The summer programme is now in full swing and it’s wonderful to be receiving positive feedback both on the books people have discovered via my latest selection and the guest posts from Bev Thomas and Judith Heneghan. No doubt that will continue following today’s visit from Ros Franey, whose debut novel leapt out from my steady stream of book post for its under-represented setting – Nottinghamshire, to be precise – and because it’s published by a small independent, Muswell Press. More surprisingly for me, it’s one of three of my latest dozen recommendations featuring the voice/perspective of a young or pre-teen child (when it comes to non-adult narrators generally I prefer adolescent perspective), something I’ll return to in my review at the end of this post.
I was so short of head space when putting this programme together that I asked Ros to suggest a topic (usually I offer a couple of options as the starting point). That proved an excellent move – I think readers and writers alike will enjoy hearing about her use of facts and source materials and, crucially, imagination and instinct. It is fiction, after all…
When I was a little girl my Dad told me he knew a dog who had wagged her tail into a dish of beetroot, splattering pink juice over the walls. We thought this was hilarious, and because I’d always wanted a dog I secretly wished for one that could come into our house and liven up our magnolia sitting-room. The beetroot fragment surfaced, after decades, from my brain’s deep storage and inserted itself into my novel, setting off a calamitous chain of events in which the innocent suffer before evil is ultimately exposed. The dog wasn’t even supposed to be there. She simply appeared and then became indispensable to the plot – my beloved fantasy dog, so real that I wept when her part in the story was over.
In my day-job, journalism and documentary filmmaking, facts are non-negotiable, whatever Donald Trump may say. They’re also a comfort-blanket, so the business of invention is pretty daunting. I had to force myself not to research the finer points of Nottingham c.1930, where my story is set, though I was delighted to find an account of daily life and contemporary medical procedures in the psychiatric hospital where several scenes take place, and I drew gratefully on those. So I was amused to hear criticism from one book-group reader, a psychiatrist, who condemned my telling of the hospital set-up and treatment as ‘totally wrong and implausible’, since that was the only aspect of the novel to be a faithful reproduction of what actually happened. It reminded me that ‘facts’ sit unreliably with creative writing and one has to learn to invent the truth.
Which is not to say, of course, that actual experience plays no part. Who would be interested in truths unrecognizable to the reader – yes, of fantasy, too? From the same unplumbed depths that threw up the dog and the beetroot, I imagine all authors use those snatches of memory and observation that rise unbidden in the process of writing.
The idea for The Dissent of Annie Lang came from a visit I made in the 1990s to my grandparents’ old house, which as a child I had visited periodically with my mother. Mum, by then 80-something, was with me when we were invited in by the owners to find a home wonderfully transformed. Gone were the dreary spaces and dingy varnish of my childhood: light flooded into its warm, airy rooms and I marvelled at how much better life is now … until we entered the room where Mum and I used to sleep. And there I smelt The Smell. It was a smell I‘d given no thought to since I was little, a smell of damp, but also of something worse, a reek of putrefaction rising from the cellar I knew to be underneath. And on the instant I had passed into another dimension, nine years old again, alone in the shivery, dismal black-and-white world of the mid-twentieth century. No matter how transformative the renovation, the central heating, The Smell had survived – and still invoked a sense of something rotten under the floorboards as powerfully as when I was a small girl. Once outside, rather shaken, I asked Mum whether she had smelt it too. ‘What smell?’ she said – and I realised it was my smell, my imagination, not her reality, although she had grown up with that dank room; could have suffered The Smell for years. At that moment the seed of the novel lodged in my head and although it took another 15 years to emerge I knew it wouldn’t be a piece of journalism, and that I could write it.
I deliberately avoided Nottingham after that. I dwelt in a misty recollection of the place I’d known as a child, which was, of course, already far removed from Annie Lang’s Nottingham of the 1920s. Some of the story takes place in St Ann’s, a run-down area famously recorded by a couple of sociologists from Nottingham University before it was redeveloped in the 1970s. In the old slum there was a Mission for the poor, a Mission which Annie Lang is forced to attend – just as my mother had in reality been forced in her childhood.
Liberated by the knowledge that none of this survived, I had fun half-inventing the evangelical doctrine I needed my characters to practise there, a sort of mish-mash of fundamentalist sects, British non-conformism and a kind of radical Anglicanism in which the souls of the young are ‘saved’ by punishment. These ‘facts’ are invented, but the truth they construct is, I hope, real. It’s a truth about how bigotry, hypocrisy and paternalism can be defeated by the optimism and clear-eyed vision of the young. And although the invention is set in the 1920s, the truth is now.
Thanks to Ros for contributing such an interesting and atmospheric piece – I could relate to the creative decisions writers must make in the interests of the story, and agree there’s a lot more to ‘truth’ than factual accuracy. What do you think?
The more I think about this novel, the more I’m struck by its subtlety of execution. A notable example is the author’s complex use of time: in the 1932 strand Annie Lang is 18 and although she is 12-13 in (what felt like) the main narrative which takes place in 1926, she’s looking as far back as the age of six. It’s sometimes a little disorienting, but it captures the way perceptions and understanding develop with age and experience, a process particularly rapid and intense in growing up which has lifelong reverberations. This is a novel about a young girl which leaves a strong impression of the woman she will become.
Annie has a unique voice and character to match – I really cared about her. The oppressiveness of her upbringing, worsened by a family tragedy, could have felt horribly bleak but Annie makes it poignant, endearing and often funny (putting the dog Nana centre stage was a masterstroke.) The success of a child’s voice lies in its ability to engage and convince in its own right whilst – sometimes unknowingly – revealing and questioning the values and behaviour of the adult world. On those criteria this novel succeeds, plunging the reader into Annie’s understandably confused view of events which are shocking even to adults, exposing the misogyny and double standards of a patriarchal society and its institutions. Despite her tender age and personal misfortunes, Annie is neither a victim nor is she purely an observer; she makes things happen and the result is a compelling and memorable story, aspects of which have yet to be consigned to history.
Further reading on books with Midlands settings:
Further reading on the use of child or adolescent voices:
Next week I’ll be hosting a sumptuous post by Louisa Treger on returning to her family roots in Durban, South Africa, in connection with new novel The Dragon Lady which is set in the former Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).