Absolutely the best novel I’ve read this year

I totally love this book. Without doubt, it will be my book of the year. The blurb on the front cover predicts that it will be a classic in years to come. That’s a huge claim, so I began reading it with interest and a bit of scepticism. But it is out there with the best.

It breaks every writing rule I’ve ever been taught. Flashbacks in novels were something we were always told we should consider with caution, only using them sparingly and if really necessary. This novel throws them in all over the place. A character, a moment’s action,  then we slip back into the past for fifteen pages and relive a previous experience. And it works so well.

I was once advised not to use anthropomorphism in my writing. In this novel, the pine trees watch and stoop in sorrow, the rain sings, a half-eaten sandwich lets a character remember she’s hungry. This writing breaks all the rules and sometimes the narrative might even repeat phrases or images- Ruby’s hair is a river, her legs are long as the Nile – but it is a thrilling read and each page pounds the reader’s heart like a drumbeat .

Ruby by Cynthia Bond is about a Ruby Bell, a free-spirited, fatherless child; about the man who loves her, Ephram Jennings, and their community. It is about the abuse of women and what repeated abuse does to them and to the abusers. It is about loyalty, about the reasons and  repercussions of madness.

In Ruby, the occult and organised religion are inextricably connected, the supernatural is a part of everyday lives and oppression is commonplace. Ephram’s mother suffers at the hands of his preacher father:  she ‘ripped out the seams of her own dreams and patched them into his.’ Ruby is abused from childhood onwards and she learns to accept and expect her treatment:’men were a slight discord that she waited to pass.’

Ephram is a gentle soul who wants to rescue Ruby, despite the community and his obsessively religious sister opposing him. He is determined to save Ruby although she is damaged, alone and ostracised, and he is eagerly pulled into her life. He cleans her, tidies her home, and attempts to stand against the injustice inflicted on her despite tough opposition.’Maybe crazy was a cold you caught.’

The community, a town interestingly called Liberty, is determined to destroy Ruby and Ephram is her only ally. Simply, that is the story, the narrative delving into character, background and action.Description is abundant and luminous: the red soil; Celia’s white cake made with twelve egg yolks; Ma Tante, the black magic woman;a demon entering a man about to commit a rape; a preacher inciting men to hate women while his wife watches from the bushes; Otha’s horrifying madness.

Ruby is made to suffer because she is beautiful and different. Ephram suffers because he has a beautiful heart and because, unlike other men, he is unselfish, kind and seeks justice for Ruby. His sister, Celia, becomes Church Mother, during which time she learns to despise what she sees as her brother’s weakness and her protective feelings turn to hatred and revenge. Each incident, each character is described in a way which is breathtaking. Cynthia Bond uses words cleverly, jewels which make each moment shine with light, and as a reader I was hypnotised by the novel’s devastating violence and captivating pastoral beauty.

Ephram is a heroic man, the courageous soul who drifts above the debasing abuse perpetrated by the rest of humanity. Ruby is the victim who accepts and embodies the debasing treatment she is given. The novel is exquisitely written and it is the type of narrative which inspires other writers to play with words and imagery and to create characters which stick to the reader’s soul, leaving visual and emotional  impressions which stay in our thoughts long after the final thrilling pages.

I can’t praise this novel highly enough. It’s sublime. Read it. Let me know what you think.

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Writer’s insomnia? Tell me about it.

I’ve never had writer’s block.Smashing out three thousand words in a morning isn’t difficult. I started my second novel towards the end of the summer and I’m now on over 65 thousand words. Writing is like plastering a wall: slosh it out and then sand it down and paint it later. Or like making a cake: whack in the basics and go for the decoration when it’s baked and cooled.And, of course, editing can be a bigger job than the initial draft. But for me, it’s not about having a block and wondering what to write. That’s because I get writer’s insomnia.

Don’t all writers have the same experience? It’s not a problem, in the way that insomnia implies that we can’t go to sleep and we desperately want to because we’re exhausted. The opposite: there’s energy to spare. There’s no counting sheep or knocking back tablets to help us doze off. It’s a buzz. My novel wakes me up with questions such as what are my characters like deep down? What is their backstory? What are they striving for? I work out what will happen in the narrative in chapters to follow; I  plan conflicts and denouements and plot twists.I love what I do, however many hours it takes, day or night.

Writer’s insomnia usually kicks in about two o’clock in the morning and I finally fall asleep about half five or six. It’s a really productive time and I think, because I can spend active brain time working out details (without having to get up, move even,) the daytime writing is easier. I remember being told on different occasions by two prolific novelists that decisions about character and action can be challenging problems to resolve for all writers.The advice was to keep trying out ideas until the right fit happens. By sheep-worrying the alternatives during the night, the dawn often brings clear solutions.

Many of the characters in my second novel are interwoven within the story and, by the end, even some of the minor ones will reappear. I’ve worked out how. My main protagonists need to be complex, flawed, yet they need to be likeable, empathic and plausible. I have to have a strong rapport with them myself in order to enjoy creating them, so I need to invest nocturnal hours in getting to know them really well. It is really beneficial to writing another chapter when you know how your characters will behave, however irrational or impetuous they are.

I need to crack a pace in this second novel. It’s women’s commercial fiction through and through, and the reader needs live wires of tension to be fizzing all the time . It’s important to move forward, to find new settings and to swing between humour and action. Writer’s insomnia asks new questions  of the text and gives me a chance to try out solutions. At night time the imagination is a bubbling cauldron and the darkness somehow brings with it vivid pictures and sharply focused ideas. I love it.

I even had an idea for my third novel while I was fleshing out a particular character and looking for ways to show the personality traits and idiosyncrasies. A new character appeared, completely different and offering the chance for some credible mischief. I then put a jigsaw puzzle of characters and plots around this new character, again giving space for humour and pathos or tension. Like magic, an idea for novel number three popped up. It will need more thinking, more working, a bit of refining, but that’s for another night.

Writer’s insomnia seems to occur later into writing a novel, I think. Early on, when characters are forming and the narrative is developing, there’s a sense of being tentative, then cheekily bold with an idea, pushing boundaries to check that it will work. I always try to let the narrative surprise me as a writer. If an idea sneaks up or shocks me, I’ll use it because it will have a similar impact on my reader.

Later on in the novel, however, I need to make sure I have the depth of character in my protagonists and a commitment to the plot and action which will make for a gripping read. Insomnia is the solution. It is not to be avoided, feared or persuaded to stay away. It gives my brain space and time to puzzle, to plot and then to stir an idea to perfection.

After a bad night’s sleep, the writer needs to be really disciplined and write the whole lot down during the next day. After all, by nightfall the cauldron of ideas is bubbling again  and there’s another night’s sleep to lose.

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The Invention of Wings: book review

Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings is about the brutality of slavery in America’s deep south, at the point when some attitudes had started to change. The novel charts the period between 1803 to 1838 and the first person perspective moves between Handful, a ten year old slave, and Sarah, the girl to whom she is given as a present, wrapped tightly in lavender ribbons. Although ‘owning people was as natural as breathing’, eleven year old Sarah Grimké is uncomfortable with her new gift and this is the beginning of her awakening, and it is the pivotal event to her later pioneering work towards human and women’s rights.

I read this book straight after I read The Help by Kathryn Stockett, set in 1962 Mississippi, and both novels roam between the viewpoint of the oppressed slave worker or housemaid  and the developing awareness of the privileged female mistress. It is a device which works well, as the reader is propelled through the injustices and abuses of the women in subjection, who are invariably feisty and strong. We compare this character to the pampered white woman who instinctively understands that the situation in which she finds herself, a mistress who has power over another’s physical and emotional welfare, is not tolerable. In both novels, I found the perspectives of Handful and of The Help’s Minny and Aibileen much more fascinating than those of Sarah or Skeeter, but having both characters’ voices juxtaposed creates the desired impact, enabling the reader to follow the progression of character and plot.

Sarah Grimké was a real person who, against her parents’ wishes,  attempted to teach Bible classes to the slaves on her plantation. She hated the degradations of slavery and as a child she aspired to be a lawyer. As an adult, she became a Quaker and was frequently attacked for her abolitionist and feminist views. Sue Monk Kidd charts the development of Sarah, from a tentative girl with an awareness of her own conscience to a woman who is no longer afraid to compromise or to speak her own mind.She says, ‘To remain silent in the face of evil is itself a form of evil.’

Handful, and her mother Charlotte, are fascinating characters who display courage and cunning in the face of oppression.The comparison between slave and mistress is brought into sharp focus when Handful tells Charlotte ‘My body might be a slave, but not my mind. For you, it’s the other way round.’There are passages which are difficult to read. The first time Handful sees a slave being beaten, Charlotte’s punishment for taking a piece of cloth, Handful’s treatment at the workhouse are sharp reminders of both the evils of slavery, past and present.

Sue Monk Kidd’s choice of subject matter and her ability to create two credible voices are  central to the novel’s brilliance. Both Handful and Sarah have different lives, they are different characters and their chapters are written to highlight the vast gulf between them, both in terms of personality and experience. They are, however, both heroic. They both begin as children with tentative voices and find strong ones as  grown women. Handful’s way of speaking with a slave tongue is no caricature: Sue Monk Kidd creates a real character. She is defiant and we admire her.’You got to figure out which end of the needle you’re gon be, the one that’s fastened to the thread or the end that pierces the cloth.’

Sarah has money and privilege, but she is controlled by her parents’ and society’s expectations of class and gender. She is an awkward child who stutters initially  and is isolated, struggling to speak confidently  before she develops her convictions and is able to articulate them. ‘If you must err, do so on the side of audacity.’

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Despite the fact that The Invention of Wings is based on real events and real people, it is a gripping  read, full of  tension- filled action and characters which inspire and create empathy. It is well written, in terms of character, voice, setting and plot. Sue Monk Kidd’s ability to use language powerfully and yet retain the individual character’s viewpoint is impressive and the short chapters build at a powerful pace to create a novel of real impact and value.

Most of the male characters are flawed. However much we might admire some of the attributes of Isaac, Goodis, Denmark and Sarah’s father, they are lack empathy, sensitivity or the guile and strength of conviction displayed by Sarah, her sister Angelina,  Handful and Charlotte. Then there are the really bad men,  Burke Williams and the faceless white workhouse men. Sue Monk Kidd jolts us with the perpetual reminder that the times she writes about were ones where women had fewer privileges and their expectations were low. White women could not own property or make decisions for themselves. The situation of a slave woman was so much worse and The Invention of Wings is very much about the importance of aspiration and desire to make changes happen, to develop the ability to soar above society’s restrictions.

It is a very satisfying novel in terms of women’s ability to fight back, but it is also a source of inspiration and anguish to understand the depth and nature of their suffering. It’s a reminder that we can all  stretch our wings. ‘We’re all yearning for a wedge of sky, aren’t we? I suspect God plants these yearnings in us so we’ll at least try and change the course of things. We must try, that’s all.’

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