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I finished!

Over the last couple of weeks I have been reading Gillespie and I, by Jane Harris.  Now I have got to the end of it, I am confused…

The story is narrated by Harriet Baxter, a woman in her 70’s, and is split between her current life in 1930’s London, and her life in Glasgow in the 1880’s.  We learn about her relationship with Ned Gillespie and his family, his struggle to get the recognition deserved for his art, and her role as friend and confidante to all, until tragedy hits the family. We also, in her current life, learn about her vague, but growing, fears for her safety.  I won’t say more here because anything else is likely to be a massive spoiler!

I started the book thinking it was some sort of mystery, which it is, but it’s also a story about mental health issues, murder, loneliness, loss and betrayal, and I still don’t know exactly what role the protagonist played in the deeply painful events described.  Harriet’s story is very much her own.

As a writer, I have often come across examples of the unreliable narrator in exercises, but this particular one has worked very well for multiple reasons.

Firstly, it’s not explicit that she really is an unreliable narrator: it could just be my imagination.  That ambivalence about her honesty or otherwise is really powerful and such a great way of muddying the waters.

Secondly, it is not clear how much of what she says is factually true.  Many points are debated and obviously we see her point of view, but there is no gauge to show whether she is lying or just putting her perception of events forward. There is always an explanation because she only tells the story she can explain.

Thirdly, the story she tells is allegedly about her time with the Gillespie family, and yet much of what she reports is through the prism of how Ned Gillespie might have viewed it (albeit from her point of view).  That makes Ned unreliable too.  His characteristics are a contradictory mishmash of blunt politeness, of honest self-censorship, that leave me questioning their interactions.

I started the book expecting a more genre-specific mystery and it took quite a while for me to realise I didn’t feel certain about Harriet, either in her behaviour or her reports of her behaviour.  I can’t say more than that here, except it does explain why I thought it was so slow to get going!

From a writing point of view this was fascinating to unpick.  The imagery, the style, the narrative technique, the characterisation and the setting were all very cleverly interwoven and this was a very tightly packed book, stylistically speaking.

From a reading point of view I was hoping for more of a payoff at the end, although the foreshadowing of what comes after the book is shut was another technique I have to consider further in my own work.

I can see this being a great reading group book or intensive study book, because it has so many facets to it that I probably missed quite a few, but for me personally, it is a real education in the power of the right narrative decision, and the right narrator.

It’s not a book I would naturally choose for a second read, but I wonder how I would view the story, knowing what I know now.  It has definitely piqued my interest, that’s for sure!

Happy reading,

EJ

🙂

 

 

 

 

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If you imagined that being sung by Dory, you are not alone 🙂

I am still reading Gillespie and I, although I have to be honest and say I gave it up for a few days.  I found it a little stodgy early on, and there was something else I didn’t quite connect with which I will try to decipher for next week!

But I am a reader, and a reader doesn’t give up that easily, so I picked it up and started again, and I am getting quite into the story.  This is why I don’t like giving up too early, even if I have learnt that some books are just not right for me!

I am now on page 151 of 605 so I better get a move on if I am going to report back on this one next week.  If I don’t, as long as I am reading, enjoying and learning something for my writing self, it’s all good.

Happy reading,

EJ

🙂

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I haven’t finished a book this week – I am reading Gillespie and I,by Jane Harris, but only started it yesterday.

I noticed, though, that I am quite enjoying historical novels nowadays.  I remember at the crime writing convention last year, one of the writers joked that they wrote historical crime novels because they demanded less accuracy in the details.  That’s probably true, but I wouldn’t know if the details of a criminal investigation were right in a modern book either!

However, I find atmosphere to be much more affecting in historical stories.  Things like foggy streets, shadowy corridors with flickering candles, carts rumbling in the gloom, all give a sense of foreboding that is very particular and suits me at the moment.

Hopefully I will finish the book this week but it’s over 600 pages long, so that might be a bit of a stretch…

Happy reading,

EJ

🙂

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It’s taken a little longer than expected but I have finally finished Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, a book that I chose as I wanted to see how difference was approached.

The key characteristic this book covers is race, but class, education and culture are also addressed to greater or lesser degrees.

The book focusses on the stories of Ifemelu and Obinze, who fall in love in school and imagine a future for themselves as a couple.

However due to the frustrations of life in Nigeria at the time, Ifemelu chooses to travel to the U.S. to complete her education and Obinze stays in Nigeria to support his mother.

This break takes the novel in two directions – documented, beautiful Ifemelu struggles with race in the U.S. but her legal status gives her a degree of security and her relationships – first with a rich white American and then with a black Harvard professor – both soothe and frustrate her.  Meanwhile Obinze makes his way to the UK, overstating his visa and surviving via shared national insurance numbers, where there is a crackdown on undocumented immigrants, and he lives in a state of fear and panic every day.

As Ifemelu makes a career as a blogger on matters of race in the U.S., Obinze finds himself on the wrong side of the law in the UK and has to restart his life in a new, democratic Nigeria.

I won’t say more about the story but there were a few things that stood out to me.

This book made me think about race in a different way.  Ifemelu notes that she ‘discovered race in America’, and that is how it feels. She understood her position in society in Nigeria, and the relative position of others, and she understood the kudos given to those of her school friends who travelled to the U.S. or UK.  But colour, and its context, were not uppermost in her mind.  You see, as she sees, the strange gradient of colour that informs her America.  Equally, you feel the cold, outsider status Obinze experiences as he tries to stay under the radar in the UK.

For me that was eye opening: the feelings people have about race, the explanations given via Ifemelu’s blog on why white people cannot understand the issues, the basic notion that people don’t know how to talk about race.  All these things are obvious – but some people can forget it more than others.

Also, both characters are interesting, flawed people who make some poor choices with the feeling of utter desperation: it gave context to their need to leave Nigeria, at the same time as showing the life they chose instead wasn’t guaranteed. It proved that the grass is not always greener and particularly for Obinze that proved to be the case.

It was an absorbing and interesting insight.

What didn’t work so well for me was Ifemelu’s romantic life.  It made her exceptional in some ways, and in others made me feel she was reimagining her aunt’s life: plucked from poverty and offered a life most people can only dream about.  I think the interracial aspects were muted by the sense of privilege – we didn’t see the challenges faced by the two of them.  The underlying idea that this relationship was somehow related to her green card is only really mentioned when the relationship is long over.

Perhaps there were subtleties which escaped me, or terms used which have a different context in US English, which said more than I realised here in the book.  Both are of course entirely possible!

I enjoyed the story in Nigeria which was eye-opening and, eventually, hopeful.  I found Obinze’s time in the UK painful and heard-rending.  I found Ifemelu’s early exposure to the U.S. emotionally painful.  It was only the relationship with the uber-rich, super-handsome, all-round good guy that jarred with me because it didn’t feel real.

Despite that, I would be happy to read it again.  At its core, it is the story of a defining love crushed by desperation, guilt and shame, and the hope that one day your path will take you where your heart wants to go.

As a writer, it has given me a lot to think about!

Happy reading,

EJ

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Every day, I set aside some time to write and do any coursework needed. It’s time set aside from paid work, housework, social life, hobbies etc and it is down to me how – and how well – I use the time.

This week has been more about reading than writing, with most of my literary time spent in Americanah, or textbooks, or newspapers.

After Thursday’s post I practiced what I preached and bought a newspaper to dig through over the next few days.  It is big and has many supplements so it’ll take me a bit of time to dissect the stories and articles, balance them and see what, if anything, inspires me.

I already have a few ideas and I am eager to see if they fly…

Although there are no new words on paper, to write I must give myself time to read, so this week was like research, or an extension of my learning.

It’s been a good exercise in identifying how the right word was chosen, understanding the subtle manipulations of thought that writers have to achieve, identifying what grabs my attention as a reader.

In many respects, it has been an opportunity to review my recent learning on style, language and context.

Over the next week I will be getting into my next writing course, playing with the newspaper articles to see what they create, and finishing Americanah so I have a chance to reflect on difference in writing.

For now, I am going to curl up with a good book and a pile of newspaper in the hope that I can share my experiences with you next week!

Happy writing,

EJ

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There is no book post this week as I have been busy supporting some close relatives with a house move. It’s been quite difficult finding time to do anything much more than packing and rehearsals for the last few days in fact!

Still, it’s all material for some future scene, so I won’t consider it wasted time, just deferred opportunity!

Happy reading,

EJ

🙂

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Last week I told you I was reading to explore feeling as an element of setting.  I didn’t get to the poetry part of my reading but I did finish the novel: The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green.

If I am being completely honest, I stopped reading with purpose very early on, as I was enjoying reading the story so much, but I did pick up on a few elements.

For those who don’t know the story, it is a love story which starts in a cancer support group for kids.  Hazel is terminally ill but in limbo thanks to her drug regimen, and Augustus had bone cancer which cost him his leg.

The reason this is important is because feeling in the book was often about the impact of illness: Hazel can feel discomfort in a location based not only on the place but on her physical symptoms at that time.

We are led as readers to think about physical bodies in different ways throughout the book – the Literal Heart of Jesus, which is where the support group meets, the tickling in Hazel’s nose as she breathes in the oxygen from her tank, the crooked smile of Augustus, the elements people have lost due to treatment.  Importantly, though the characters have a high degree of charm and intelligence and a verbosity above that of most teenagers they are ‘normal’, if such a thing exists.  They are people who happen to have or have had cancer.  It is part of them but not them.

I don’t feel this book will help with the elements of setting I want to develop but I do think the thematic device of exploring the physicality of a scene is another way to approach the subject which is new to me.

It is also a great example of how to write characters who come to life for the reader.  I have never read a book with so many jokes about illness and its consequences, and the reason it works and doesn’t offend is because the characters are so genuine and you can truly imagine the slightly unnerving banter being accepted in this group.  It is very cleverly done because however risky the jokes, the characters maintain their likeability.  It’s a good example of how important the consistency of a character is for the effective telling of stories.

I may refer back to this book when I focus on characters.

Happy reading,

EJ

🙂

 

 

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