What I’m Reading
A Swarming of Bees by Theresa Tomlinson
It is an interesting reflection on the contemporary publishing scene that so many established authors are seeking out smaller presses to work with – and not always for the obvious reason that their former publishers may be too fixated on sales figures to take on more work by respected writers whose work doesn’t ‘sell’ in the same way that E L James or Stephanie Meyer sells. The smaller publisher offers more freedom and authorial control over (e.g.) artwork, layout and design, publicity etc., a more equal partnership and a more personal relationship – of the kind once offered by the larger houses. And of course several of these ventures have done very well. Jane Rogers’ novel The Testament of Jesse Lamb published by Sandstone, went on to be long-listed for the Booker, and to win the Arthur C Clarke award. It has since been picked up by Canongate in the UK and Harper Perennial in the USA. Meanwhile The Lighthouse by Alison Moore, published by Salt, was shortlisted for the Booker 2012.
Theresa Tomlinson’s first novel for adults has been published by Acorn Press. Tomlinson is a well-known writer for children and young adults, whose books have twice been shortlisted for the Carnegie, and for several other awards. She is particularly known for her historical fiction, and A Swarming of Bees is a murder-mystery set at the time of the Synod of Whitby.
Now it is impossible to overestimate the importance of the Synod of Whitby. It was an event of immeasurable significance, marking a turning point in the history of the church and of the nation; introducing a new epoch in English and European history. It was the point at which the divided church chose Roman over Celtic Christianity. Yet Tomlinson was told, by more than one editor, that the reading public ‘was not interested in this particular era’.
Who are these people who ring-fence our literature in this way?
Any intelligent marketing person could find several different kinds of readership for this novel: readers of historical fiction, readers of murder-mysteries, readers with a particular interest in the history of Christianity, readers who like strong female characters in their fiction, readers with a particular interest in the north-east of England, or Whitby, and so on.
Tomlinson was also told that the names were difficult. The story features actual historical characters – the Abbess Hild, who famously presided over both monks and nuns at the Abbey, Caedmon the cowherd, Cuthbert the holy man and King Oswy. There is a strong sense of the community at the Abbey and the diverse roles of the members. However, since Tomlinson’s style is accessible and easy throughout, the narrative is always easy to follow, and to me the names add to the atmosphere of the setting, along with the Anglo-Saxon poems, riddles and charms which are interspersed throughout the story.
The sense of the community was the outstanding feature for me; the way that the Abbey itself was linked to the rest of the fishing community, and the way that they all pulled together in times of crisis. Tomlinson knows her material, and the area, well, and uses it to create a sense of a different world. And it is a world full of drama. As well as the religious conflict, (two different kinds of Christianity and older ‘pagan’ beliefs) there is a dynastic struggle between rival kings, and an outbreak of plague. It soon becomes clear that someone is using the plague as a cover for their own deadly intentions and it is up to Fridgyth, the herb-wife, to solve this mystery.
However, against this dramatic setting, the details of everyday life stand out clearly – the ‘planting of tiny leeks into holes’ and tending the sick. The focus is on the female world, the friendships between women and their contribution, often hidden, to the great, complex battles of history. But Tomlinson never loses track of the fact that her main purpose is to tell a good story, and to keep the reader involved in this different world.
Some thoughts about reading poetry
Don Paterson’s Luing
A few weeks ago, in a fit of exhaustion with prose fiction, I picked, at random, a book of poems from my shelves. The book was Landing Light by Don Paterson, and I opened it at the first poem, Luing.
After a few moments I realised that I wasn’t taking it in; that in fact I was reading it in the same way I was reading the novel I had just abandoned.
I decided then that I would read it in a different way. I would read this one poem every day for a week, without trying to progress through the collection.
One day I would read it stanza by stanza. The next day I would read it sentence by sentence, and the next, line by line. On occasion I would read it aloud.
I would not try to analyse its meaning.
As a result of this new (to me) way of reading poetry I found two things:
1. That I learned the poem by heart. This was not my intention, but a by-product of the process.
2. That the poem yielded a little of its mystery each time. This is because I seem to have created a kind of bond with it, through familiarity and repetition, not analysis.
There is something soothing in this process, though it is not a comforting poem. The comforting quality seems to me to be because my brain is forced to slow down, and work differently.
I’m massively pleased with this discovery. For one thing, despite my profession, my memory for words is not good. But now I feel I have the whole poem as a kind of gift or resource. I can sit on an inexplicably delayed train, for instance, and think to myself: leaving the motherland by a two-car raft, the littlest of the fleet, you cross the minch, to find yourself, if anything, now deeper in her arms than ever; sharing her breath. Or, in a moment of depletion, when I don’t want to think about anything else, I can think, reborn into a secret candidacy, the fontanelles re-open one by one, in the palms, then the breastbone, and the brow.
When I described what I was doing to a friend she was keen to try it for herself. We both read Luing in this way, and then she proposed a prayer written by Robert Louis Stevenson that begins: Grant me, O Lord, the royalty of inward happiness.
I read this poem several times, but failed to absorb it, apart from the metaphors: the royalty of inward happiness; diffusers of light. This is presumably because the metaphors and images are what make the brain work differently, to make different connections.
Of course rhythm and rhyme might perform the same function. Until recently I had a very elderly neighbour who had Alzheimer’s. She used to like me to sit with her, and would ask me, for instance, if I knew where her mother was, (she was 96). If I could get her onto the subject of poetry, however, she would instantly begin to recite reams of it that she had learned in school. This was usually rhyming poetry with a story attached. It had the same effect though; it moved her brain onto a different track and calmed her down.
I have often been struck, over the years, by the fact that people will turn to poetry in times of grief, despite the fact that the readership of contemporary poetry is not large – it is not a popular market. There was an outpouring of poetry following the death of Princess Di, for instance and the section of the local paper in which deaths are mentioned regularly features commemorative verse. Such poems are relatively simple, and straightforwardly expressed, but presumably comforting to those who write them, and to some of the people who read them. They might recognise something in the emotion expressed, or feel that something important to them has been acknowledged. It is possible to read something like:
How we miss our beloved John
Who was once with us but now is gone
for the content, the rhythm or the rhyme, but a poem such as Luing has other dimensions. It does not give up its meaning immediately. The effect it has is, to some extent, distinct from its meaning, because of the quality of the language, which prompts the brain to make different connections, and which turns the reader’s attention towards the mystery of the language itself and the mystery of the experience that is being expressed.
The poem has retained its mystery, for which I am grateful. It appears differently to me each time I recollect it, or a part of it, and is, in that sense, inexhaustible. But the real benefit of this way of reading for me is that I now feel that the poem is mine, in a way that it wasn’t when I merely owned the collection. It will continue to alter as long as I make connections to it through my own experience. It is a part of me, like breathing.
And it is much cheaper than therapy!