Friday, 6 February 2009

Forensics and Time Capsules

I'm sorry I didn't post last week but I was in the process of putting together a submission package (sounds like a depraved masochistic ritual) after making contact with a potential new agent. Emailed the material on Monday - silence so far. Yup, it's that old waiting game we love so much.

On Wednesday I went up to London. Yes, really: I managed to nip up there and back in the weather window between snow and more snow. I went to a talk on forensics held by the Society of Authors. This was very well attended; a whole roomfull of literary murderous intent! I went along not because I'm engaged in writing a crime novel (though I did write two thirds of one a few years ago, and you never know, I may return to it) but because I have a dark and gory mind. The speakers were novelist Laura Wilson and Andy Mann, a forensics officer - both were heavy on anecdote and lighter on information than I'd expected. Realised I must be more up on the subject than I'd thought - due to reading loads of Mo Hayder, Tess Gerritsen and the like. Oh yes, I know all about Luminol and insect larvae, y'know! After the talk, met up with writers Jacqui Lofthouse and Kate Harrison, whom I hadn't seen in ages. Both of them horrifically productive compared to me. It was lovely to see them.

An hour after I arrived back in Oxford, the snow sneaked back ...

Two recent reads: first Jane Urquhart's 'A Map of Glass', set in Canada. I nearly gave up on this one because after a promising introductory section the novel focussed on a middle-aged woman, Sylvia, meeting an artist and his girlfriend because the artist had discovered the frozen body of the Sylvia's lover and she needs to talk to him, confide in him about her secret romance with the dead man and find, in the facile term, 'closure'. I found it hard to engage with any of these characters and the pace was turgid. Then, all of a sudden, things picked up: the next section of the book was set in the nineteenth century. It was emotionally compelling in a way the earlier part hadn't been and the language, which all along was beautiful, with exquisite observation of the natural world, now served a clearer purpose. Quite simply, I cared. I needed to know. I turned the pages. The resolution to the book made all the cryptic distance of the early part justified: it was moving and poignant. If you read it, the description of the hotel on the coast being inexorably encroached on by sand dunes will not leave you.

The other book was Penelope Lively's 'The House in Norham Gardens'. This is a children's book written in 1974 and much admired by the likes of Philip Pullman. Quite rightly so: it too is beautifully observed and written. However, as I was reading it I had the jaundiced thought that were this book being offered to publishers nowadays, it might not see the light. The writing is detailed and descriptive, the pace very slow indeed. The background to the central character Clare's life is shown in detail before anything 'happens': the slow build-up of atmosphere and curiosity might well have an impatient modern editor rejecting the story before it has the chance to get going - and that would be such a shame, because it is a warm and wise story. It deals with the subject of time: Clare lives with two aged aunts (who are wonderful, typically North Oxford women) in a Victorian house in Oxford. The house is filled with the detritus of Empire. It's a time capsule of social, academic and imperial history. This, for me, was ironic, as you could see the novel itself as a time capsule. A lot has changed since 1974, so part of the pleasure of reading it now is nostalgia. The politeness of the speech patterns; contemporary politics ('This business in Ireland is horribly distressing'); the way the aunts can't cope with the new-fangled decimal currency; Clare's friendship with a coloured student from Africa ('I suppose he'd be well thought of, in his own country?' said Maureen); phone-calls made from red telephone boxes; the lodger, Maureen, with her hair in curlers, describing her sister's wedding dress: 'A courtelle mixture with a raised motif. Eight yards.' Ah, courtelle ... bri-nylon ... crimplene .... How many man-made fibres of the Sixties and Seventies can you name?

I hope, if the snow is at your door, that you're staying inside with a really good book. By a roaring fire. With a cup of cocoa. But not wearing courtelle: too much static electricity, m'dear.

1 comment:

KAREN said...

Great news about the submission, I shall keep my fingers crossed for you :o) And yes, we're snowed in here too! I'm quite enjoying it actually ...