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The Museum of You by Carys Bray

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When Carys Bray writes, woah, she sure does get you in the feels. Both “The Museum of You” and Bray’s first novel, “A Song for Issy Bradley,” deal with the aftermath of death, but Bray has a wonderful way of illuminating darkness with humour and empathy so the novels remain a pleasure to read.

Clover Quinn’s mother Becky died six weeks after Clover was (unexpectedly) born. Now 12, Clover lives with her bus driver dad, Darren, whose silence on the subject of her mum only fuels her desire to know more. In the long summer holidays, inspired by a school trip to the Merseyside Maritime Museum, Clover attempts to curate an exhibition of her mum, using bits and bobs of belongings that have remained in a cluttered, untouched bedroom for years. Where the novel is strongest is in the relationship between Clover and her dad and in the depiction of him adapting to a life that looks entirely different from how he’d once hoped. Darren is a wonderfully sympathetic character, flawed as all of us are, and very recognisable in his attempts to be the best parent he can.

“He could make jam or something. He remembers the things mum used to make with the raspberries: cheesecakes, trifles, tarts, fools and mousses. They could have a go, him and Clover, she’d like that. He has had these ideas before but it’s a struggle to make them materialise; by the time he gets home there will be something else to occupy his thoughts – the detached radiator, the hall walls, the worry that there may be something else she needs.”

The novel features a supporting cast of characters, the most interesting of whom is Jim, Darren’s troubled brother in law who has mental health issues and is hopeless at self-care. Describing Darren’s feelings towards him – “His kindness comes in bursts and he tires quickly. It was easier in the early days, when it seemed as if it was going to be more of a sprint than a marathon,” succinctly describing the fluctuating resolve of trying to help someone desperately needy who doesn’t seem likely to want to, or be able to, ever change.

Mrs Mackeral is the malapropism yelling next door neighbour who is maybe a little too cartoonish to feel fully realised, but provides some amusing moments. Colin is Darren’s best mate who along with his sister, and Darren’s dad, form a kind of family unit around Clover. Whilst death underpins the narrative, there is a sense of optimism that this wonky group provide.

Clover is deftly drawn and is a character to cheer for. The story is heart warming whilst not shying away from truth.

Towards the end of the book Bray writes,“Grief never goes away. And that’s no bad thing – it’s only the other side of love, after all.”
How beautiful is that?

This is an emotionally honest novel written by a writer who marries real insight with engaging writing.

There’s nothing more boring than other people’s dreams…

There’s nothing more boring than other people’s dreams…

I dreamt about my dad. I was in a large block of offices full of people and saw him at the top of some stairs. He was wearing a suit, shirt and tie. He looked more 70’s dad than anything (maybe my subconscious translating the priests’ assertion that dad would have a “new and glorified body” and assuming pre heart attacks would be a prime point in time.)

I said “I really miss you.”
And he said “I really miss you too.”
And we hugged.
He said, “You’ll be coming to the thing tonight though? I’ll see you again there.”
And I said, “Yes.”

Then, in my dream, I thought, I mustn’t forget this. Remember.
I went up to dad and I said “I really miss you.”
And he said “I really miss you too.”
And we hugged.
He said, “You’ll be coming to the thing tonight though? I’ll see you again there.”
And I said, “Yes.”

But I didn’t know what the thing was. I didn’t know how to get there. I retraced the conversation over and over, looking for clues.

I went up to dad and I said “I really miss you.”
And he said “I really miss you too.”
And we hugged.
He said, “You’ll be coming to the thing tonight though? I’ll see you again there.”
And I said, “Yes.”

I went up to dad and I said “I really miss you.”
And he said “I really miss you too.”
And we hugged.
He said, “You’ll be coming to the thing tonight though? I’ll see you again there.”
And I said, “Yes.”

I went up to dad and I said “I really miss you.”
And he said “I really miss you too.”
And we hugged.
He said, “You’ll be coming to the thing tonight though? I’ll see you again there.”
And I said, “Yes.”

And this looped on for who knows how long. And when I woke up I thought I mustn’t forget this.
I went up to dad and I said “I really miss you.”
And he said “I really miss you too.”
And we hugged.
He said, “You’ll be coming to the thing tonight though? I’ll see you again there.”
And I said, “Yes.”

I really miss my dad.

The grief underpins everything. Sometimes it feels dormant, but just when I think it is safer now, less spiky, it washes over me like an unnoticed wave that I have my back to, plunges me right back into salt and panic.

Last week I spent time with two gorgeous women who reminded me of who I am. This is what friendships should be like; time spent with people who don’t judge, who don’t monologue at me, who don’t insist everything has to be funfunfun, who understand that life is complex, who don’t leave me exhausted and drained, who don’t put me down, but instead lift me. I am so grateful to know these smart, thoughtful, ace people. Thank you KG and KM!

(Photo taken from Worthing pier yesterday. A beautiful day with Si. Calm waves, blue sky, love.)

 

It’s difficult…

It’s difficult…

My first online blogging was done via LiveJournal way back whenever. I had a small group of readers whose LJ’s I also read. We commented on each other’s posts and it all felt cosy and fun. I was a little wary about being discovered so I used a pseudonym and fake names for all the folk I wrote about, but otherwise it was truth all the way. Then I set up “A Salted”, a blog in which I discussed working in a big bookshop and writing and reading. It was less gossipy than LJ, but still it was definitely a personal blog. Then came this one. I have way more publications to my name and I wanted to feature them and promote my writing. I also review books. Sometimes I interview other writers, beginning the Smash Lits interviews because I get so incredibly bored by all the writer blog tours. I prefer to read blogs that make me feel I am reading about a person. I hate twitter accounts that are repeated links to someone’s writing and RT’s of praise and fake reviews. (Five *****’s to Sara Crowley’s extraordinary story!) Facebook pages full of dry self promotion. Blogs that drone on. Who cares?

I have become so cautious about what I say, I don’t tell the truth about my life to anyone really. I am fake and polite and careful at all times. What would happen if I told the truth? Oh my goodness, people might know how I feel and what’s going on, and then what? How…exposing.

We live at a time when I can watch “Reality” TV shows in which young people will have sex, get drunk, show their entire bodies, but never reveal themselves. It’s a curious honesty. Big Brother contestants sleep together unabashed, yet refuse to discuss whether or not they might date as if suggesting they might want a relationship opens them up to a potential embarrassment far greater than showing their genitalia to the cameras. It feels as if having sex with someone is fine, but wanting the hand-holding, chatty bit of a partnership is too much.

Random thoughts:

It’s six months since dad died and it very much feels like my life has divided into before he died and after. After has been miserable as hell. I look at pictures or think of things and go, ah, yeah, that was before dad died. That was before I lost the weird innocence I didn’t know I had.

My new job is great. It’s the one bright spot in an otherwise terrible year.

There are so many things I don’t talk about. I keep secrets and lock away so much sadness that I may explode.

People say you find out who your friends are in times of crisis. What if you find out you don’t have any?

At my dad’s funeral the church was full. He was such a friendly, popular guy many people wanted to pay their respects. I don’t know who would come to mine; not so many, that’s for sure. I went to a neighbour’s funeral last week. Her husband died 25 years ago and they didn’t have children. After all her struggles, her endurance, her keeping on with a smile and joke, life ended. That’s what it does. She was 96 and she had told me all her friends were dead, even the younger ones.

We get through our lives however we do, and it ends. That’s a certainty. I will die. You will die. Everyone we love will die. And in the meantime I’m alive, I’m sad, I’m pissed off, I’m increasingly afraid my life will end before I have written my fucking novel, I’m fat, flawed, exasperated, but I do my best to put some good out into the world, to be a decent person, to keep on keeping on even though the ground has turned out not to be solid and it all feels so bloody hard.

My most used saying of 2016 so far is, “It’s difficult…”

My name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

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My name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Strout is an exemplary storyteller and having adored Olive Kitteridge so damn much, I trust her to tell a quietly unfussy and moving story. MNiLB is narrated by Lucy Barton who looks back at a long stay she had some time in the eighties in hospital recovering from a post-op infection. Her husband and children were largely absent while she recuperated, and her mother, who she hadn’t seen for many years, flew, for the first time, from her small rural home in Amgash to New York. Remaining by her bedside for several days and nights, her mother offers up anecdotes as conversation; tidbits of other’s lives, gossip about neighbours Lucy might recall. Morality tales in the main. Fragments are revealed, as they are in our actual memories, this happened, and this, do you remember? And the pieces of the puzzle are laid out until, oh, yes, we see the picture now. Lucy’s childhood, one of emotional deprivation as well as physical, is revealed. The agonies of not being a fit remaining throughout her life no matter how she learned to blend in with the help of money, husband, kids, a writing career, a New York life.

“Loneliness was the first flavour I tasted…”

Lucy finds a voice through writing, but can’t express herself to her mother. Theirs are conversations where what is not said matters more than what is. We learn obliquely about her father’s PTS and subsequent cruelty, the humiliation he heaped upon her brother, Lucy’s marital problems and her friendship with a neighbour who dies of AIDS.

“It turned out I wanted something else. I wanted my mother to ask about my life. I wanted to tell her about the life I was living now. Stupidly — it was just stupidity — I blurted out, ‘Mom, I got two stories published.’ She looked at me quickly and quizzically, as if I had said I had grown extra toes, then she looked out the window and said nothing. ‘Just dumb ones,’ I said, ‘in tiny magazines.’ Still she said nothing.”

The hopefulness that she can share and connect is calmly devastating.

Glowing at the centre is her relationship with author/teacher, Sarah, who instructs Lucy to write the pages we have read. “This is a story about a mother who loves her daughter,” Sarah says about the writing Lucy has shown her. “Imperfectly. Because we all love imperfectly. But if you find yourself protecting anyone as you write this piece, remember this: You are not doing it right.”

This slim novel’s layers peel back to reveal the lumpy truths of a life and its relationships and lays them out for us to examine and recognise. Superb.

The Way We Die Now by Seamus O’Mahony

The Way We Die Now by Seamus O’Mahony

 

My dad died on February 15th and my world transformed. I am grief-stricken. It’s no surprise that I have turned to books seeking solace, or at least some kind of understanding. The first book I read was “When Breath Becomes Air” which in retrospect I found unsatisfactory and unhelpful. “The Way We Die Now” though has been a strangely compelling read despite its rather stark message. Right from the introduction O’Mahony warns us, “This is not a book of consolation; death is simply affliction and the end of our days. We are frail and vulnerable animals.”

He argues persuasively and passionately against the over medicalisation of death. As a Consultant Gastroenterologist at Cork University Hospital Dr O’Mahony has seen many people die and he uses a mixture of personal anecdotes, patient anecdotes, and high profile celebrity deaths, to highlight how our society places faith in medicine and expects to live despite disease. He explains how many patients receive what he believes to be useless treatments; procedures that take place for the sake of the hospital being seen to do something, often at the expense of a patient’s comfort. CPR that takes place after death is common apparently (and he is clear that CPR is rarely successful as it is in medical dramas. It’s a brutal technique that can leave people permanently damaged if they do survive.) Speaking about the overuse of PEG feeding he says “The procedure became for me a symbol of the medicalisation of death, and of the failure of modern medicine to care humanely for those most in need of its help.”

He is wonderfully dismissive of Kugler-Ross’s famous five stages; denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. “The power and terror of death refuses to be tamed by workshops, by trite formulae.” The myth of a “good death” is exploded. It is likely we will die whilst sedated and pain-free thanks to a syringe driver. We won’t make profound death bed statements, we won’t even speak. We will be removed from our own death, but that saves us from dying in terror and pain. There is rarely a peaceful, stoic acceptance. That word terror catches me and makes me realise I had some fairy story death narrative in my head where gradually people slip away. Here’s my comfort, such as it is, my dad died unexpectedly. His heart stopped. He did not know he was dying. We did not have the agonies of having to decide for him what interventions he should endure so that we could keep him with us. I fear I would have insisted on all of them, though I hope I would not have.

O’Mahony writes he was “…deeply impressed by how Catholic ritual – after the deaths of my great-uncle and father in-law – guided the bereaved during the days immediately following their deaths.” The issue in a secular society where “Evangelical atheism has accelerated the flight from religion” is how to find this kind of comfort, and he suggests we worry less about believing and be content with simply belonging. This really chimed with me. Dad had a full Catholic funeral; his body was received into church the night before and his priest led us gently through the rituals and beliefs. During the funeral he took the same care to explain. It felt unimportant I don’t share those beliefs. I was immensely grateful for this acknowledgement of loss and grief, this solemnity, this tribute to my dad.

The book explores “deluded optimism” where patients, doctors, and family and friends collude in a pretence there is hope where there is none. What bloody fools we are that we think we can tame death. There is so much that is interesting here; the fact that patients who have combined oncology/palliative care live on average 25% longer than those who forge on with treatment (seeing hospices as an admission of failure), and that doctors apparently often choose not to undergo extensive treatment themselves. The idea that doctors offer treatment because they don’t know what else to do and need to be seen as doing something is troubling, yet the instinct is to want them to do every possible thing to save the lives of those we love.

How afraid we are, of course, and we are right to be. There’s no magic here, but this is a cool, intelligent look at death, right in its ghastly, deathy face.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

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Paul Kalanithi spent years training to be a neurosurgeon. He was one of those dazzling people who could have followed any number of paths, studying literature, philosophy and medicine with equal vigour. He trained in neurological surgery at Stanford University, believing brain surgery was his calling. The ridiculous workload (100 hour work weeks) and literal life and death operations, his striving for compassion and excellence in everything he did, his relationship with his girlfriend, Lucy, also a doctor, are all examined in the first half of this book. Kalanithi’s love of literature shines as brightly as his love of medicine.

When he began to suffer with excruciating back pains he wondered if he had cancer, then tried to push that concern away after an x-ray came back clear. He got weaker and the pain intensified. Eventually he had a CT scan, “I flipped through the CT scan images, the diagnosis obvious: the lungs were matted with innumerable tumors, the spine deformed, a full lobe of the liver obliterated. Cancer, widely disseminated. I was a neurosurgical resident entering my final year of training. Over the last six years, I’d examined scores of such scans, on the off chance that some procedure might benefit the patient. But this scan was different: it was my own.”

Where the first half of the book is concerned with his striving to be the best surgeon he can and to help others deal with unthinkable disease and their fragility as humans, their lives literally in his hands as he operates on their brains, the second half is him looking frankly at his own situation as he makes the transformation from expert doctor to needy patient.

“Once I had been diagnosed with a terminal illness, I began to view the world through two perspectives; I was starting to see death as both doctor an patient. As a doctor, I knew not to to declare “Cancer is a battle I am going to win!” or ask “Why me?” (Answer: Why not me?)”

“Like my own patients, I had to face my mortality and try to understand what made my life worth living…”

It’s his clear thinking that engages the reader so fully. We, and everyone we know, will die. It is the awful truth we spend our days not looking at and here is someone who has studied the brain extensively, who knows what it is to look right at death, someone who writes with zinging clarity, preparing to share his wisdom with us so that we may go forwards in our own lives in a more meaningful way.

“The physician’s duty is not to stave off death or return patients to their old lives, but to take into our arms a patient and family whose lives have disintegrated and work until they can stand back up and face, and make sense of, their own existence.”

Everything Kalanithi had worked so hard to achieve in his future, his ambitions and hopes, were lost with diagnosis. He had to examine what was most important to him. As he wrestled with choosing between literature and medicine before specialising, he wrestled again. He returned to surgery for a while, completing his residency with customary excellence despite everything. Offered his dream job he briefly allowed himself the fantasy of accepting it, before turning it down. He and Lucy decided to have a baby. He wrote most of this book. In the end it all boiled down to the deeply personal, as it does for us all. The things that matter are the relationships we have. It’s family and friends and love that count.

This is why When Breath Becomes Air is successful. We are desperate for clues how to live, how to die, how to cope. It’s unfair to expect so much from a book. Its unfair that Kalanithi died when he was 37. Life, and death, is not fair.

Smash Lits with Janice Galloway

Smash Lits with Janice Galloway

Janice Galloway is my favourite writer so I was thrilled when we were able to launch The Forge Literary Magazine with her superb story, peak. She recently published a new collection, Jellyfish, available from Freight Books, which showcases her incredible talent. If you’re a fan of short stories I really must ask you to buy/read a copy of this. It’s a masterclass.

 

I’m really chuffed that Janice agreed to take part in Smash Lits and answer my daft questions.

1. Do you have any recurring dreams?

1) Being in an institution or school and trying to pass for a natural member of that institution (one version of this was living in a sauna with only a towel for belongings);

2) Being on a bus heading somewhere very determinedly and realising it has no driver or other passengers after five minutes of just looking out of the window thinking I was safe;

3) Being alone in the dusk and looking out over low-lit moorland with a road winding through it, and someone waiting at the bus stop who may or may not be my mother –

Can I stop now? They go on forever.

2. Do you believe human beings can spontaneously combust?

Yes. Indeed, there have been times I wished I could.

3. You have to swap places with one other writer for a week. Who and why?

Balzac, because he wrote (longhand, obviously) very fast indeed and I can’t write anything fast by any means whatever.

4. Did you have an invisible friend when you were younger?

No. Another loss.

5. What’s your favourite sweet?

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High quality – violet cream. Common or garden – Highland Toffee. I hope my dentist doesn’t see this.

6. Have you ever read someone else’s diary?

No. But my big sister read mine out loud at tea-time when I was 13.

7. Your writing is music, what style is it?

Varies. I can confidently say it’s never pub singalongs.

8. Bacon VS Tofu – who wins? Why?

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Tofu because it is honourable and bacon kills things and I want to say the right thing instead of reveal my weakness.

9. What was the last text you sent?

Get onions. Get lots of onions.

10. What is the oldest piece of clothing in your wardrobe?

A cardigan that was knitted by my sister and belonged to my mother. It’s TINY.

11. Have you ever had your fortune told?

Yes. I lived in a seaside town and the travelling fair (funfair, that is) came with a built-on fortune teller.

12. Who is your favourite Neighbours character?

I have never seen Neighbours. If there was a dog in it I would have liked that.

13. What’s your favourite swear?

Bugger McFucketty

14. What sandwiches would you have made for a picnic with George Orwell?

Boiled cabbage.

15. You obviously love words, do you have a favourite?

Succulent.

16. What’s the best thing ever?

A wild animal coming to give you a sniff and examine what you are out of curiosity. NB It must not be a spider.

17. Have you ever had a nickname?

No. At home as a child, I answered to “Here, you” more than anything else if that counts.

18. Do you have any writing rituals?

Other than occasionally weeping with rage and frustration, no.

19. Your character in “burning love” calls Sylvia Plath “the Boston Harpie” – what would they call you?

The character in the story would probably call me “Who?”.

20. What question should I have asked you?

Can we send you a cheque?

Janice, you’re amazing. Thank you for supporting our new magazine and thank you for writing your words. Dear everyone, please buy Jellyfish, you won’t be disappointed.