‘A bored woman is a dangerous woman’

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You cannot be indifferent to Hausfrau, the new novel by Jill Alexander Essbaum set in Switzerland. It is a novel that will spark an array of contradictory reactions: You will loathe the main character Anna or you will weep for her. You will recoil at the graphic sex scenes or find them erotic; you will be intrigued by the psychological and linguistic analysis, or find it tiresome. Whatever happens, the power of the story will keep you reading to the end.

If you happen to be a foreign resident of Switzerland you will recognize many of the quirks and frustrations of living in this would-be paradise, ruthlessly exposed by Essbaum. But if you are in any way defensive of Switzerland, you will bristle at the Swiss bashing.

Hausfrau is the story of a woman who has lost her sense of self and abdicated responsibility for her life. She follows her Swiss husband back to his home town near Zurich to settle down and raise a family, but nine years on she still can’t settle in. She’s depressed and remains an outsider, to her husband, her children and her community – stifled by it all.

We already know that appearances can be deceiving but in Essbaum’s debut novel the gulf between appearances and reality is so wide it’s disturbing.

The world sees a well-dressed American mother living in an affluent bubble in Dietlikon, “the tiny town in which Anna’s own tiny life was led”. Anna Benz has accepted the age-old deal of husband (a banker, natürlich) making the money while she keeps house and looks after their three young children. The children’s school is metres away from their home and she has babysitting on tap thanks to her mother-in-law.

There is nothing Anna could not change in her life if she wanted to, as her psychiatrist tries to tell her again and again. Why the passivity, the indifference to her fate? That is the central question of the book and while we get many hints, it really remains unanswered because Essbaum provides scant details of Anna’s former life, apart from the fact that her parents were killed in a car crash.

The story begins when Anna is finally starting to make an effort by beginning a German language course and attending analysis sessions. At the same time she embarks on a reckless affair, seemingly on a whim.

Essbaum manages to successfully switch between different strands and moments in time – events at home, the language classes, memories, lovers’ trysts, therapy sessions, descriptions of Swiss culture, and a lot of Anna’s internal reflections. The scenes are short, some snapshots of just a few lines, but you instantly know where you are and the story is constantly moving forward.

The book is short but it is not short on ideas and Essbaum manages to sketch interesting relationships through a few interactions. The children remain peripheral characters, as Anna is going through a phase of waltzing in and out of their lives.

I don’t know how readers with no familiarity with Switzerland will tolerate the level of detail, bordering on information dump that happens throughout the novel. I’d say most readers will find some element that doesn’t grab them – the analysis sessions, all the commentary on language structure and vocabulary, the cultural information, the sex scenes, the insomnia wanderings. But the whole is much greater than the parts because Essbaum has created a baffling compelling character in a story with powerful momentum.

Putting aside some people’s criticism of the moral message of the book – fallen woman pays for her sins – the story is gripping. Hausfrau was an intense and thought-provoking read and it left me with lots to think about.

I’d love to hear what other readers thought of this book, inside and outside Switzerland. Looking forward to reading your comments!

(Image courtesy of Sira Anamwong at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Husbands in books, from bad to worse

by Michiel Jansz van Mierevelt
by Michiel Jansz van Mierevelt

I did try to find good husbands, honest, but bad husbands are obviously overrepresented in fiction, unhappy families being so much more interesting. So here they are – stern and distant, abusive and alcoholic, the kind of men who make a prison of marriage and double as the gaoler.

It was this passage from Alice Munro’s short story What is Remembered that first set me on the quest for husbands in books. In a few short lines it tells us everything we need to know about gender roles in marriage in a particular class at a particular time. Makes me glad I was born in the 1970s and missed everything up to and including the Mad Men era.

Young husbands were stern, in those days. Just a short time before, they had been suitors, almost figures of fun, knock-kneed and desperate in their sexual agonies. Now, bedded down, they turned resolute and disapproving. Off to work every morning, clean-shaven, youthful necks in knotted ties, days spent in unknown labors, home again at suppertime to take a critical glance at the evening meal and to shake out the newspaper, hold it up between themselves and the kitchen, the ailments and emotions, the babies.

This next excerpt comes from The Secret History by Donna Tartt, which I reviewed in my last post but I’m allowing myself to dip into the novel again because I find this such a chilling fictional account of domestic violence. Tartt is nothing if not restrained; we had to wait until page 588 to find out this important information about our narrator. This childhood memory surfaces as the alliance with his group of friends is unravelling under the strain of covering up a murder.

I remember, when I was a kid, once seeing my father strike my mother for absolutely no reason. Though he sometimes did the same thing to me, I did not realize that he did it sheerly out of bad temper, and believed that his trumped-up justifications (‘You talk too much; ‘Don’t look at me like that’) somehow warranted the punishment. But the day I saw him hit my mother (because she had remarked, innocently, that the neighbours were building an addition to their house; later he would claim she had provoked him, that it was a reproach about his abilities as a wage earner, and she, tearfully, would agree) I realized that the childish impression I had always had of my father, as Just Lawgiver, was entirely wrong. We were utterly dependent on this man, who was not only deluded and ignorant, but incompetent in every way. What was more, I knew that my mother was incapable of standing up to him. It was like walking into the cockpit of an airplane and finding the pilot and co-pilot passed out drunk in their seats. And standing outside the Lyceum, I was struck with a black, incredulous horror, which in fact was not at all unlike the horror I had felt at twelve, sitting on a bar stool in our sunny little kitchen in Plano. Who is in control here? I thought, dismayed. Who is flying this plane?

Going back to the nineteenth century and over to Russia, here is a moment in Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy when Anna’s husband Karenin is in his study mulling over how to reprimand his wife for openly flirting with Vronsky at a social gathering.

He began to think of her, of what she was thinking and feeling. For the first time he really pictured to himself her personal life, her ideas, her desires; and the notion that she could and should have a separate life of her own appeared to him so dreadful that he hastened to drive it away. This was the abyss into which he was afraid to look. To put himself in thought and feeling into another being was a mental exercise foreign to Karenin.

And what he would say to his wife took shape in Karenin’s head. As he thought it over, he grudged having to expend his time and intellect on such domestic matters. But, in spite of that, the form and sequence of the speech he had to make shaped themselves in his head as clearly and precisely as if it were a ministerial report.

The final bad husband in our hall of fame today is Charlie van der Linden from On Green Dolphin Street by Sebastian Faulks, a lovely book about adultery. Actually Charlie is not such a bad guy, more of a mess, and he does love his wife Mary.

It was an art, knowing whether Charlie should be indulged, rebuked or put to bed, but it was one in which Mary was practised. It was a failure to her if he could not be made to have dinner, but would only curl up with a bottle, rebuffing her attempts at friendliness. She decided to leave him where he was while she took a bath; sometimes a short sleep could pull him on to the main line of the day, especially if followed by a shower and a large scotch on the rocks.

There is one more awful character who should be featured here but I don’t have a copy of David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. If I did I would be scouring the pages for a damning description of the awful Edward Murdstone who tyrannised David’s mother (for once a wicked step-father!), sent her son away, ruined her health and inherited her property.

Any other contenders folks?

The Secret History opens a door to the past

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You don’t have to have murdered someone in your college days to go through a spell of nostalgia after reading The Secret History by Donna Tartt. This haunting book captures the clannishness, the impressionability, the uncertainty and excess of those years. It is a story about the defining experiences we would rather forget, if only we could.

Of course the Greek-quoting, champagne-swilling lifestyle enjoyed by the six main characters in The Secret History is far removed from the experience of the average student. The rarefied atmosphere cultivated by these privileged classics students belongs to a lost era; this is how we imagine things were when only the rich and brilliant entered the hallowed halls of university.

Told as a memoir from the perspective of the latest addition to the exclusive group, the novel reveals how, and ultimately why, five of the six “clever, eccentric misfits” end up colluding in the killing of their friend.

The book, set in an elite college in Vermont, takes up the mantle of The Great Gatsby so overtly that the students, in tweeds and cashmere, could be the grandchildren of Tom and Daisy Buchanan and the narrator Richard a direct descendant of Nick Carraway.

Those formative years between adolescence and adulthood are fertile ground for fiction and The Secret History draws on other classics such as Catcher in the Rye, Crime and Punishment and Brideshead Revisited, sometimes by direct reference.

But nothing in the 600 plus pages of The Secret History happens by accident. The novel is so well crafted it screams good writing. There is so much to enjoy – from the biting satire in the depiction of the family of the murder victim Bunny, to the heart-wrenching descriptions of tortured souls and the beautiful passages on the changing seasons. My only criticism would be the sense of repetition in the countless scenes of heavy drinking and hangovers. But knowing the writer, that was probably deliberate.

Like many people, I was inspired to read The Secret History after the long-awaited and much-fêted appearance of Tartt’s third novel, The Goldfinch (don’t say anything, I’m only on page 304). Somehow I missed The Secret History when it was first published in 1992, even though it was right in the middle of my college years.

I’d love to hear your impressions of this book or any thoughts on the folly of youth. Among the small readership of this blog are three people I went to university with who have remained good friends to this day. I believe that the decision we made in 1989 to study Russian was one of the most significant and far-reaching of our lives. Or maybe I’m just carried away by The Secret History.

Here’s what Donna Tartt’s narrator Richard Papen has to say on the question. Read the punctuation and weep!

I suppose there is a certain crucial interval in everyone’s life when character is fixed forever; for me, it was the first fall term I spent at Hampden. So many things remain with me from that time, even now: those preferences in clothes and books and even food – acquired then, and largely, I must admit, in adolescent adulation of the rest of the Greek class – have stayed with me through the years.

Take a walk with an old man

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Most English speakers will go through life without ever reading a Swiss novel. It’s not surprising. There are so many countries, so many languages – and not enough of their literary treasures are scooped up in the English translation net. But the ones that make it are well worth opening, if only to look at the world through a different lens.

You might find something beautiful, something completely different to anything you’ve ever read before, something like Zbinden’s Progress by Christoph Simon.

I just finished the book on the train on the way home this evening. I also read it while sitting in a department store restaurant in Bern at lunchtime, and in between flipping pancakes for breakfast on Sunday.

The Zbinden of the title is Lukas Zbinden, a frail elderly widower living in a retirement home who loves to talk and loves to go for walks. His progress is his slow journey from his room on the third floor down to the ground floor entrance, on the arm of a carer. The bulk of novel is narrated in his voice during this arduous trek. I can’t imagine how Simon pitched the book but within the confines of this device, he manages to skilfully and movingly present a life story, a love story and a comedy of manners.

No doubt you’ll soon take a shine to them all: the respectable ladies and eccentric gentlemen, the talkative widows and taciturn bachelors, the seasoned walking-frame users, shuffling stay-at-homes with faces like dried meat. The confused ones, whose thoughts roll around like peas on a plate. Those on medication with a cocktail in their veins of which blood’s just a minor ingredient. Veteran engineers, tradesmen and -women, office workers, housewives, civil servants, army personnel, fire extinguisher inspectors, bus drivers, over-achievers, service workers, stationary shop staff.

Zbinden’s Progress is a slim volume but we get to know a lot of Lukas’ fellow residents and their foibles. But most of all the old man likes to wax eloquent about walking, and he puts a lot of energy into trying to convert others to this noble calling.

Do you know what it means to go for a walk? Going for a walk is: acquiring the world. Celebrating the random. Preventing disaster by being away. Speaking to the bees though you’re already a bit too old for that. Not being especially rushed on a street that’s like an oven in the afternoon sun. Missing the tram. … Going at your own pace. Going for a walk is: saying hello to more people than you know. Losing Frau Dürig amid the turmoil of the Christmas market. Sensing a storm brewing, from a distance.

The endearing thing about Lukas Zbinden is that he knows how ridiculous he sounds. A former teacher, he realises he is a pedant but he is never pompous. This is probably because he was married to Emilie, a thoroughly practical woman who combined rock solid self-belief with exceptional generosity of spirit. We hear a lot about his love for Emilie and relive the defining moments of their marriage.

What I love about Zbinden’s Progress is that the main character both encapsulates and subverts the Swiss stereotype. On the surface he has led such a conventional life – army recruit, schoolteacher, married father-of-one, enthusiastic walker – but at heart he’s a revolutionary. I’ll keep an eye out for him on my walks from now on.

Yes, this book will stay with me. Its message of stopping to smell the roses is one we need to be reminded of more than ever in the communication whirlwind modern society has become.

And I really like what he says about competition, “the lion tamer, constantly cracking his whip and rushing people”.

Competition takes us up a very high mountain, from which you can see far. It opens the curtains and we can see all the riches of the world and all its splendour. Competition says to us: I’ll give you all of that if you are industrious enough and compete well.

Zbinden’s Progress (Spaziergänger Zbinden) was translated by Donal McLaughlin, a prolific translator of contemporary Swiss fiction. I mentioned before that I met McLaughlin in Bern recently when he was over from Glasgow for a reading from another of his translations Naw Much of a Talker by Pedro Lenz. I’ll be able to link to a podcast discussion with McLaughlin and Lenz next week when it is published on swissinfo.ch.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your recommendations. What book, translated or not, has awakened strong feelings in you?

‘The Impositions of the Body’

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A paper cut, a sore throat, a sprained ankle – these are the little reminders that the body is fortress that is all too easily breached. I’ve just thrown away my crutches after a minor foot injury and I’m so relieved to be back to normal, defence walls mended – until the next time.

A while back I wrote of review of Still Alice by Lisa Genova, a beautiful portrayal of a woman going through the onset of Alzheimer’s – a wonderful novel which has won a place in my top ten forever. In the same blog post I mentioned So Much for That by Lionel Shriver, which also has illness as one of its main subjects. In this story Glynis, the rather unsympathetic wife of the main character Shephard, is going through aggressive and debilitating treatments for cancer. There is a passage in the book where we get an insight into what Glynis has learned from her difficult experience. I find it bleak but fascinating.

“Before Glynis had become something of a mystery to After Glynis. … This Before Glynis was a woman, she gathered, who had enjoyed the luxury of vast tracts of time unfettered not only by the need to make money, as Shephard was forever harping on about, but – all that really matters, it turned out – by the impositions of the body. This was a woman who was “well”. (Perhaps more than any other quality, this theoretical state eluded the After-Glynis grasp. But only as an experience. As a concept, she understood being “well” better than anyone else on the planet.) For After Glynis had discovered a terrible secret: There is only the body. There was never anything but the body. “Wellness” is the illusion of not having one. Wellness is escape from the body. But there is no escape. So wellness is delay. What had Before Glynis – Well Glynis, Pre-Inorexably-Going-To-Be-Sick-Any-Minute-Now Glynis, done with her free ride, her gift of the soon-to-be-revoked illusion that she was not, after all, a body – a body and only a body?”

Another passage about illness that made a big impression on me comes from The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby. This unforgettable memoir was dictated by Bauby who suffered a massive stroke and was left paralysed and unable to speak with Locked-In Syndrome. It must be the only book which was dictated by blinking one eyelid (he describes the technique in the book).

“In fact it is in my respiratory passages that I can hope for improvement. In the long term, I can hope to eat more normally: that is without the help of a gastric tube. Eventually, perhaps I could breathe naturally, without a respirator, and muster enough breath to make my vocal chords vibrate.

But for now, I would be the happiest of men if I could just swallow the overflow of saliva endlessly flooding my mouth.”

Although Bauby laments all that he has lost, the book is not an exercise in self-pity but a record of what is beautiful and precious in life.

Has anyone else come across interesting books that deal with the subject of illness? Or is it something you have written about yourself?

(Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Famous last words

Image courtesy of arztsamui at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

How many of you are bold enough to read the ending of a book before beginning it? I might take an occasional guilty peek but only when a novel begins to drag. As a rule I am an obedient reader and let the author lead the way. Also when I am enjoying a book, the ending becomes ever more precious and I want to appreciate the full power of the finale.

There is a popular notion that a writer has to capture his or her potential reader on the first page. With all the emphasis on the opening of a novel, I haven’t been giving that much thought to endings but as far as any lasting impression of a book goes, the ending has more weight. It is the place where you are likely to hear the author’s voice most clearly and often find the real message of the book.

To the most recent example: I have just finished On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, a wonderful depiction of lost love. The private hell of the newlyweds’ wedding night is beautifully portrayed but it is the row on the beach after Florence and Edward’s doomed attempt at lovemaking that broke this reader’s heart. The two main characters are trapped in an escalating argument where they find themselves saying the most hurtful and reckless things to each other, simply because honesty is impossible.

So it makes perfect sense to me that McEwan ends the novel back at the beach on that fateful night, with the message that not even a lifetime of regret can undo the consequences of our actions, or in this case, inaction.

On Chesil Beach he could have called out to Florence, he could have gone after her. … Instead, he stood in cold and righteous silence in the summer’s dusk, watching her hurry along the shore, the sound of her difficult progress lost to the breaking of small waves, until she was a blurred, receding point against the immense straight road of shingle gleaming in the pallid light.

Here are a few more endings for your enjoyment:

The Gathering by Anne Enright

Gatwick airport is not the best place to be gripped by a fear of flying. But it seems that this is what is happening to me now; because you are up so high, in those things, and there is such a long way to fall. Then again, I have been falling for months. I have been falling into my own life, for months. And I am about to hit it now.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

And I thought of a cresting wave of water, lit by a moon, rushing past and vanishing upstream, pursued by a band of yelping students whose torchbeams criss-crossed in the dark.
There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest.

A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks

A rare surge of feeling, of something like vindication, came from the pit of his belly and spread out till it sang in his veins. As he stood with his hands in his pockets, staring out over the sleeping city, over its darkened wheels and spires and domes, Veals laughed.

I’ve got to say McEwan with his “cold and righteous silence” is my favourite here but maybe that’s because I’m still under the spell of the book.

(Image courtesy of arztsamui at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Burmese Days by George Orwell

Image courtesy of Ikunl at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Ikunl at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

In Orwell’s Burmese Days you will get as close as humanly possible to observing the behaviour of the ruling British class in the waning days of the Indian Empire. Here is everything you need to know about colonialism and racism in one cracking story. You can pull up a bamboo chair in the European club and listen in on the casual contempt, and in many cases outright loathing, the English feel for the local population.

There was always a minority among making a living in the empire who respected the culture and people, spoke the language and were appalled by the system. People like Orwell who, under his real name Eric Arthur Blair, spent five years working as an imperial policeman in Burma (then a province of the Indian Empire, now Myanmar).

The book was written based on his experiences in different parts of the country and he had trouble getting it published, partly over fears it could be libellous, a clear indication of its autobiographical context.

Orwell explains the rot at the heart of the ex-pat society, a society whose whole existence was based on a lie – not just the lie of superiority which is well illustrated in the story but the lie of the grand theft of colonialism. Development was promoted purely to facilitate the massive system of stealing from the country, the true and only reason for the British presence.

But Burmese Days is much more than a vehicle for social commentary. It is first and foremost a novel, a beautiful, heart-breaking story of one lost soul, John Flory, and the empty life he is condemned to live as a timber merchant in a small regional outpost of the empire. Flory’s destiny shows that we can bear almost any degree of loneliness, degradation and ennui, until we get a glimpse of something more. If our hopes are raised – and then dashed – by the possibility of something better, in Flory’s case love, the disappointment is more than we can bear.

There is humour here too, in the quirks and catchphrases of the other characters, the viewpoint of the servants and the scenes of social agony known to anyone who has had to endure repetitive conversation with a small group of people locked in other’s company day after day for years.

Myanmar is opening up at last after many decades of repression. The 1934 novel is eagerly sold to tourists in Yangon, according to my father-in-law who was chased around a market in Yangon earlier this year until he bought the copy I ended up reading. I flew through the book, deeply impressed by the evocation of the climate, the wildlife, the countyside, the culture.

The next book based in Myanmar I would like to read is The Lizard Cage by Karen Connolly about a political prisoner. It is one of the books featured in the lovely memoir by Will Schwalbe The End of Your Life Book Club.

Just to finish off, here are George Orwell’s – or Eric Arthur Blair’s – six rules for writers from his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, courtesy of Wikipedia:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word when a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a work out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

I’m sure I broke some of Orwell’s rules in this blogpost but I will try to be more vigiliant!

All aboard for a spontaneous evening

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One of the many things that disappear when small children take over your heart and your home is the ability to do spontaneous things out of interest. Much stronger reasons are needed to justify abandoning the chicks in the nest without warning, leaving your mate to find last minute worms and put up with all that chirping. Those reasons include traffic jams, emergency health issues and paid work. There may be one or two more but it’s a short list and it certainly doesn’t include lectures by interesting authors in other cities.

It is the unexpected dose of spontaneity that makes my trip to meet author and philosopher Alain de Botton for an interview in Basel last May so remarkable (to me). Picture the scene. I’m sitting at my desk on the outskirts of Bern cobbling information together on some distinctly non-literary topic. Probably something about an international tax agreement, climate change research or Swiss politics – I can’t quite remember. It’s a rainy Tuesday, or possibly Wednesday – definitely midweek.

On my Twitter feed which just happens to be open I notice Alain de Botton tweet the news that he is speaking in Basel that evening. I decide to pass on that snippet to other people who might be free to do things at the drop of a hat. On to the next thing. And then a few minutes later I get a tweet from de Botton himself along the lines of: ‘It’ll be fun. Why don’t you come along?’

Well of course you know the reason why. This is an unplanned midweek evening activity after a working day. Having left the house at 7 a.m., and expecting to do the same the following day, I am already fending off the niggling thought that I might be short-changing the children on essential mothering hours. I’m hardly going to make things worse by not coming home, am I?

Actually, a few phone calls and tweets later that is exactly what I decided to do. I got the all-important green light from father bird, sorted out tickets to the sold-out event by arranging to go in a professional capacity and found myself sitting on a train to Basel a few hours later avidly reading my newly-bought copy of Religion for Atheists, de Botton’s latest bestseller.

That evening, sitting in the back of the hall in the Literaturhaus, I enjoyed the pure pleasure again of doing something cultural out of interest – something more than just going for a meal, hitting the playground or going on a work assignment. I got some time to listen to new ideas, to reflect on them and be moved by some of the human truths that bind us all together.

Below is the link to the story I wrote for swissinfo.ch following the talk in Basel. Turns out it’s been 20 years since Alain de Botton’s first book was published. He’s been a busy bee.

http://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/swiss_news/Alain_de_Botton,_20_years_a-writing_.html?cid=36044606

Have you done anything spontaneous recently to shake up the routine? Do tell.

Still Alice by Lisa Genova

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Meet Alice, a brilliant 50-year-old academic faced with a shock diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s. Lisa Genova uses this strong starting point to create a gripping piece of fiction, a heart-wrenching personal journey towards the ultimate loss – the loss of oneself. At times it is agonising to walk in her shoes but Alice is such an appealing and downright interesting character you would follow her anywhere.

The reader accompanies Alice to doctor’s appointments, lectures (she’s a linguistics professor at Harvard) and family celebrations. You are there when she gets hopelessly lost on her regular jogging route, starts repeating herself and stops recognising people. Hearing the story from Alice’s perspective, it’s impossible not to be deeply moved by her predicament. In the gap between what she feels and what she can express are some of the most poignant moments of the book.

The relationships Alice has with her husband John and three children are nicely flawed and complex. Successful, driven and somewhat selfish, John is poorly equipped to deal with the impact of the illness on them both. But there are just enough glimpses of his heartache and confusion to persuade us to care about him too.

We know that things are only going to get worse for Alice. There is no light at the end of the tunnel and yet the suspense is sustained throughout the story. What is going to happen next? How bad will it get? Will she do something drastic?

As well as being a character-driven novel, Still Alice documents the diagnosis, treatment and progression of Alzheimer’s. I can imagine it’s a fascinating and useful account for those directly affected by the disease, which is why the U.S. Alzheimer’ Association endorsed it. There is quite a lot of medical detail included but the stakes are so high for the main character that you want this information and it doesn’t interfere with the flow.

Another outstanding novel which has serious illness as the central theme, Lionel Shriver’s So Much for That changed the way I looked at cancer. Still Alice has now done the same for Alzheimer’s. Every illness brings its own special world of pain and havoc and the more we learn about it the more forewarned and compassionate we can be. A book that almost makes you feel the illness has turned up uninvited at your door is storytelling at its best.

Aspiring writers in a ‘holding pattern’

Permission to land?
Permission to land?

I’ll be posting a review of Lisa Genova’s remarkable first novel Still Alice over the weekend. In the meantime, some interesting advice from the author.

‘I know so many aspiring writers who are sitting in a holding pattern, with a work completed, waiting to find a literary agent. They’re stuck, unable to give themselves permission to write the next book because they’re waiting to find out if their work is “good enough”, waiting to find out if they’re a “real writer”. This state of waiting, of not writing and self-doubt, is the worst state any writer can be in.

My advice is this: If you don’t find a literary agent falling into your lap quickly enough, if you feel like your work is done and is ready to be shared with the world, self-publish. Give your work to the world. Let it go. And keep writing. Freedom!’

Genova’s powerful novel about Alzheimer’s was a special case, which followed a unique path to publication. Before the book was published, the Harvard neuroscientist contacted the marketing department of the Alzheimer’s Association, thinking they might be interested in some way, “perhaps endorsing it or providing a link to it from their website”. She sent them the link to the book’s website, which she’d created before the book was published. The marketing rep got in touch, asking for a copy of the manuscript. Even though they didn’t normally considering “partnering” books, they loved it and wanted to give it their stamp of approval. The association asked Genova to write the blog for an awareness campaign they were launching at the end of that month.

“Realising that I’d created something that the Alzheimer’s Association thought was valuable, that could help educate and reassure the millions of people trying to navigate the world with Alzheimer’s, I felt an urgent responsibility to get the book out immediately.” She said yes to the blog and yes to the affiliation and went ahead and self-published Still Alice in 2007, which went on to become a New York Times bestseller.

Two books later, you can find out what Lisa Genova is up to now on her website:
http://lisagenova.com/