature find a substitute family and with that they sometimes find unconditional love. As well as love, the state of being an orphan can be liberating: ‘Where the orphan finds a substitute family, they thrive – for example Harry Potter, with Hogwarts as his home, saves the universe. The loss of his parents is an essential part of his ability to do so.’

In Ballet Shoes, Dr Jakes, sees orphans, Pauline, Petrova and Posy Fossil’s, position as enviable:

I do envy you. I should think it an adventure to have a name like that, and sisters by accident. The three of you might make the name of Fossil really important, really worth while, and if you do, it’s all your own. Now, if I make Jakes really worth while, people will say I take after my grandfather or something.              

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild 1936

For Jane in Jane Eyre, she is an orphan constrained by her status, that of being reliant on relations for somewhere to live. However, she rejects the family:

I am glad you are no relation of mine. I will never call you aunt again as long as I live. I will never come to visit you when I am grown up; and if any one asks me how I liked you, and how you treated me, I will say the very thought of you makes me sick, and that you treated me with miserable cruelty…

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte 1847

This brave act gives Jane, the freedom to leave and so find adventure and love.

The recently published Mothering Sunday, sees another Jane, Jane Fairfax:

I was an orphan,’ she would divulge for the umpteenth time. ‘I never knew my father or mother. Or even my real name. If I ever had one. This has always seemed to me the perfect basis for becoming a writer – particularly a writer of fiction. To have no credentials at all. TO be given a clean sheet, or rather, to be a clean sheet yourself. A nobody. How can you be a somebody without first being a nobody?

The orphan narrative is often about a nobody. Orphans, foundlings, those that are adopted, are dropped into the narrative after the story of their lives has already started, like starting the book at chapter two instead of at the beginning.

As a child, I was particularly drawn to stories of children without parents, whether this was something temporary, as in many of Enid Blyton’s tales, or the abundance of stories about orphans, such as the contrary Mary in The Secret Garden (1911). This was partly why I undertook Doctoral research. Orphans, care leavers, the healing power of reading; it was a coming together of all that was important to me.

In 2012, I attended Lemn Sissay’s ‘From Pip to Potter, Celebrating the Place of Children in Care in Literature’ at Southbank.

The event highlighted the stark differences in the way literature presents cared-for children and orphans, compared to the experiences of children in those circumstances in the real world.

I also met Josie Pearse, at that event. Josie was finishing her Creative Writing PhD at Cardiff and was investigating orphans and adoption in literature.

I’d been wanting to do a PhD in Creative Writing for some time and was inspired by Lemn and Josie that day to begin to explore the possibility and that it would be something to do with orphans and care leavers in fiction. There are other reasons I wanted to do a PhD and you can read more about that here.

Antonia ended our session by speaking about The Dolls’ Hospital and how she found the orphan in fiction an inspiration. Lalla, the character in The Ship, is the opposite of an orphan to begin with. ‘She has a cosseted life. But then her mother dies and her father abandons her, and it is only by throwing off the constraints of the world they bequeathed to her that she can begin to truly live. The orphan is a state of inspiration – a gift to a writer, and it is important to recognise the state as a gift which within literature, opens doors.’

Antonia finished our talk by making a distinction between ‘orphanhood in real life, which is a state to be feared, and in literature, in which it’s often an inspired state that makes all things possible.’

We could have spoken about Orphans in Fiction, for hours, it’s a truly fascinating subject. My thanks and gratitude to Antonia Honeywell for giving her time and support to the Finchley Literary Festival.

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The Fish Ladder by Katharine Norbury

Following the miscarriage of a much-longed-for child, Katharine Norbury sets out – sometimes accompanied by her *nine-year-old daughter, Evie – with the idea of following a river from the sea to its source. The luminously observed landscape provides both a constant and a context to their expeditions. But what begins as a diversion from grief soon evolves into a journey to the source of life itself, when a chance circumstance forces Norbury to the door of the woman who gave her up all those years ago.

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When summer came, and brought with it the realisation that our baby should have been with us, have been in my arms, warm and cuddly and smelling of sunshine, I found that I was struggling. It wasn’t the first time that, grieving, I had found things hard; not the first time that the world had closed around me in a tight, hard sphere…I had to be strong for Evie, I searched for something that would keep the air breathable, the sound of the wind audible, the smell of a bonfire or the smart tang of sea salt sharp on my lips and tongue. That might shut out the possibility of – depression is such a vague word – stasis. That would shut out the possibility of everything standing still, as it had stood still once before, when I was sad, and I never wanted to go back there, ever again.  So I came up with the idea of following a river from the sea to its source…

The idea of following a river from the sea to its source had its origin in a novel by the Scottish Writer, Neil M Gunn, The Well at the World’s End. It tells the story of a protagonist on a journey who goes alone into the wild place of Scotland, telling anyone he meets that he is searching for the well at the world’s end. His only child has been stillborn.

It told of a well ‘whose water is so clear that it is invisible: when two lovers first find it, they think it is empty…’

Unfortunately Norbury gave Gunn’s book away but she became determined to undertake the character’s journey.

I became determined to undertake Peter Munroe’s journey, although I couldn’t have explained why. I, too had reached the end of my youth. I, too, had lost an unborn child. These were, possibly, the only points of connection between me and the fictional hero; but maybe that was enough. I certainly shared a sense that there was something beyond my grasp, something out of reach, and perhaps the idea of a secret well was a good a way of expressing it as any.

Having journeyed to the family cottage, somewhere on Garn Fadryn’s flank, Evie and Norbury discuss their project, the plan to find the well at the world’s end by following watercourses from the sea to their sources.

‘Can we count the Mersey?’ Asked Evie.

‘I think so,’ I said. ‘ I don’t think it has to be the same river that we follow, as long as we eventually get to an end.’ Evie thought about this, then nodded her agreement. We could count the trip to the Mersy estuary as an exploration of ‘sea’. Evie wrote an account of the picnic in her journal. She drew a picture of the beach with the Antonys.

 

Each chapter of this landscape memoir is named after a meaningful place, often a body of water. The narrative landscape is filled with beautiful observations of nature and an inner emotional life often described using myths and metaphor to explore the meaning of belonging. They decide to follow the river that comes out at Cable Bay. 

My task this summer. The task I had set myself, was to look back. To turn my back on the sea, on what It might mean, and walk back on myself.

Norbury is doing more than walking back on herself, she is following the central metaphor of the memoir, The Fish Ladder, following the journey of the salmon that once swam in the Mersey to their breeding ground upstream in a river somewhere. Following the mysterious innate instinct that is still one of the unknown mysteries of our world.

But I found, as the summer progressed, that I had accidentally embarked on a journey to the source of life itself…I had been adopted as a baby…for some reason, perhaps connected with, or triggered by, this new lost baby, I started to dwell upon this mystery. Of who I was, and where I’d actually come from. Of whom we speak when we talk about our family.

The author tells us it is the story of an accidental journey “to the source of this, particular, life”. There are many coincidences along the way. It is documented that coincidence and synchronicity+ are prevalent in adoption searches. Strange coincidences that cannot be explained. Similarly the author finds herself visiting a hotel, that used to be a convent. And it is here that she discovers she was born and named after one of the nuns.

I had found a missing piece in the broken vase of my history, accounting for the lost months of my babyhood. I had been born in this place and now by chance, I had returned. It was as though I had been given a coat that turned out to be a perfect fit without ever having realised that I was cold. I found it hard to remember that the gift was new, and that yesterday, or even an hour ago, I didn’t have it.

Attempting to follow various rivers from the sea to their source, Norbury’s journeys take her to Spurn Point in east Yorkshire, to St Mary’s Well on the Llyn Peninsula, and to the River Severn. But they take her much further than mere landscape, Norbury’s search for her hidden history, her foundling past, isn’t just a whimsical journey, it is much more important than that. She is on a life-saving quest, for both her emotional self and her daughter’s future. And it is not just a miscarriage that Norbury is recovering from, for shortly after that happened, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a double mastectomy. Here then was an urgent need to discover not only her family history but her genetic history too.

The Fish Ladder is a beautifully written travelogue, memoir, exquisite nature writing, fragments of poetry and tales from Celtic mythology. It explores the void, the hole, the ‘missingness’ that can quite suddenly engulf a person who has experienced trauma as a baby or a young child. In Norbury’s case, triggered by the loss of a baby, which quite possibly boomeranged to the original emotional loss or separation from not only a mother who abandoned her, but a foster nun who mothered her.

At times it read like a mystery which only added to its synthesis of writing styles and made me turn the pages even faster. The descriptions of nature are exquisitely written and it is more than worthy of its Telegraph Best Book of the Year 2015, and various long listings. Quite simply it is both ordinary and extraordinary, and this is its appeal. A powerfully written memoir that is also a love story. Love for nature, for parents, for child, and for husband. This is a narrator in love with with life.

 

Follow Katharine Norbury on Twitter: @kjnorbury

Thanks to Bloomsbury for the review copy.

Katharine is appearing at the Finchley Literary Festival, see more here.

 

*Evie is now 16 and did the illustrations for the book

+Synchronicity and Reunion (1992), by L.H. Stiffer who explores this phenomenon further.

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Song of the Sea Maid by Rebecca Mascull

Song of the Sea Maid opens with a young girl thinking she may have had a brother and looks back to the time they were stealing pies – just before he is kidnapped by a press gang. Left alone she tries to steal a man’s wig and is caught.

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‘This is the Asylum for the Destitute Wretches of the Streets of London. I am a business associate of the founder of this institution. With any luck this will be your new home…You will do well with Matron,’ says the gentleman. ‘Good luck to you, orphan, if such you be,’ and, adjusting his wig slightly, he leaves.

The young girl does not know who she is, nor her name. She is renamed Dawnay after the gentleman who brings her to the Asylum. It was the fashion for children taken in as foundlings – even those whose names were known – to be given entirely new identities. The asylum provided shelter, food, clothing, medical care, education, and work-placements so its children were well-equipped to cope out in the world. Their education consisted of learning to read and numbers, but they were not taught to write.

‘Orphans are not to learn to write. And the idea of a girl receiving an education would never be borne…Wives who are cleverer than their husbands are unnecessary as are clever servants likewise. Thinking never cleaned a floor. Better put it out of mind.’

Dawnay, a bold and talented child, cannot put it out of her mind and whilst the rest of the inhabitants sleep, she secretly teaches herself to write, stealing books, quills and ink. The inevitable happens and she is caught. She is to be brought before the asylum’s founder and his committee for punishment. In all likelihood the workhouse.

These will be my final hours beneath this roof. By this evening, I may be in hell. Yet even this does not break me, nor bring a tear to my eye. I consider this. I do not weep because I have no fear. Something has changed in me since I taught myself to write. This is my armour and protects me from the blows life may deal me. As the sun reaches its noontime zenith in the sky, matron calls up the stairs for me to come.

Once inside the room, that is filled with luxurious food and powdered ladies, there to spectate the lottery of fallen women and their babies. The mothers are handed a cloth bag and have to pick out a ball. If it is white, their babies are accepted into the asylum, if it is black the women are shown out and the door closed upon them. A red ball means the women are on a list of reserves. The babies that have ‘won’ are sent away to wet nurses until they are four and then they are returned to live in the asylum until apprenticed.

How very hard it must be for the children to leave their wet-nurse ‘mothers’…only to discover somewhat younger than I am now, that this is not their mother, not their home, and not their life. And they are to be sent away for good to an orphanage, their real home, where their desperate mothers left them years before, the true mothers, the ones they do not remember, abandoned for a second time.

Dawnay’s luck holds up and instead of being sent to the workhouse, Markem Woods, a rich merchant offers to sponsor her education under the tutelage of his friend Stephen Appleby.

By the age of twenty three Dawnay is an anomaly, an educated founding who becomes a woman of science in a time when such things were unheard of. Woods offers her his house as her home. She will never be homeless or poor again. She has overcome her origins to become a natural philosopher.

I use my allowance to buy a compass and map of the Iberian Peninsula. I study the problems of latitude and longitude. I scribble and sketch and plan. I discover that there is an archipelago of islands off Portugal known locally as the Berlengas. They are mainly uninhabited and replete with unusual flora and fauna. I have found the object of my study.

Still of strong mind, and curious about the world beyond London, and against the conventions of the day, she persuades Woods to sponsor a trip to Lisbon so she may make a six month expedition to the Berlengas Islands.

To the alarm of her male contemporaries, she sets sail to Portugal to develop her theories. There she makes some startling discoveries – not only in an ancient cave whose secrets hint at a previously undiscovered civilisation, but also in her own heart. The siren call of science is powerful, but as war approaches she finds herself pulled in another direction by feelings she cannot control.

Written from Dawnay’s viewpoint, the book opens onto eighteenth century life in London. We witness the terrible poverty and the way orphans, and women were treated. Ultimately though, this is a feel-good novel that re-writes the terrible history of the nameless, homeless orphan. This is ‘the age of sail, orphanages, the flora and fauna of islands, and even the origins of all humankind’. Impeccably researched, at times I had to wear a peg on my nose as the scenes of filthy London were so rancidly lifelike.

And I am no aberration: there are plenty of girls and women who wish to think, to learn, to know. But it is our society and the beliefs of the men who run it that keep women from thinking, from studying and learning. Any woman can do what I have done. Any woman with the right kind of mind. And what leaps could have been made already if all the world’s women – or the poor, or the orphans, or any other powerless outcast – had been educated?

If you like stories about independent women, think Forever Amber, historical novels with a touch of romance, then this is the book for you.

In many ways this novel is the true definition of the ‘What if’ scenario. What if a poor female orphan was given an opportunity to become educated. Not to become a servant in a house, to clean fire grates, to polish, to cook or clean but a real opportunity to study, to learn, to understand the world to be taken in by a kind and caring person and not to be abused. Song of the Sea Maid is the orphan what if narrative.

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My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal

My Name is Leon, is about two brothers, white Jake and mixed-race Leon, who are separated in foster care. The title of the book tells us this is Leon’s story, he is going to tell us how it really is. It is book about being seen, about being heard.

My Name is Leon - Kit De Waal

It’s 1981 and Leon’s mother, Carol gives birth to Jake, Leon’s half brother:

My name is Leon and my birthday is the fifth of July nineteen seventy-one. Your birthday is today…I look like my dad. Mum says he’s coloured but Dad says he’s black but they’re both wrong because he’s dark brown and I’m light brown.

Carol tries to make contact with Jake’s father, who is already married and rejects both her and the baby. This leads to the deterioration of her mental health and subsequent break down.

While Carol is having her breakdown, Leon is desperately trying to look after her and baby Jake.

Jake isn’t even wearing a nappy any more because it smelt terrible and all the new nappies have gone. He had to sit Jake on a towel in his basket and put some toys in with him but he can get out now and crawl all over the place and looking after Jake is getting much too hard. And they’re both hungry all the time these days.

Eventually Leon turns to Tina, his mum’s friend and neighbour. He only wants a pound for some food but Tina comes into the flat and discovers an unconscious Carol. She calls an ambulance and Social Services and Leon and Jake are placed with foster carer Maureen. Maureen has fuzzy red hair like a halo, and a belly like Father Christmas. Just as the two boys begin to settle, Leon senses that something is in the air, a social worker has come to visit:

Wouldn’t you like Jake to be in a family with a mum and dad of his own?…Leon, we’ve got a family that want to look after Jake. They want to be Jake’s new parents. Isn’t that good, Leon? Jake is going to have a new mummy and daddy…Do you understand, Leon? Jake is going to be adopted. That means he’s going to have a new forever family.”

After Jake’s adoption, the story follows Leon, the older brother and a single summer of his life while he struggles to adapt to life on his own. The story is set in 1981 when a number of momentous things were happening in the UK; IRA bombs, hunger strikes, the riots and the Royal Wedding of Diana to Charles. De Waal wanted to illustrate that while all these big things were happening, one little boy was lost and grieving and going unnoticed. But Leon has a secret plan, one day he’ll rescue Jake and his mum.

Meanwhile Maureen is taken ill and lucky for Leon he’s sent to live with her sister, Sylvia rather than a new foster placement. His social worker gets him a bike and with the bike, he gains some freedom. On one of his rides, he goes to the Rookery Road Allotments where he meets Tufty, who reminds him of his dad. Tufty teaches him about planting seeds:

‘…these plants need support. They need to hold on to something strong while they’re growing. They curl round the bamboo and then, couple of months’ time, we get some beans.’

As Leon gets to know the diverse group of strangers at the allotments, he begins to experience a sense of peace.

Hello spider, Hello, beetle. He looks up at the pale-blue suede sky and closes his eyes. He feels the roots of all the trees and the flowers mingling in with one another, making a giant web that sucks all the goodness and the rain up into their leaves so they can make apples and roses and all the strange vegetables that grow in the Asian shops. Leon’s going to have the best plot on the whole allotment.

As Leon learns how to survive, by stealing things for the time he will rescue his brother, the story heads towards a dramatic climax that splits Leon from his new found friends and foster carers.

The separation of siblings was a common occurrence both in the 1980s and even recently, De Waal observed in her work. “Unfortunately, siblings are separated too often. I’ve been on adoption panels, and sometimes there is no other option.” Leon’s story is still being played out over and over in adoption services all over the UK. He will go into care: if he’s very, very lucky he will stay with the same foster carer until he grows up, but that would be unlikely. More commonly, he would move several times during his foster care.

Black men and boys are over-represented in prisons, in mental health institutions and in unemployment. Many of these men and boys have come through the care system which, often fails to replicate the best of family life. That is not to say that all family life is good. Leon would not have thrived had he stayed with his mother but when family life works for children, it works well.

Dawn Foster in a recent Guardian article asked De Waal: Given the number of children who have experienced care, why does she think there are so few novels written about their experience, and more broadly about working-class life?

I don’t know. I think there are gatekeeping processes at work in publishing. First, you need an agent, and you need the time to write. That’s one way you’re going to be filtered out of the system. Maybe there is a lack of confidence in our working-class stories, in whether people want to hear them? But sometimes we have to tell them, otherwise other people do so on your behalf, and that’s no good. We have a responsibility to tell our stories, and the industry has a responsibility to hear them.”

This is a powerful story, one that will probably make you cry, but don’t let that put you off. It is a story that needs to be told, and more importantly, a story that needs to be heard. The writing is exquisite, powerful, and realistic. De Waal captures the voice of a traumatised child. Leon experiences what it is like to be nine years old and taken away from a mother and brother whom you love and adore. To be left alone in a strange world where all your belongings have disappeared and living with a stranger whose house rules you have to get used to. As young as he is, Leon finds new ways to live his life without his mother and brother whilst learning to overcome unbearable loss.

My Name is Leon will be published by Viking TODAY 2nd June 2016 – thank you for the review copy

You can follow Kit on Twitter: @KitdeWaal

 

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Writers in Conversation – Shena Mackay

I travelled to the University of Southampton last week and stayed overnight. This was for two reasons. I had an appointment with my supervisor and was attending Writers in Conversation with Shena Mackay at the Nuffield Theatre on the Monday evening.

This was a very special event because firstly Shena MacKay is the mother of my supervisor, and secondly Shena rarely gives interviews, so I knew it was going to be a very special evening. When I mentioned the event to a writing friend, she said Shena was very much the ‘it’ girl of her generation.

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Photograph from The Guardian by: Katherine Rose

Carol Burns organises the Writers in Conversation events and was the host for the evening. Carol introduced Shena to the audience.

Shena Mackay was born in Edinburgh in 1944. Her writing career began when she won a prize for a poem written when she was fourteen. Two novellas, Dust Falls on Eugene Schlumberger and Toddler on the Run were published before she was twenty. Redhill Rococo won the 1987 Fawcett Prize, Dunedin won a 1994 Scottish Arts Council Book Award, The Orchard on Fire was shortlisted for the 1996 Booker Prize and, in 2003 Heligoland was shortlisted for both the Orange Prize and Whitbread Novel Award. Her latest book, Dancing on the Outskirts, Selected Stories (Virago) was published in November 2015. She has three daughters, Sarah Clark, a teacher, Rebecca Smith, a writer, and Cecily Brown, a painter, and five grandchildren. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and lives in Southampton.

Shena Mackay has been described as one of the very best short story writers in the world. She began the evening’s conversation by reading a short story from The Atmospheric Railway. (2014)

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“Mackay’s observational precision is outstanding; she writes like an angel wielding a scalpel, dissecting her characters with sublime, sharp-edged prose… Her stories are grand entertainment” (Guardian)

The collection contains not only thirteen brilliant new stories, but a selection of twenty-three more from her previous collections, making it a delight for her existing admirers and the perfect introduction to her work for newcomers.

How do you know if a piece of writing is going to be a short story or a novel?

There is a difference between the novel and the short story but it is the germ of the same thing. It’s [a writer’s] instinct that says this is going to be a short story. Have to compress and compress.

How many drafts do you tend to write?

Shena replied she tends to write only one, working on one sentence at a time. Not liking to leave it and come back “in case you might die and somebody would find it.”

Do you think of yourself as a feminist writer?

Shena replied she had an innate knowledge, “I am a feminist, not polemical”. Like the writer or painter, you can become neutral, writing with the ‘artist’s gaze’ and hopes she can see the point of view of other characters.

How many short stories have you written?

I’ve never counted. Shena added, ‘…though I am thought of as that now. I never set out to be a short story writer.’ She would hesitate to embark on a novel now as it takes so long to do.

What do great writers have?

Empathy, imagination and patience.

Do you have that?

Yes all three. It’s hard graft.

You write a lot of short stories. How do you choose a worthy idea?

Sometimes a sentence, image or title comes to me. I have lots of ideas, every day.

Do you know your endings?

Sometimes I know my endings. Though, I’ve never plotted out a novel. The characters grow.

How many drafts do you write?

I try to get the essence right the first time. There is no first draft. For each stage I tend to get the sentence right before moving on.

Virago Classics are about to publish some of my older works. And I’m working on a Memoir. [As well as the memoir, Virago have in fact acquired the whole back list.]

How is memoir different to fiction?

It’s proving to be extremely difficult. The older you get, you realise everything is autobiography. It takes you down memory lane, psychologically, confronts you. It’s harder and easier. I get lost in memories and thinking about things.

Shena doesn’t believe in using other people’s material, their memories, or personal stories. ‘Some writers use somebody else’s story and say tough. If a writer is born into a family, it’s the end of that family!’ Shena spoke about cannibalising family material and said: ‘You don’t have a devine right to use it.’

The memoir came out of a piece for The Guardian about D-Day. Born on 6 June 1944, Shena was nearly called Deeday. “Although I’m relieved that I wasn’t called Deeday and that I haven’t had to go through 70 years explaining my name, it always seemed an honour to be born on that historic day, and the date had an intrinsic beauty to a synaesthetic child who saw letters and numbers in colour. For me, June and 6 share the fragrant crimson of summer roses, while 19 is white and rich amber and 44 blazes in yellow gold. My birthday was a day of roses and gold even though D-day itself is starkly black and all the newspaper photographs are monochrome images of sailors and soldiers in combat gear, planes, tanks and landing craft.”

Has publishing changed since you first started writing?

Shena replied that it had changed out of all recognition. It used to be a gentleman’s profession. Publishers would take a writer and nurture them. They can’t do that now. Makes it harder to get published now. Bears no resemblance. Different expectations on a person nowadays, writers are expected to go online and blog.

Do you keep notes?

I have a notebook, like an artist’s sketchpad, and make jottings.

Do you have a favourite piece of your own writing?

I have favourite sentences and endings.

Shena said that she had been re-reading some of her work for the memoir and that she would have written the exact same sentences.

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There is an afterword in Music Upstairs (1965), written in 1988 where MacKay discusses this subject: ‘As to the book, there is nothing I could alter now if I wished to do so. There are, inevitably, parts of it which I can see could have been handled more skilfully, sentences which glare at me from the page. I could advize Sidonie on how to deal with certain situations and relationships, how not to fall victim to her predators, and I might have less sympathy with her passivity and more for Pam’s domestic circumstances and situation;’

You have often been described as a humourous writer. Are there any writers that make you laugh?

I don’t think there are enough funny writers now.

Reviewing Mackay’s new collection of short stories, Dancing on the Outskirts (2015), in The Independent, Michele Roberts said: ‘This new collection of short stories (some drawn from previous publications) showcases her genius for building comedy from terseness and compression.’

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Have you enjoyed being a writer?

I feel lucky and privileged. I get to meet wonderful people.

Would you recommend it?

Yes, it’s wonderful.


And it was also a wonderful evening for the audience to hear Shena Mackay talking about the writing process and her work. Just to add, [my disclaimer] I took notes throughout the evening, but this blog is more of an impression of the Writers in Conversation event. It is not a word for word reproduction, so my apologies to Shena and Carol, if I have misheard or misinterpreted anything that was said.

carole burns b-w (jason parnell-brookes)-crop-u1106Carole Burns is a fiction writer, journalist and lecturer. She is head of creative writing at the University of Southampton. A journalist for more than 20 years, Burns crafted her first book, Off the Page: Writers Talk About Beginnings, Endings, and Everything in Between, from her interviews with forty-three of today’s foremost writers, including Colm Tóibín, A.S. Byatt, Jhumpa Lahiri, Anthony Doerr and Alice McDermott. She continues to interview authors and review books for The Washington Post, and has also written for The New York Times.  Her fiction has been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize and published in Ploughshares, Puerto del Sol and The Lonely Crowd, and supported by The MacDowell Colony and the Virginia Center for the Arts. The Missing Woman is her first collection of stories. Born and raised in Danbury, Conn., she lived for many years in Washington, D.C. She now lives in Cardiff, Wales, where she is also co-founder of the xx women’s writing festival.

You can follow Carol on Twitter: Carole_Burns

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Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children – Ransom Riggs

I had just come to accept that my life would be ordinary when extraordinary things began to happen. The first of these came as a terrible shock and, like anything that changes you forever, split my life into halves: Before and After. Like many of the extraordinary things to come, it involved my grandfather, Abraham Portman.

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Jacob has grown up on a feast of his grandfather’s stories. The most imaginative being about Grandpa Portman’s childhood. Portman was born in Poland and at twelve sent to a children’s home in Wales. Because, he said, the monsters were after him. The monsters in this instance were the Nazis. Abraham was the only survivor, the rest of his family were killed in the concentration camps. As Jacob gets older, he stops believing in his grandfather’s stories.

More fantastic still were his stories about life in the Welsh children’s home. It was an enchanted place, he said, designed to keep kids safe from the monsters, on an island where the sun shined every day and nobody ever got sick or died. Everyone lived together in a big house that was protected by a wise old bird-or so the story went.

A happy ever-after ending? As Jacob discovers this is only half the truth, the other half is the stuff made of his nightmares. After the horrific death of his grandfather, 16 year old Jacob has what appears to be Post Traumatic Shock Syndrome. He is duly sent to a psychiatrist who is more than just a little interested in Jacob’s dying grandfathers’ last words.

His grandfather leaves him a copy of The Selected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. In it he discovers a letter from the headmistress of the Welsh children’s home, Miss Peregrine and the postmark Cairnholm Is., Cymru, UK.

With the blessing of his psychiatrist, Jacob sets off with his father, to a remote island off the coast of Wales, Cairnholm. Here he discovers the shell of what was once Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.

In amongst the ruins of the house he discovers an old trunk and proceeds to smash it open. In the midst of the debris and wreckage, he discovers a bundle of old photographs that seem familiar.

They shared a certain nightmarish quality with my grandfather’s old photos, especially the ones he’d kept hidden in the bottom of his cigar box, as if somehow they’d all come from the same batch.

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These are not just any old family photographs, they are strange and frightening, the black and white quality adds to the mystery. Children lifting boulders, a man whose body is covered with swarming bees, two young children feeding each other ribbons. The photographs are scattered throughout the book, so that when Jacob describes a photo, the reader also sees what he is describing.*

After finding the photographs in the old house, Jacob leaves. He meets Emma, a strange girl who he follows through the woods and a bog, to a cairn that he walks through. He finds himself in a brighter place, the bog dry, and heads for a town that looks different. It’s not only the landscape that is different but time too. On checking a calendar he discovers it’s September 3. 1940.

And then one of the last things my grandfather said came to me. On the other side of the old man’s grave. It was something I’d never been able to figure out…”The Old Man,” I realized was what the locals called the bog boy, and his grave was the cairn. And earlier today I had gone inside it and come out someplace else: September third, 1940.

Jacob meets Miss Peregrine, who is really what’s known as an ymbryine, a shape shifter, she is in fact a bird, a peregrine, who can manipulate time.

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We can manipulate time fields consciously—and not only for ourselves, but for others—are known as Ymbrynes. We create temporal loops in which peculiar folk can live indefinitely…Only women are born ymbrynes, and thank heaven for that! Males lack the seriousness of temperament required of persons with such grave responsibilities.

The loop is in fact only one day, 3rd Sep 1940, that repeats over and over. The day the children’s home is bombed. It is the ymbryine’s who are responsible for re-setting the loops each day. Catastrophe, cataclysm, and disaster will follow if this doesn’t happen.

Miss Peregrine and her Peculiar Children give Jacob a performance, not dissimilar to acts you might see at a circus. The invisible man, a woman who turns into a bird, a girl who swallows fire, a gravitating routine and of course ‘THE AMAZING STRONG-GIRL OF SWANSEA’!

People come to sideshows to see stunts and tricks and what-all, and as far as anybody knew that’s exactly what we showed them…[It] used to be the way most peculiars made a living.

The peculiars don’t age (unless they leave the loop) so it seems odd that Jacob’s grandfather and Emma, who is still a teenager, were in love. Portman left the children’s home to fight the monsters in WWII, and never returned. Inevitably, Jacob and Emma fall in love. He discovers that his grandfather could see the monsters, they are invisible to most people even peculiars. And that when Portman disappeared on hunting trips, really he was hunting the monsters. Slowly Jacob realizes, he too is peculiar, he can see monsters. And what’s more they have followed him to the Island. Jacob has to make a decision that will change his life forever.

Part fantasy, part adventure, part eccentric photo collection. I’d had this book on my #TBR pile for some time. Just the title grabbed my interest. Being a little peculiar myself, anything in fiction that could be about children in care gets my interest.

I enjoyed the Before more than the After. I think this had to do with my suspension of disbelief. The first half felt very realistic, all that happened could truly have taken place in real life. The second half didn’t quite keep my attention, and I felt this part of the book would suit younger readers. This didn’t detract from my enjoyment, I was just more aware that I was reading a story.

A feature film of the book, directed by Tim Burton is due to be released March 4, 2016. You can see a movie trailer here.

Follow Ransom Riggs on Twitter: @ransomriggs

 

*The author Ransom Riggs, began collecting vintage snapshots and he found the strangest and most intriguing ones were always of children.

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The Gap of Time – Jeanette Winterson

There’s a history to the BabyHatches. Isn’t there always a history to the story? You think you’re living in the present but the past is right behind you like a shadow.

The beginning of The Gap of Time, Jeanette Winterson’s cover version of The Winter’s Tale, opens in an American city called New Bohemia. Here we see recently bereaved Shep, find a baby in a BabyHatch and take her home.

I am learning to be father and a mother to her. She asks about her mother and I say we don’t know. I have always told her the truth – or enough of it. And she is white and we’re black so she knows she was found.

AN81548906the gap of timeThe Hogarth Shakespeare series launched in October 2015 with The Gap of Time – Jeanette Winterson’s reinvention of The Winter’s Tale. The story of a king whose jealousy results in the banishment of his baby daughter and the death of his beautiful wife. His daughter is found and brought up by a shepherd on the Bohemian coast.

The narrative moves to London, a city reeling after the 2008 financial crisis where we find out how the abandoned baby ended up in a BabyHatch. We meet The Winter’s Tale characters transformed. Leo (Leontes) is no longer King of Sicilia but an ex banker with a hedge fund, a helicopter, and a personality that verges on the sociopathic, while his wife MiMi (Hermione) is a famous French folk singer complete with wikipedia entry. As in the original, the dramatic events accelerate when Leo blows a gasket over unfounded suspicions that his wife has been sleeping with his best friend, Xen (Polixenes) who is a US-based writer of computer games.

Xeno was running. He was fast but the jeep was faster. The neon overheads blurred. Numbered bays – 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25. A metal screen ahead. The Jeep was right behind him, Leo’s fist on the horn. Reno could feel the heat from the engine. Leo was going to crush him agains the barrier.

The narrative was fast-paced and at times I felt as though I was a passenger in a very fast car. The doors were locked and I had no choice but to either enjoy the ride or start shouting, ‘Let me out’. Winterson sticks closely to Shakespeare’s original, even giving a brief synopsis at the beginning of the novel. Some readers may not like the convenience of tying up loose ends but the difficulties of Shakespeares original are cleverly handled and transposed into modern life complete with romantic endings. Boy meets boy, boy gets girl, girl meets girl, and long lost people reunited. The Gap of Time is a novel about loss and love, about forgiveness and possible futures.

So many stories of lost and found. As though the whole of history is a vast Lost-Property Department…The missingness of the missing. We know what that feels like. Every endeavour, every kiss, every stab in the heart, every letter home, every leaving, is a ransack of what’s in front of us in the service of what’s lost.

It’s a story about a foundling, an orphan, a stolen child, an abandoned child. But ultimately, it is a story about forgiveness and the power of love.

Whitbread Award-winner Jeanette Winterson said of The Winter’s Tale:

All of us have talismanic texts that we have carried around and that carry us around. I have worked with The Winter’s Tale in many disguises for many years. This is a brilliant opportunity to work with it in its own right. And I love cover-versions.

The novel is composed according to the play’s acts, including two “Intervals”, in which the narrator invites us to step out of the story and consider its themes in relation to ourselves. Towards the end of this “cover version”, Winterson tells us that the play has been a “private text” for her for more than 30 years:

By that I mean part of the written wor(l)d I can’t live without; without, not in the sense of lack, but in the old sense of living outside of something. It’s a play about a foundling. And I am.

This major international project will see Shakespeare’s plays reimagined by some of today’s bestselling and most celebrated writers. The books will be true to the spirit of the original plays, while giving authors an exciting opportunity to do something new.

A further three novels will be published in the series during the 400th anniversary year of Shakespeare’s death in 2016: Howard Jacobson’s The Merchant of Venice in February, Anne Tyler’s The Taming of the Shrew in June and Margaret Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest in October.

The first four in the series will be joined by Tracy Chevalier’s Othello, Gillian Flynn’s Hamlet, Jo Nesbo’s Macbeth and Edward St Aubyn’s King Lear.

 

Thanks to Eric Karl Anderson @lonesomereader for the copy.

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Keynote Speaker #1

I recently travelled to Wales for The Consortium for Therapeutic Communities and the Glyndŵr University Conference:  “Agency – Creating Empowerment through therapeutic childcare and education.” TCTC is a membership charity which supports, promotes, develops and represents the application of therapeutic work across a wide range of setting. Amanda Knowles, Trustee and Director of TCTC, had asked me to be a keynote speaker.

Glyndwr University started in 2008 so are considered to still be one of the youngest universities in the UK, although they have been delivering education at their main Wrexham campus since 1887.

20151111_095945The journey to Wales was very easy (Euston to Chester and then a bus ride to the hotel). Unfortunately I found myself wide awake in the early hours suffering from indigestion and an upset stomach. To be away from home and ill was scary, something in the past I had dreaded. I took myself off for a walk around the gardens in the early hours. A strange experience as I kept bumping into statues of sheep! My first keynote speech – was it the food or nerves? Who knows!

Arriving at the Catrin Finch Centre in the university the following morning, I was greeted by Amanda and various other conference organisers including Steve Elliot, from Care Forum Wales, who opened the conference and introduced the theme of Agency, one of the five quintessences of a therapeutic environment identified by Rex Haigh, in his seminal article.

The first keynote speaker, Professor Robbie Gilligan from the University of Dublin was speaking about “Promoting Resilience and a Sense of Agency in Vulnerable Young People – The Role of Carers”. He gave the perfect lecture, no notes, the PowerPoint had just enough information, lots of interesting photographs, and a real understanding of what Resilience and Agency were. Robbie introduced his talk with a photograph that I’d recently seen in the Guardian. ‘Up until 1970, the UK regularly shipped thousands of orphans and illegitimate children abroad to a life of virtual slave labour and, often, abuse.’

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Robbie spoke of how some of the children had no idea they were being shipped halfway round the world, one young girl being told she was going on a picnic.

Photographs were key in Robbie’s presentation. He spoke about Agency. He showed some children, mid-air, diving from the edge of a pier to illustrate this. Of course young people in care need a huge amount of support, but there does come a time when they have to learn about independence. These days young people are leaving home much later in adulthood, though children in care are still being forced to jump ship before they are ready. The photograph showed how a young boy had chosen his own moment to jump. There was no adult standing behind him, or in the water to catch him. He just did it. This apparently is agency.

Soon it was my turn. But before I write about my experience. I want to share another keynote presentation, one I had been looking forward to for some months.

Dr. Yvon Guest, Chairperson, National Centre Research Group, Specialist Associate Lecturer, Department of Allied Health Professionals University of the West of England. Yvon’s presentation,  “Beyond just surviving: a psycho-social approach to resilience over the life span in care experienced adults” was very moving. It was the culmination of 10 years work on her PhD. She shared the stories of some care leavers, one of whom was 70 years old. What was very apparent was that age had not lessened the trauma of this man’s experience. Yvon’s research defines ‘in care’ very widely so as to include relative or kinship care and adoption as most care experinced adults have actually had a very mixed upbringing.

During questions, somebody asked what age should support for care leavers cease. Yvon spoke about the mental health issues that a lot of care leavers are left with, and that continue throughout their lives. She felt that access to services should be available at any age. I found myself thinking about a particular aspect of her presentation, something that has stayed with me. It was something so simple and yet it achieved resonance, how for some care experienced people, things stay lost. In particular relationships. I began thinking about a Museum of Lost Things, a place where people can go and remember those lost relationships or unrecoverable belongings. A place with thousands of lighted cabinets that hold the lost things in perpetuity.

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John Diamond, Yvon Guest, and sitting on the end, Kevin Gallagher one of the organisers of the event.

Going back in time a little, to my presentation, I had planned to start the session without speaking. To play Lemn Sissay’s powerful video that links orphans in fiction with real children in care. Unfortunately the sound was lost! I had to do an impromptu explanation. Lemn has a permanent exhibition at the Foundling Museum in central London which the vido is based on. I was so busy ad-libbing, I forgot to be nervous.

However, there was another reason I felt comfortable in the hall, and that it was the right and fitting environment for my first keynote presentation. This was because I knew that many of the people in the audience, worked therapeutically with children in care. They totally understood that the last thing children who are traumatised need, is to be moved from placement to placement. Although as I was told, sometimes it was impossible to stop this from happening. This audience cared very much about what happened to the children they were looking after. I admired the work they do and felt honoured to be speaking to them.

I explained the background to my research: For the first eight years of my life I was moved between family, foster placements, and residential children’s homes. At eight years old I was sent to a place in Muswell Hill, North London, and stayed there until I was sixteen.

As a small child, I was lucky that I was a good reader and so could get lost in stories and escape the madness around me. I was also lucky that in the books I read, there were so many orphans and abandoned children, characters like myself, that I could read about. However as I grew older, I noticed the lack of characters like myself. It was to be many years before I came across an adult care leaver in literature and that has only been in the last 15-20 years. It’s only been in recent years that the therapeutic benefits of reading have been discovered. I really believe that reading fiction saved my sanity.

I began my PhD journey when I attended Lemn Sissay’s ‘From Pip to Potter, Celebrating the Place of Children in Care in Literature’ at Southbank in February, 2012. I had been thinking of doing a creative writing PhD but up until that day, the subject wasn’t clear. I had felt as if I was at some sort of crossroads and it was a wonderful feeling to see the road clearly signposted. You can read more about that here.

As well as researching care leavers in fiction, I will be investigating the history of orphan literature. For example Dickens, the Brontes, and many other writers who chose orphans as their protagonists.

I want to understand whether and, if so, in what ways we see care-characters reflected in literature.

Texts serve as a way to identify with characters – think of texts as mirrors and windows – we look in a mirror to see ourselves, or through an open window to see what is happening out there.

51zhHg9R1QL._SY300_Fostered, adopted and parentless children are written into the heart body and spirit of 20th and 21st Century culture. But, what happens when those orphans grow up? Where were they? In 21st century literature, characters with a care background i.e. adopted, fostered, or in a children’s home, are often portrayed as criminals, especially in crime fiction. Think The Fall or Broadchurch, there are many more.

How does a care leaver achieve narrative coherence and find a voice to tell their story?

Is there a literary voice for the marginalised care leaver?

I shared an extract from my novel. This was probably the most scary part of the whole presentation. My writing is very personal. I spoke about how I will have to re-live leaving care all over again if I want to mine those gold nuggets. Recently I made the decision to get myself a therapeutic writing supervisor, so that if stuff comes up, I’ll be able to not only discuss whatever it is that is demanding to be heard, but also include the supervision as part of the PhD process.

The extract was very well received, so much so that during lunch a lot of people asked where they could get hold of the book! I also received invitations to speak in various parts of the UK, which I look forward to in the future.

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Starting a PhD

Earlier this week and still suffering from explosive head syndrome, I went to an introductory talk at the University of Southampton about starting a PhD. After the initial induction, I had been feeling somewhat confused, there were just too many online areas to search through,  another bunch of username and passwords to remember, and loads of training.

Apparently, I’m to undergo various online and face-to-face sessions, to become a doctoral researcher. Initially, I was a bit scathing; at my age did I really need more training? I’d had enough of e-learning and compulsory modules in the day job to last a few lifetimes. But, as I read through the Post Graduate Research Training timeline, I began to find the idea of the forthcoming process quite comforting. Even though I have very good research skills, through my job in a medical library, I realised there are some elements of undertaking a PhD that I know little or nothing about. For example, giving a research paper, even though I blagged it last year; I’d like to know how this is supposed to be done.

I was reminded that Doctoral degrees are awarded to students who have demonstrated the creation and interpretation of new knowledge, through original research or other advanced scholarship. We had to do a few group activities such as reading an ‘original contribution’ handout and discussing which categories our own research might fit into. I was seated next to Kostas, a South West & Wales DTP student and we discussed our differing interests. It seems that Kostas is an expert in literary theory, and apparently he eats those sorts of books for lunch. This was interesting because I am useless at understanding all that jargon. Do we really need to understand literary theory if we are writing a creative piece? Wasn’t the critical part of the thesis all about reflecting on our own writing, rather than apply theory? I hope by the end of the PhD that I will be able to understand theory a bit better than I do now. Click here for Mike Harris discussing theories of creative writing much better than I can ever hope to.

However, I did mention The Novel, A survival skillby Tim Parks, who I’d heard speaking a few weeks ago. I think this made me seem more clued up than I really am! Though if I was to include some sort of theoretical discussion about my writing, I would definitely be coming from the Parks school of thought. His new book, The Novel, looks at the relationship between writer, text, and reader. The author is very much alive in his book. Parks goes on to discuss how the novelist and the reader, read texts depending on their own backgrounds, family positioning, and habits of communication. I find this idea fascinating.

How does a care leaver, without family, without the usual societal confines, read a novel? How would a care leaver write a novel? What happens when we bring all our baggage to the narrative? For example, when I read Jane Eyre, as a young girl, I was very much rooting for her to succeed, to marry him. For me it was a love story, I believed in the happy ending. But what if I was sixteen and Jamaican? Would it be a love story or a narrative about an abused wife? Park’s ideas open up reading and writing to a whole new psychodynamic way of understanding texts.

By the end of the PhD introductory talk, I felt the brain fog beginning to lift. I was starting to understand what was expected of me and could see an emerging PhD structure which to someone who is a little on the OCD scale, and likes order, this was reassuring.

Back home, I feel a bit like a mine sweeper, ever alert for a new piece of writing. As English researchers, at this moment in history, it is our job to excavate literature and capture new thoughts in our nets, before sifting and sorting, creating neat piles of text and finally choosing what will and won’t be contributed to new knowledge.

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