Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: Wales (Page 1 of 8)

What used to be the Corbett Family Christmas Letter

This time last year my mum was given a few weeks to live. We all hunkered down for what looked to be a series of ‘last time’ events. As it turns out, Christmas 2017 has arrived and Mum is still with us. She has grumbled about this on-and-off throughout the year: I’m ready to go Elizabeth. But it has been a big year with many exciting moments and we are all glad she is still with us.

The Tides Between

I haven’t hit the best seller lists, or purchased a castle next to J K Rowling yet, but, the publication of my debut novel has probably dominated my year. It started with the announcement of a publishing contract in January and worked its way through professional author shots, cover designs, author panels, conferences, and late edits, to a fanfare launch at Hawthorn Library on 9 November. I’ve since done interviews and written guest posts, in Welsh and English, been reviewed, asked to refrain from posting on a few Facebook groups since, with the release of my novel I’d become a ‘commercial venture’ (ha,ha,ha says every mid-list author in the world). I have also received emails from both friends and complete strangers telling me how much they enjoyed, or have been touched, even healed, by my novel, how parts brought tears to their eyes. Those small messages have made the whole journey worthwhile. As did mum, proudly hawking copies from a recliner chair in her nursing home.

 

The Work in progress

In between birthing on the above magnus opus I have been doing the groundwork for my current work in progress. It will not be the sequel to The Tides Between for which I have so cruelly set you up. See, I’d got to the end of writing the manuscript and figured it wouldn’t be good for my mental health to be working on a second book while receiving rejection letters for the first. The concept for Stone Promises was born – a novel written from the viewpoint of Marred ferch Dafydd (the ignored-by-history wife of Owain Glyn Dŵr). I spent a couple of months in May/June visiting Glyn Dŵr sites and beavering away in Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru. I am now in the process of reading, noting, and creating a world out of what I unearthed. I will return to Wales for more research in August 2018 (because I can) and stay at the wonderful Stiwdio Maelor again. I hope to have a good first draft by this time next year (the sheer weight of research is making this a slow process) and will then get onto that sequel I have promised.

The Family

Andrew and I continue to enjoy post-family life in our timber cottage in Melbourne’s funky inner-North. Andrew has run seven marathons this year and also done a 100km ultra marathon. He continues to pedal his bike up horrible hills for pleasure and has also enjoyed some challenging walks in Tasmania. Oh, yes, in the absence of the above mentioned bestseller status, he also pays the bills.

Around this time last year, Jack, Ness, and Charlie welcomed baby Christopher into their midst in Southhampton. The whole family came back to Oz for two months mid-year. We all enjoyed watching Christopher make his first forays in to the world of commando crawling and hearing Charlie’s linguistically delightful stories. Strangely, at this point in the calendar mum went a bit quiet on the: I’m ready to die front. It was quite nice to see Jack and Ness too. 😁

 

Phoebe and Andy have also enjoyed a number of hiking trips, including the Overland Track in Tasmania. They are gearing up for a Swiss hike in the New Year. Phoebe represented the family at our AFS daughter, Alice’s, wedding in in October. Priya and her partner Evan moved house again this year (never fun). Priya also exchanged her aged-care job for a retail job which she finds far less stressful. Seth and Monique have had a successful year on both work and home-renovation fronts. But the big news is the arrival of their baby Genevieve Isabel born 22nd December just in time for Christmas.

 

The arrival of a brand new Corbett is a worthy conclusion to what used to be the Family Christmas letter. Needless to say, we are all looking forward to oohing and ahh-ing and getting to know baby Genevieve over the festive season and have all raced out to buy an extra present for under the Christmas tree. In fact, mum is so delighted, she’s glad she stuck around for another year.

The Chicken Soup Murder – an interview with Maria Donovan

I came across Maria Donovan’s debut novel while hanging around on an amazing supportive, wound licking and all around fabulous Facebook Group where readers, writers and bloggers share their milestones, tell stories, seek reviews and exchange bookish information. Under a post about my newly released The Tides Between, Maria wrote: ‘Your book sounds fascinating.’

‘Thanks,’ I wrote back. ‘I’m terrible at asking this question but…would you like a reviewing copy?’

‘Sure,’ she said. ‘Would you like one of my book?’

‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘of course! Was there any other possible response? Though, for all I knew, her book was a seven-hundred page tome on the joys of knitting with dog’s hair.

Turns out, Maria’s book was a novel (phew) called The Chicken Soup Murder and, quite frankly, I don’t mind a bit of cosy crime. I settled down for a good read. I wasn’t disappointed. The Chicken Soup Murder is the most surprisingly, whimsical, laugh-aloud, yet deeply affecting, family, come cosy crime novel, I’ve read in ages. Here’s how it begins:

‘The day before the murder George Bull tried to poison me with a cheese sandwich.

Break time: he got me in a headlock in the playground, patted my face like he was being friendly, smiled for the cameras and said, ‘Why don’t you and me have a picnic?’

After the first chapter, I expected the narrative to switch to an adult viewpoint. It didn’t – though The Chicken Soup Murder is certainly not a children’s story. It paints a poignant picture of three households affected by a health tragedy and then by a second sudden unexpected death. Young Michael is convinced the latter is suspicious. But his Nan won’t listen because, running beneath the possibility of a murder next door is a family secret which she refuses talk about – a secret which can be traced back to that little country to the west of England of which I’m rather fond. Published by Seren Books The Chicken Soup Murder is a startlingly original debut – so startling I’ve asked Maria Donovan to answer a few questions for my blog.

You’ve written poetry and plays and loads of short stories and now this amazing novel, can you tell how/why you began to write?

I began scribbling young and by the time I was eight had decided I wanted no other career than to be a writer. Since I did not want to go into journalism I just had to get on with it by myself. Life did a bit too much getting in the way and I only made writing the focus of my energies when I was in my thirties. It feels like it’s the only thing I really ought to be doing, other than trying to act with kindness. I’m competent enough at some other things to have been waylaid by alternative careers including nursing, gardening, being a magician’s assistant, and teaching. Thing is that I feel scratchy and unhappy if I haven’t been writing. So now I just think it’s a must.

So in my thirties I faced up to my own ambition, rather worried that I would find out I wasn’t much good after all. Looking back that’s one of the things that was stopping me. Until I tested myself I could carry on with the dream that I’d do it ‘one day’.

I don’t have too much trouble having ideas and making a start. What I’ve had to learn to do is finish something and make it as good as possible and then move on to the next project. Getting my first computer made a huge difference to the way I was able to organise my writing and keep going until it reached a finished state. Before that I was just swamped by paper and ‘alternative versions’. My publishing history shows I was more comfortable at first with short stories and flash fiction. But now I’ve completed a novel (having had a few half-baked attempts), I find I’ve developed a taste for the longer form.

What was the catalyst for The Chicken Soup Murder?

The title comes directly from an incident in which my husband’s dodgy DIY nearly killed me while I was making chicken soup. Like the character in my story, I laughed it off, but it set me thinking about a crime novel and I promised him I’d come up with something with that title one day. I had no idea what that would be and years passed. Things became much more complicated because my husband died of mesothelioma, a cancer caused by asbestos in 2010. I abandoned the novel I was writing before and while he was ill – and had to find something new. The idea of writing a novel dedicated to Mike, which has his warmth and humour appealed to me. The novel also has its realistic and serious side: how different people cope or don’t cope with living in a state of grief.

Did you always intend it to be written from the viewpoint of a teenage boy?

Yes. After Mike died, I wrote various short stories from the point of view of a grieving woman of about my age and I knew I needed to create some distance from my own perspective. An eleven year old boy seemed far enough!

If yes, why? If no, how did you arrive at Michael’s voice?

I needed to create a completely new perspective and to see everything I had experienced in terms of grieving as if it was all new. It really helped me to seal the story into that one channel of the boy’s experience – though he observes and reveals more than he understands and his own sense of what the adults around him are going through grows over the course of the novel. As for the voice, he just seemed to speak in my mind. I did transfer myself back to my eleven-year-old self: I still feel close to that inner child! I also listened – a lot – to girls and boys of that age and how they speak in the 21st century. Michael has been a good deal in the company of adults too – I make that clear – and has picked up all kinds of things from listening to his nan and her friend Irma, the cricket commentary and Nan’s beloved BBC Radio 4. I did have one go at writing the novel in the third person but Michael was quite insistent that I should restrict myself to his point of view without any means of knowing more than he could know. In the end I just couldn’t escape him: he was a voice in my mind and I just wrote it down.

Tell me about your Welsh connections? Your adventures with the language?

I went to University in South Wales and heard and saw Welsh there for the first time properly. I thought it fascinating and felt a lot more comfortable once I knew how to pronounce the words. Some of my good friends in Wales speak Welsh as their first language, and the University did offer Welsh courses, but I was so busy teaching (after graduating I did an MPhil in Writing and taught creative writing there for nine years) that my progress was patchy at best. When I moved back to Dorset I started to feel a sense of homesickness for Wales and its people and culture. In the last year I have practised nearly every day and at last begin to feel I am making some progress. I have now made friends here in West Dorset with other people who for various reasons regret missing out on knowing or speaking Welsh and are trying to put that right. Some are fluent and some are stumbling beginners but we’re helping each other.

And another curious thing happened. As I moved back to my native Dorset and learned more about the marks of ancient settlement in the landscape I thought about my ancestors who might have lived here a couple of thousand years ago and I longed to know how they might have spoken. I reasoned that this would originally have been a language common with the one that developed into Welsh. It would have been changed somewhat by the coming of the Romans and then obliterated by the Anglo-Saxons who demoted the value of the culture and language of the indigenous people until it all but disappeared except in Wales and to some extent in Cornwall. It’s an odd but satisfying feeling that I’m regaining something that has been lost – even though I know that the language would have changed a great deal over time. It is starting to feel natural and part of me. Which is very exciting! When I saw you were also learning, that felt like a great connection between us – as well as being novelists and writers.

What are you writing now?

While my debut novel was going through its pre-publication hoops I kept on writing short stories and flash fiction and was composting some ideas for a new novel, about a woman who goes missing. It’s partly set in the south of the Netherlands (I also speak Dutch and feel I can bear witness to the culture in a way that will seem satisfying) and partly in the UK.

When I met the famous writer Fay Weldon, who gave me such a lovely endorsement for The Chicken Soup Murder, she pointed out that if I were able to call it a psychological thriller this would help sales more than the label literary novel. Her wise words gave me a great way to approach the material I was working on for the new book: working title The Miller’s Wife. I thought, if I see it as a novel of psychological suspense from the start, I will know exactly what to call it when someone asks! It follows a search for someone who is perhaps missing, perhaps dead, perhaps murdered. There’s also an underlying theme of how people fall through the cracks and into homelessness. Once again, I hope to employ humour and pace – I need to maintain my own interest in order to be able to keep going to the end!

More about Maria Donovan and where to buy The Chicken Soup Murder can be found on Maria’s blog.

A sense of completion

Last December, Mum was given a few weeks to live. My brother flew home from Africa, his family cancelled their plans to join him, we had end of life meetings with doctors and nursing staff, and re-arranged Christmas Day so that we could all be at the nursing home for lunch. Christmas passed and we braced ourselves for mum’s final days.

They didn’t come.

Around March mum’s Doctor said: ‘You’re looking awfully well for someone who was only given a few weeks to live.’

He ran some blood tests. Mum had rallied. Her kidney function had risen from sub-ten to over twenty five. She wasn’t impressed but she enjoyed holding her second great grandchild in July after which, I suggested she might like to stick around for my book launch. No, she was adamant. ‘I am ready to go Elizabeth.’

A couple of weeks ago, we had another scare. Mum’s kidney function plunged. Sitting beside her on the bed, I said: ‘Oh mum, I did so want to put my book in your hands.’

‘Never mind,’ she said. ‘I know you’ve done it.’

I haven’t always been a good daughter. I’ve railed against mum’s decline. But she’s my Welsh link; the reason I wrote the novel I’ve written. The reason I fell in love with a language. See, we were a migrant family. My parents left the UK to give their children greater opportunities. They had to start again from scratch. Both worked full time (back in the days when that was not so common). Dad faced perpetual homesickness. Mum held the whole thing together. When I got pregnant during the final year of my arts degree it put their whole reason for emigrating in jeopardy. Dad died before he got a chance to see it turn out alright. Mum will be too frail to attend my book launch. But yesterday, I was able to put The Tides Between in her hands.

***

It didn’t feel right to put buying links at the end of this post but people are asking. So, you can find them here.

Publication day – the inspiration of having a Welsh novelist in the family

Growing up in Australia. I was raised on childhood stories that occurred in a far away place my parents fondly called ‘home.’ Dad talked of Ilford, during the blitz, and how this father an art metalworker had worked on the Bank of England’s wrought iron doors. Mum spoke of growing up in industrial South Wales. Her father had worked on the docks, she told us. But she was related to Lord Llewellyn Haycock. Her cousin was the 1960s historical novelist John James.

Now, growing up in Australia I wasn’t too impressed by the notion of having a lord in the family (even if he did earn the title). However, I recall thinking: maybe one day I’ll write a novel too!

I married young and had a pocket full of children and the novel writing dream got forgotten. Though, at one point, I did order John James’s, Not for all the Gold in Ireland, through our local library’s interlibrary loan service. It was strangely compelling, with characters called Taliesin and Rhiannon and Pryderi. I didn’t realise at the time those were names from the Mabinigion.

Later when I finally set out to write a novel of my own, I decided on a whim to include Welsh characters. Through a process of hap a damwain, those characters became storytellers. I read a host of Welsh fairy tales in the course of my research as well as the Mabinogion and thought, hang on a sec, where have I heard these names before?

I learned Welsh while drafting my novel and began writing to Gwyn, another of mum’s cousins. Gwyn had researched the James family tree. The accompanying booklet had articles about Lord Llywellyn Haycock and John James (so it was all true!). When Gwyn heard I was writing a novel, he sent me an obituary for John James which he had published in his church magazine. Among other things, he wrote:

“His immediate family and myself hope that his written work will remain as a tribute to his genius, and that possibly, someday, one or two of his descendants will display some of his talents.”

Now, I’m no genius but I am descended from David James, John’s grandfather, and, I think, Gwyn therefore considered me one of those descendants. Gulp. No pressure. I’d in fact won myself a supporter and, I guess, in some ways, today Gywn’s hopes have been fulfilled.

Stranger still, I have since learned where the names Taliesin, Pryderi and Rhiannon originally come from. My book is set in a different era to John James’s Not for all the Gold in Ireland, and depicts migrants sailing to Australia. Yet, in the end, I’d drawn inspiration from the same myths and legends mum’s cousin had, all those years ago.

***

The Tides Between is available through: Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, Barnes & Noble and GooglePlay. A hard copy of the book can be ordered through Odyssey Books. Or alternatively, through your local bookstore (order details below).

Book Details

ISBN: 978-1-925652-22-2 (pbk) | 978-1-925652-23-9 (ebook)

Category: Young Adult / Historical Fiction

Trade paperback: 300 pages

Publication Date: 20 October 2017

RRP: AU $23.95 (pbk) | $5.99 (ebook)

The things I never meant to achieve

This week my first novel will be published. My eldest son, an academic, bemused by my mounting excitement, said: It’s only a book mum (he’s written a few). But to me it is more than simply a book. It is a dream come true. I feel immensely proud of the achievement. Yet against that pride is a growing list of occurrences I didn’t envisage from the outset. You could call them accidents, or failures. But those are not quite the right words. The truth is simply a list of all the things I never meant to achieve.

I didn’t intend to write a book set entirely on an emigrant vessel

I set out initially to write a saga, spanning several decades, that followed the fortunes of a group of immigrants in the early days of the Port Phillip district. I did some generalised research and then, because the topic was so large, I broke up the task and began researching the voyage to Australia. I’d never written a novel before. So when characters turned up – characters with hurts, fears and secrets, I listened. Turns out they had a lot to say. By the time we reached the Bay of Biscay, I faced a decision. Did I pull back and try to write the saga I’d initially envisaged? Or follow the story where it was leading? I chose the latter. I still haven’t written the saga.

I didn’t intend to have Welsh characters

The first character who presented herself to me was a young girl who’d lost her father in tragic circumstances. Her father had been a musician. She needed someone to help her reconcile her grief. A young creative  couple seemed the perfect fit (the book is not a romance). But initially they were Irish. However, I had a research trip planned and would be relying on long-lost-family accomodation (as we Aussies do). I didn’t have any Irish relatives. But mum was Welsh. Hmm… maybe my creative young couple could be Welsh? I knew very little about Wales apart from rugby and male voice choirs. Rugby wasn’t invented in 1841 and, even if I could have created a scenario in which a whole choir emigrated en-mass, I wasn’t sure a fifteen-year-old girl would find it inspiring. I’d read How Green Was my Valley and knew that Wales had an industrial heritage. Some quick research told me that Wales also had a strong bardic culture. At which point, my Welsh characters became storytellers and, basically, hijacked the novel.

I didn’t intend to write a crossover novel

I didn’t think about my book’s market when I started writing. I wasn’t sure whether I could write fiction, only knew I wanted to give it a try. It wasn’t until much later, when it was far too late to turn back, that I realised I’d written a coming-of-age story with a strong female protagonist, which also included her stepfather’s viewpoint. Close on the heel of this realisation, came the knowledge there weren’t many books with that mix in the teenage section of the library, let alone ones with embedded Welsh fairy tales and fantasy elements. My book belonged everywhere and nowhere and in today’s cautious publishing market, let’s just say, that was risky.

I didn’t expect the book to take so long to write

We are not going to be explicit about how long The Tides Between took to write. At least, not without dropping our heads and muttering the numbers one and two without any spaces. I knew nothing about writing fiction when I commenced this project – nothing about voice, or character development, or viewpoint, or plotting or story arcs. The Tides Between has been my university. Added to which, when I started researching, we had four (sometimes five) teenagers still living under our roof. Since then, we’ve suffered young adult crises, mental and physical illnesses, watched children partner and marry, sold the family home, moved to the other side of town and welcomed two grandchildren into the world. We’ve also worked, travelled and, I hope, been productive members of our community.

I never set out to fall in love with Wales, learn her language, or make best friends on the far side of the world

It dawned on me recently that some people thought I’d written a novel with Welsh characters because I had a strong connection with Wales and spoke the language. In fact (as you’ve probably realised), it happened the other way round. When I finished the final draft of The Tides Between (while living in Wales) and wrote The End at the bottom of the page, I wasn’t sure that anyone would want my whimsical little novel and, I can tell to you, on that day, in that moment, with the snow-capped peaks of Snowdonia around me, it didn’t matter. My Aussie immigration saga had turned into a shipboard novel and been hijacked by Welsh characters. Meanwhile, I’d been falling deeper and deeper in love with a language. I’d failed, on so many levels, yet achieved more than I ever hoped for. I’d found my voice while writing the manuscript, connected with my heritage, and made friends on the far side of the world and somehow in the process of all the reading and writing and realising, I’d found my way home.

***

The Tides Between will be published by Odyssey Books on 20 October 2017. You can pre-order your copy from Novella Distribution, the Odyssey Books website, Amazon, iBooks or through your local bookstore. Here are the bibliographical details you will need to order from your bookstore.

Panels, publications and Arthurian legends

I am new to author panels. So far, I’ve chaired one and sat on three. I generally come up with great answers around four o’clock in the morning, after the panel is finished. My most recent panel was at Conflux13, the annual Canberra speculative fiction conference where I felt more out of depth than usual. Why? Because speculative fiction (science fiction/fantasy) is not my natural domain. But the theme of Conflux was Grimm Tales and, as I’ve written a historical coming-of-age tale with embedded Wales fairy tales and fantasy elements, I slipped in under the razor wire.

The first panel, I participated in was entitled:

WTF is “crossover” anyway? Crossover, genre mashup, what is it? Why do we love it? What are your favourite examples?

I was fine on that panel. I’m a librarian. I can talk categories – their limits and uses –  for hours. The second panel was called:

Writing across cultures without @#!!*#@ing it up. Cultural appropriation. What is it? What are the impacts? What can we do to avoid it?

This was a topic in which I also have some insight as prior to writing The Tides Between, I knew little about Wales. Through my research, I’ve fallen in love with Welsh history, it’s myths and fairy tales and learned to speak the language. I’m not sure whether that counts as cultural appropriation? It feels more like I’ve been culturally appropriated. I sure do hope I haven’t @#!!*#@ed it up

I could easily have discussed cultural appropriation in works of historical fiction. But had less confidence in terms of speculative fiction. I therefore turned to the Heritage and History of Wales Facebook group and asked for examples in which Wales history and culture had been well represented, particularly in relation to the Arthurian legend, as this fell under the Speculative Fiction banner.

A group member suggested Bernard Cornwall’s Warlord Chronicles handled the British history elements well. Perfect! Cornwell is an Englishman, who lives in America, and no doubt, he didn’t consider his books as cultural appropriation. (Wales is after all part of England, isn’t it!? :-)) However, I downloaded the first book, started reading, and, after declaring the source of my information (Heritage and History of Wales), gave the trilogy as example of a culturally sensitive representation of Wales’ early history.

Now, thanks for your patience, here’s where the thinking of good panel answers in the middle of the night comes back into the story. I was challenged on the panel. Someone asserted that Cornwell had misrepresented the middle ages – by portraying it as non-religiously and ethnically diversity. Of course, the Warlord Chronicles are not set in the middle ages. They are set in the sixth century. But I didn’t think of that at the time (I think I may have just sat there slack jawed). But I have thought about the assertion a great deal since and, now, having read the complete trilogy  (which was magnificent, by the way, in terms of pace, character, story and voice). I am ready to give the answer I wish I’d given on the panel.

Religion

One of the things I enjoy about Cornwell’s writing, is his depiction of religion. The Warlord Chronicles are narrated through the first person viewpoint of Derfel, a Saxon child captured in a raid and raised British. Derfel, is proudly pagan and follows a pantheon of British Gods as well as Mithras, the warriors god. Derfel is not fond of the Christians. However, through his eyes, Cornwall gives us good druids, and evil druids, good Christian priests and evil Christian priests, faithful adherents to the Saxon Gods, as well as their opposite. We get a picture of a religiously, pluralist society in which religions both clashed and co-existed.

Race and Culture

I am not expert enough in the era in which the the Warlord Chronicles is set to say whether its depiction was ‘accurate’. But Cornwell makes a point of showing us black men, Irish men, and the British Kingdoms (in all their dynastic diversity). The Saxons are, likewise, not depicted as an ethnically homogenous group but a mixture of Angles, Saxons and Jutes. He gives us characters that believe in the ethic purity of Britain and want that purity restored and those who believe in the political unity of Britain but realise they can’t turn back the ethnic clock.

Women

Women didn’t do too well in this era of history. Cornwell doesn’t shy away from the facts. War involved rape, women were pawns in dynastic power struggles, and they had little opportunity to exercise power. However, within the constraints of that reality, he gives us strong women, flawed women, evil women and wise women. Although, their plight in this era was bleak, and the policies and attitudes towards them often appalling, there is an underlying respect for women throughout the trilogy and a sense that Cornwell is not using their subjugation as sexual titivation (as some current TV series seem wont to do).

Non-cliche

Cornwell’s characters are delightfully non-cliche. Merlin is a mischievous old man full of idiosyncratic ill-humour, Arthur is strong and fearsome but also shy of power and deeply flawed, Derfel is loyal, yet forced to make compromises, Guinevere is hard and ambitious, yet, also beautifully intelligent, Aelle, the Saxon King is fierce and blood thirsty, yet not without honour, Cerdic, more sinister, even Niume, the most single minded proponent of an ethnically pure Britain, evokes our sympathy, though her choices are often evil.

These books are amazing. A great example of: Writing across cultures without @#!!*#@ing it up. I didn’t do them justice on the panel. But hopefully I’ve now corrected that omission. They are officially on my favourite-books-to-be-re-read-often pile.

A review of Snow Sisters by Carol Lovekin

Having read and reviewed Carol Lovekin’s debut novel, Ghostbird, I was eagerly awaiting the release of Snow Sisters, knowing it would be lyrical, delicately crafted and utterly enchanting. I was not disappointed. Here is the official blurb:

Two sisters, their grandmother’s old house and Angharad… the girl who cannot leave.

Meredith discovers a dusty sewing box in a disused attic. Once open the box releases the ghost of Angharad, a Victorian child-woman with a horrific secret she must share. Angharad slowly reveals her story to Meredith who fails to convince her more pragmatic sister of the visitations, until Verity sees Angharad for herself on the eve of an unseasonal April snowstorm.

Forced by her flighty mother to abandon Gull House for London, Meredith struggles to settle, still haunted by Angharad and her little red flannel hearts. This time, Verity is not sure she will be able to save her…

Snow Sisters is a ghost story. Not a scary, white-sheet ghost story, but the tale of a restless soul with issues that need to be resolved – issues that mirror and impact the present day lives of its main characters. Yet, unlike, Ghostbird, whose ghost was a third person baby sister from living memory, Angharad’s ghost is a non-family member from the past. Here is how Lovekin introduces her first-person voice:

My name is Angharad and I am not mad.

My heart is made of fragments: of bindweed and despair; thinner than skin and bloodless and my story is as old as the moon. It is one of love and death, as the stories most women tell. These two things make up the fabric of our lives, although I do not speak of romantic love. I refer to the kind that ought to provide a child with protection and in the end can destroy her.

The story switches between a present day Verity who is returning to her dead grandmother’s house after a long absence and Angharad’s first-person ghost narrative. Interspersed with these vignettes, are the omniscient, third person viewpoints of Verity, Meredith and occasionally their mother. A complex book to read, let alone write, yet Lovekin manages to pull it off with an easy aplomb. The use of italics for Angharad’s ghost voice and the word ‘Present’ at the top of each first-person Verity chapter, a great help for reader orientation.

The childhood relationship between Verity and Meredith is gentle and dream like, though not without its tensions. Verity’s concern is a stark contrast to the callous, self centred attitude of their mother. Through ever-so-delicate touches of magic realism, Lovekin, gives the girl’s young lives a fairy tale quality. We at once believe them to be living in the ‘real world’ at a place called Gull House, and in a mythical place, beyond the veil, where magic happens (a not surprising response to the mystical Welsh landscape). The overall effect — a world charged with wonder. A world in which, houses, gardens, birds and moths are at once real and also ‘the other.’

A latticework made of moon-shadow branches and moths on the way to find her [Meredith], decorated the bedroom wall. She strained to hear more. The voice was gone and the only thing she heard was the rustling of wisteria against the windowpane. She fell asleep, and then she woke again, confused and cold, with no idea if a minute or an entire night had passed, or if what she had heard was dream or reality.

A moth came in through the open window. It was transparent and as light as a feather, its wings moving in a blur. Meredith reached out her hadn’t and to her delight the moth landed on her finger.

‘You’re back.’

I’m not sure how you would describe this book – an almost gothic family story? A dark feminist fairy tale? An evocative reflection on the fragility of human nature? It is all those things and more. I’m not sure, even now, whether if I’ve understood all of its themes. It is one of those books that will no doubt improve with re-reading. For now, I am simply left with the impression of having been in the presence of a mystery, which is far too big for understanding, yet somehow gentle and awe-inspiring. A sense that my soul has somehow been expanded.

Snow Sisters is published by Gwasg Honno, the Welsh women’s press.

The House with Old Furniture by Helen Lewis

I haven’t read a book set in Wales for a while. But my hiraeth is running deep at the moment (time to plan my next trip) and when Helen Lewis’ House with Old Furniture dropped into my inbox, it had my name written all over it. Not an historical novel, The House with Old Furniture, nonetheless fuses the past with the present, and has the mystical, otherworldly elements I so enjoy in a novel.

Told from the alternating viewpoints of Evie and her son Finn, The House with Old Furniture opens with these words:

“I don’t want to leave. I am being ripped from the rock I cling to. A whirlpool of change drags me down, pulling me into the very bottom of its vortex.

“I want to stay. I need to stay, clinging to all the memories made here, ensuring they remain sharp and deeply etched. Because if I go who will say – remind people even – that this is where we had our first row, over there in the corner of the garden is where the snowman you built stood for two weeks, and round that corner where the tarmac cracks you came off your bike, you still had the scar ten years later, that little  white smile on your kneecap.”

Evie is being forced to leave her home in London – the home where her dead son Jesse lived and died – in order to start life anew in West Wales. A move that has been planned and executed by her husband Andrew. You can see the sense of this decision, despite Evie’s anguish, and hope that despite her reluctance, that the move will prove to be cathartic. Because it is evident from the outset that Evie is not moving on. But as soon as they arrive in Wales, the ghosts arrive – ghosts that both Evie and Finn can see – and you begin to realise there is more to Evie’s grief than meets the eye. That there is a dark underbelly to Andrew’s actions that is not initially apparent.

The House with Old Furniture is a chilling novel. I found myself wondering where Lewis’ inspiration came from. “I wanted to write something that looked at madness,’ she explained; “exploring what one person might see as crazy when the other sees the same thing as normal. I think I’ve produced something along those lines. I hadn’t expected the ghosts to turn up!”

The ghosts are unusual. They are not ghoulish or intangible or the least bit frightening but real historical characters breaking through time and interacting with the present. They have their own story which illuminates the contemporary tale that Lewis is unfolding. I asked whether she set out to write an historical piece.

“No I didn’t! If you asked me to write an historical piece I would run screaming to the hills, all that research that needs to be done. But The House with Old Furniture just wrote itself that way. And actually, because the historical parts are in small sections throughout, I didn’t find the research so daunting. I did have to keep a detailed timeline though, making sure all the dates and ages were feasible.”

Finn’s naive voice was the triumph of the novel. I asked Lewis how she came to include him. “When I started writing The House with Old Furniture it was from Evie’s perspective but I quickly realised that without Finn’s presence the story would be very two dimensional. He is my favourite character and I actually think it is Finn who tells the tale.”

I have to agree with Lewis’ analysis. Through Finn’s naive eyes, we begin to see the truth about Evie, to get a sense that things haven’t been right in this family for quite awhile.

“She so doesn’t get it. She doesn’t get any-fuckin-thing, not computers, not me, not moving’ not Dad – most of all not me. It was all OK before – well almost, I mean she got drunk, got all loud and lairy, then woke up messy sometimes, but now … now Dad’s the invisible man and she’s … she’s rubbish. Like yesterday, she was makin’ tea and spilt the peas everywhere – and that’s her, bits of Mum everywhere. She sat there in a mess, not movin’ not even cryin’ – might’ve been another of her blackouts, an’ I thought, I don’t care! Get up and be my mum again! It’s not just Jesse that’s gone, he’s taken them all with him. Left me here alone, where everyone mopes about because we’re all too sad to do stuff anymore.”

There is a darkness to this family’s history, a darkness that we quickly realise will not be erased by a simple move to the country. But although, Evie’s mental health is fragile, the chilling depth of her insanity is not initially apparent. Nor are the dynamics of power, coercion and abuse that have contributed to her demise. As the story unfolds and the pieces start falling into place, we glimpse a situation that is both timelessly haunting and frighteningly modern. I asked Lewis whether her next novel will tackle similar issue. She assures me it will not be as chilling as The House with Old Furniture. “Having spent five years with some dark and difficult characters I wanted to create some people with a bit of humour. I think it is beginning to take shape, they certainly make me laugh anyway!”

I will certainly be looking out for the next instalment by this talented new author. Meanwhile, I fear it will be some time before I can exorcise the ghosts The House with Old Furniture has awakened in me.

Britain, the end of a fantasy – some thoughts on identity

  • You post an article from the New York Review of Books on Facebook. Among other things the article says:

“Strip away the post-imperial make-believe and the Little England nostalgia, and there’s almost nothing there, no clear sense of how a middling European country with little native industry can hope to thrive by cutting itself off from its biggest trading partner and most important political alliance.”

You make a comment about ‘little England.’ You figure you have a right. But you are told in no uncertain terms that, as an Aussie, you do not. This is British politics, none of your business. You are shocked, not so much by the objection (put a comment on Facebook and you invite a response) but by the monochromatic assessment of your situation. It doesn’t even come close to the schizophrenic sense of identity you live with.

See, you were born in England and, although you migrated to Australia during your childhood, you were raised by parents who called another place home. Your father supported the English cricket team, you stayed up late to watch the FA Cup final on television, your weekly viewing consisted of The Two Ronnies, Porridge and Are you Being Served? In school you learned about convicts, and ANZACs and the bombing of Darwin. But at home you heard stories of Shakespeare, the Blitz, and how you grandfather worked on the Bank of England’s wrought iron doors. In a grade four project about Beef Cattle, you wrote “Aborigines make good stockmen” because, your dad told you, before the white man, Australia’s first people wandered about aimlessly.

But there is another aspect to your identity. You see your mother is Welsh. So you are not allowed to call yourself English. You are British, your parents tell you: no need to be naturalised like all of those lesser European migrants. Australia is one of the pink countries on the map. Of course, you never use the word British. You instinctively know you will be laughed out of the playground. You drop the Pommie accent, try to blend in. Though in your spare time you read books by Enid Blyton, Malcom Saville, and Arthur Ransome.

Then you grow up and all your historical myths are all blown apart. You learn that the Aboriginal people did more than just wander about, that the men of Gallipoli were no braver than any other soldiers, that Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their mothers. That the British Empire wiped out whole nations and cultures. The full implication of this hits home while you are living in Fiji. You see an indigenous people living on their ancestral land, speaking their own language and enjoying their age-old but still evolving customs and you think: my God, what have we done?

With this history, it is no surprise that when you have a mid-life crisis (one of several) and decide you want to write a novel that you start with an emigration novel, set in the colonial period, that focuses on the experience of poor people, like your family would have been if they had emigrated in that era. You also decide to include Welsh and English characters. And although you know those decisions are personal, you also know you are trying to come to terms with the whole messy business of being a white Australian.

Despite this, you are not prepared for the effect your Welsh characters will have on your life. You know very little about Wales prior to starting your research – apart from coal mining and a passion for rugby. But before long you realise Wales has a language, that is still spoken, with incredible words like sglodion (chips) and gwdihw (owl) (which sounds like twit twoo) and pendwmpian (to drowse). That in Welsh  a peach is called an eirinen gwlanog (wooly plum) and ladybirds are called buwch goch gota (short red cows) and before long you are wondering how you have managed to live without the soul-song of such words.

You learn about Welsh myths and fairytales too, about eisteddfodau and poetry. About the experience of being annexed and incorporated, the Welsh struggle for independence. The even-now fight to keep a much-loved language alive. This touches a deep chord in you and, although it is tempting see it as a simple reconnection with your heritage, you also know there is also something intrinsically Australian in your response. See, we tend to back the underdog down under.

Over the years, you make regular trips to Wales, even live there for a while. Acquire a National Insurance Number and a bank account, get your name on the electoral roll. You have Welsh friends and places to stay. You read English and Welsh newspapers along with Australian ones and know the sense of divided loyalties you grew up with are still strong. Except, you are no longer proud of the Empire (life has knocked that out of you) and when you speak Welsh with your friends you feel like you belong. Yet you also know your life, your manners, your worldview are somehow foreign. Perhaps this is what the friend on Facebook objected to? This foot-in-two camps, belong-in-both-worlds mentality?

You fly back and forth, relate in two languages and straddle both worlds, because you don’t know any other way to live. For although you no longer sound like a Brit, or take pride in Empire, the tiny island on the top of the world is still important to you and, although one day when you are too old to travel, the land at bottom of the world will inevitably claim you, you know the hiraeth will remain, along with the interest and the outspoken Australian tendency to comment. Because, although on the outside you may sound like an Aussie, on the inside you still sometimes feel a long way from home.

***

Elizabeth Jane Corbett’s debut novel, The Tides Between, will be published by Odyssey Books in October 2017. For news on the release date follow this blog, or simply fill out the form below:

The wrap up – affirmation, extreme generosity and the Welsh language

Over the last two months, I have stayed in London, Bowness-on-Windermere, Caernarfon, Corris, Llangollen, Y Bont Faen, Llandysul and Y Borth. I have worked in the British Library, the National Archives and Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru. I’ve received so much help and affirmation. I have also crossed the line which all Welsh learners yearn to cross – having friends with whom I relate solely in the Welsh language. But how to sum it all up?

Let’s start with the generosity.

I caught an inkling, Mared, wife of Owain Glyn Dwr, would be the subject of my next novel while living in Wales. My friend Aran lamented that there had not been a major film about Owain Glyn Dwr.  I read some books, realized he’d had a wife, and thought, what would it have been like to be that woman? The idea for a novel was born. I set about reading everything I could get my hands on. I also wrote to academics. One of them, Dr Gideon Brough, was particularly encouraging.

At the time, his affirmation was massively important. See, back then, I wasn’t sure I had a right to tell Mared’s story. This uncertainty has been borne out during a number of my recent meetings. From people tentatively asking: so, Liz, what made you want to write about Mared? Er…you do realize this is a contentious topic? Or simply the startled faces of people who have recently moved to Wales: Oh, God, what barrow is she trying to push here? 

I get this tension. When a country has been conquered, annexed and incorporated, when it’s language is fighting for its life, when academics drop in for flying visits and act like they know everything, when Owain’s name has been hijacked by various political causes, or when you’ve simply moved to Wales and want to feel welcome, the idea of an Aussie interloper coming in and stirring the pot is alarming. Yet, Gideon, never once questioned my right to tell the story. He simply said: go for it! This project is long overdue. He also spent a whole day of his kids’ half term holiday (like all day) answering my lame questions.

The day I spent with archaeologist Spencer Gavin Smith and his wife Megan (also an archaeologist) was similarly incredible. I wrote asking a for information and ended up being given a full guided tour of the Glyn Dwr sites (during which I asked an alternate string of lame questions). Because of Spencer, I spent my last day in the library trawling through the Transactions of the Denbighshire Historical Society, unearthing all manner of articles by Derek Pratt. I braved English roads and drove to Lower Brockhampton so that I could see the type of home in which Mared would have lived. I also faced octopus-on-steroids roundabouts in South Wales and learned that SatNav’s work best when you are paying attention – not when you are re-writing story scenes in your head. But that is another story…

In Llandysul, I spent a day and a half with Dr John Davies, a man with an impressive beard, an even more incredible library, and a keen interest in Owain Glyn Dwr’s mother’s family. John drove me around the borders of Owain’s southern estates, answered multiple questions, gave me CDs and memory sticks bursting with information. He also gave me the precious gift of assuming my Welsh was up to the task of discussing history – which it was. An incredible milestone.

Add to the above, the countless people who made time to catch up with me – too many to list but you know who you are – my friend Lorraine who listened to me ‘think aloud’ for a week in Llangollen and, of course, the incredible Veronica Calarco who, through setting up Stiwdio Maelor, has made it possible for me to spend extended periods in Wales. I stayed overnight with my friend Carolyn in Y Borth more times than was polite, took my brand new friend Anne up on her offer of accommodation in South Wales, had the fascinated company of Dee and Iestyn on the John Davies’ magical history tour, got shown around the Senedd Dy by Neil McEvoy and met up with an amazing group of SSiWer’s in the Mochyn Du.

On top of all this, my friend Aled in Australia suggested I catch up with Carys Davies (wife of the late Sir Rhys Davies, author of the incredible The Revolt of Owain Glyn Dwr) and Gruffudd Aled Williams (author of Dyddiau Olaf Owain Glyn Dwr). I felt nervous about phoning the above. I hate cold calling people – especially in Welsh. Added to which, this was Cymru Cymraeg and all the old doubts about my right to tell this story came flooding back. But I took a deep breath, dialed their numbers (rather than confess a lack of courage to Aled), and, as a consequence, enjoyed two lovely dinners in Caffi Pen Dinas. With Carys, I chatted about my mother’s family, how I’d learned Welsh, and my recent Say Something in Welsh Bootcamp. Before long, we were chuckling over the pictures of me clambering onto that pillar on top of Twt Hill (thanks Aran). After lunch, we attended a lecture in the Drwm where I was introduced to people as, Liz, who is writing a novel from the point-of-view of Owain Glyn Dwr’s wife. I thought: okay, maybe, this is going to be alright.

While having lunch with Gruffudd Aled Williams a few weeks later, we discussed history and winced over some of Glyn Dwr’s more anachronistic portrayals – like taking tea with his family in the fourteenth century and Iolo Goch drinking blood from a skull. At some point, I don’t know when, I decided it was safe to share the outline of my story. It is a fragile thing, a story concept, without the build up you put into developing it on the page, and not easily shared but, for some reason, it all came tumbling out. In Welsh. But strangely I didn’t need  language to understand Gruffudd’s response. I saw it in his eyes, the way he smiled, leaning back in his chair. O, hyfryd…

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