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Himself by Jess Kidd: review and Q&A

himselfToday’s post is part of a blog tour for Himself, the debut novel by Jess Kidd. As well as writing a review, I’ve asked Jess a few questions, and I thought I would try to interleave the two…

In 1976, Mahony arrives in Mulderrig, a village on the west coast of Ireland – and his childhood home. He can’t remember the place – but then, Mulderrig is a place apart at the best of times, and he broke the mould simply by leaving, even if he was a baby at the time:

Here the colours are a little bit brighter and the sky is a little bit wider. Here the trees are as old as the mountains and a clear river runs into the sea. People are born to live and stay and die here. They don’t want to go. Why would they when all the roads that lead to Mulderrig are downhill so that leaving is uphill all the way?

There is a vivid sense of place in Himself, and it came as no surprise to me to learn that this was the seed of the novel:

Mulderrig has always felt like a character in its own right, says Kidd, because it’s so strong in my mind. From the beginning I was able to wander around it in my imagination. It first emerged in a short story and I found myself totally intrigued by the town. Writing a novel offered me the scope to explore the setting further…Mulderrig and Mahony emerged, as did their intertwined histories.

Ah yes, intertwined histories. The infant Mahony was taken from his mother (“the curse of the town”) and left on the steps of an orphanage. He has now returned to Mulderrig because he’s been told of that secret past (and his real name), and he wants to uncover what happened. He’ll meet some fascinating characters: one who really stands out for me is Mrs Cauley, a splendidly irascible old actress who becomes Mahony’s partner-in-investigation.

She’s also the person in whom Mahony is able to confide another secret: that he can see the dead. The supernatural in Himself is strikingly low-key, and I asked Kidd to elaborate on that choice:

For me there are two main supernatural elements in the book, the dead and the magic that erupts from the place itself. I wanted the supernatural elements to feel part of the fabric of the text and not just added on for entertainment value, to shock or surprise. I was therefore careful to weave these events into the narrative, always making sure that they had a place in furthering plot or developing character.

The dead have a communicative function in Himself. Whilst there is the suggestion of a chilling Gothic-style haunting (without giving too much away) the dead in general have a very different kind of presence because of the way they interact with the living. This is because I wanted the dead to be fully developed characters in their own right, with their own stories and a sense of lives lived. The other supernatural elements in the novel, such as the biblical storm, swarming creatures and misbehaving wells, are very much linked to folklore and the land. Above all I wanted to create a world that the reader could become completely immersed in, however bizarre it became! To achieve this, the supernatural elements had to feel like a natural part of the fictional setting. I wanted even the most outlandish supernatural events to feel perfectly plausible and right in the context of the town. The otherworldly outbursts also provide an important contrast to the atmosphere of the town, which is very locked-down, silenced and repressed. In a way the supernatural communicates the rising tensions and repressed fear and guilt of the villagers.

That feeling of the supernatural being an everyday part of the world really comes across in the novel. For example, there is the scene where Mrs Cauley makes a whirlwind of her library to find a clue:

Soon light pamphlets of philosophical thought start to join them, skidding across the floor and fluttering up into the whirling cloud of paper. Slim volumes of difficult poems come next, scuttling out from dark corners and flapping headlong into the swirling gyre. Even the most aloof classics join in, shedding their covers and flinging themselves, one after the other, into the vortex.

I love the rhythm of that passage. I guess it may come across as a bit overegged, what with all the repetitions (more so out of context, I think). But to me, this just heightens the intensity of the moment. That’s one of the ways Himself works: those little flashes of something extraordinary in a seemingly ordinary place.

Then there is the language itself; there’s a real exuberance to it, as I hope the quotations here show. I commented to Kidd that I could imagine being regaled with this story over a few pints in the pub:

The narrative voice was there from the start. Very early on I’d decided to use magic realism in the novel. I’d already experimented with this narrative mode in my short stories but now I wanted to apply it to a full-blown novel. There’s often a storytelling flavour to the magic realist narrator and I thought this would suit both the setting and the way the plot unravels (with stories about Orla [Mahony’s mother] central to the investigation). I’m delighted that you picked up on this quality in the narrative voice as I very much intended the reader to feel that they were being drawn into a tale – led by the hand into a fictional world. Storytelling is a core element of the book, along with the tale-telling narrator many of the characters tell stories – often in the pub!

Although Jess Kidd was brought up in London, her family is from Mayo; I wanted to find out more about what drew her to the particular time and place of the novel:

I think my choice of time and place was very much inspired by my earliest memories of Ireland (in 1976 I would have been three). As a child I was fascinated by the natural world and responded to it by drawing, painting and writing stories. Although the book is very dark, and in places a little twisted, I hope there is also a sense of wonder and even nostalgia there, particularly with regards to the landscape. Mulderrig is a bit of a patchwork of the places I’ve known and visited. Although it’s very definitely Irish I wanted to try and give the setting a universal appeal so that readers from all different backgrounds could relate to the small-town atmosphere of the novel. My choice of setting was also strongly influenced by two play texts. I’ve always loved Under Milk Wood, by Dylan Thomas, for its portrayal of an insular, eccentric, seaside village. The Playboy of the Western World, by J. M. Synge, is set in Mayo and deals with themes of violence and storytelling. As the play unfolds we watch an isolated community create its own realities through the tales it tells itself. Both plays have a strong sense of setting and this was something I really wanted to carry over into my own work.

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Thanks to Jess for answering my questions. If you like the sound of Himself, you can buy a copy from the publisher, Canongate, here; and there’s more to discover at the other stops on the blog tour, which are listed in the graphic below.

himselftour

 

Guest post: Tom Connolly on New York and Men Like Air

tom-connollyToday, I’m pleased to welcome writer Tom Connolly to the blog, on the first day of the blog tour for his new novel, Men Like Air. I enjoyed his debut, The Spider Truces, back in 2010; but Men Like Air is quite the change of scene – from 1980s rural Kent in the last book, Connolly now takes us to present-day New York City.

Men Like Air concerns two brothers: Jack, who left England for New York after their parents died; and his younger brother Finn, who has now travelled over to even things out. During his stay, Finn crosses paths with Leo Emerson, a gallery owner troubled by loneliness, particularly when he sees his brother-in-law William so happily married. The four men’s lives intersect and change as the novel unfolds.

When reading the novel, I was particularly struck by its sense of place; so I asked  Tom to tell me about his inspiration for setting Men Like Air in New York. The piece below is illustrated by some of Tom Connolly’s own photos of the city.

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I had a strong sense I was going to do something different to my first book, The Spider Truces. Simply put, that book was set in the past, in a rural landscape, and across many years. I had an idea for an ensemble piece set in the modern day, in a city, spanning just a few weeks. And because New York City was the place I know better than anywhere beyond home, and was the city that first made me feel that anything was possible, there was something there for me. I got interested in the idea of a young buck (Finn) from a bruising small town background in England discovering the magic of New York City and being drawn in to the life of an older New Yorker (Leo) for whom the magic has been lost. Leo’s story took shape after I witnessed an extraordinary late snow storm in Manhattan, one April, when snow and cherry blossom flurried together for a few magical minutes. All the characters in the book feed off their surroundings and the wider gifts and challenges that New York City offers to those who live in it, as did I when writing the book. They are drained and replenished by the place, as I have been.

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The challenge was writing about a city people either know well or think they know, from TV, the movies, songs and books. A few drafts in I found the solution lay in not writing about New York at all, but in making it incidental and then allowing it to become important and vivid solely in story terms, as the place where this series of interconnected characters live, love, work and play. After a poor first draft (my first drafts are rubbish) in which my writing amounted to nothing better than street directions across the five boroughs, it began to work itself in to the grain of the city as experienced by the characters. The book’s relationship to New York became more about the play of light, the sounds, about a sense of straying beyond the city’s edges where the neon does not reach and where the city that never sleeps does exactly that. William Maxwell wrote that “New York City is a place where one can weep on the sidewalk in perfect privacy.” For my characters, this is both the making of them and their undoing.

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I loved the anonymity on offer in New York City that Maxwell referred to. For a writer, almost as much as for a photographer, to roam freely and observe and not be noticed, is a creative nirvana. There are so many people writing books, shooting films, taking photographs, painting pictures, that no one notices you, no one cares. I found this liberating and funny. And it was like an unspoken challenge – if you are going to write something set in this city, you better find something new to say.

My nineteen-year-old character, Finn, shares with thousands the experience of landing in New York City and feeling that anything is going to be possible in your life. Something about the place plants that idea in your head as a young adult stepping out of the Port Authority, which I did in 1992. This evening, New York City was the lyrics of a song written especially for him. They had deeper meaning for him than for anyone else; he was in communion with them as no other person could be. This is not unique to NYC but a lot of people like me go there as soon as they can get away or afford to. If, subsequently, chance leads you to spend a lot of time there, then your relationship with the place changes, and this is something reflected in the lives of all the characters in Men Like Air; they are all at different stages of a love affair with the place. But what matters to me is that they are all transformed by New York City, for better or worse, in the lifetime of the book.

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men-like-air-blog-tour-flyerMy thanks to Tom for sharing his inspiration, and to his publisher Myriad Editions for inviting me to take part in the blog tour.  Men Like Air will be published on 22 September; you can read the first chapter and preorder the book from Myriad here,  while the blog tour continues all this week at the following destinations:

Tuesday 20 Sept: The Owl on the Bookshelf

Weds 21 Sept: Food for Bookworms

Thurs 22 Sept: Bookish Ramblings

Fri 23 Sept: TripFiction

 

The Confidant blog tour: day 1

Welcome to the first stop on a blog tour for The Confidant by Hélène Grémillon. Hélène will be taking part in different features on various blogs this week, starting right here. To get things going, I’ll repost my review of The Confidant from earlier in the month.

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Hélène Grémillon’s first novel begins in Paris of 1975, where Camille Werner is sorting through the letters of condolence she has received on the death of her mother. One of the letters stands out: an account from someone named Louis of his childhood attraction to Annie, a girl from his village. Not knowing anyone named Louis or Annie, Camille thinks no more of this – until she starts receiving regular letters from Louis, telling more of his story.

Camille learns that Annie became friends with one Madame M., a rich young woman who came to the village with her husband, eventually (as Annie told Louis when they met again a few years later, during the war) agreeing to act as a surrogate mother for the infertile Madame M.  Events would subsequently take a tragic turn, and prove to be far more relevant to Camille than she had thought.

The full story of The Confidant takes shape only gradually, as we view the past from the perspectives of different characters. Madame M. kept Alice indoors during her pregnancy, and didn’t tell her about the Nazi invasion of France – but we’re forced to re-evaluate what we think of these individuals when we read Madame M.’s testimony. The final revelations come as Grémillon’s novel turns to poetry, as though prose is no longer sufficient (or can no longer be trusted) to tell this story. All in all, The Confidant is an intriguing piece of work.

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Hélène has kindly answered a few questions about her novel:

Can you tell me about some of the non-literary influences on The Confidant?

I love the theatre. Living in Paris, I’m lucky enough to be able to take advantage of a huge and beautiful range of shows, there’s always something to see. I often go to concerts as well, classical or otherwise. I love musical theatre, in London or Broadway, as sadly, it’s not a very “French” genre. I never say no to an exhibition, but I’m very careful about when I visit them, as I don’t like it when the rooms are too busy, and even less the queues. Finally, I watch a lot of films on DVD!

 What was the seed of the novel? Which came first, the decision to set The Confidant in its particular time periods, the idea of someone receiving letters about the past – or something else entirely?

The first thing I wanted to write about was a conflict between two women. That was really the starting point for The Confidant. Afterwards came the idea of a family secret, and from there came the letters and at last, the historical context. It all had to work well with my plot.

You use a number of different formats in the book – the short alternating chapters when Camille is reading Louis’s letters about Annie; the long monologue of Madame M.’s testimony; poetry at the end. How did you arrive at this technique?

I wanted the story to show different points of view. I therefore started by distributing the body of the story amongst the letters, and then I wrote the long monologue which sheds a new light on things. As for the end, the format imposed itself as I was writing the passage, and I kept it!

Who are some of your favourite writers?

There are many of them, and they depend on the time period. Shakespeare, Proust, Victor Hugo, Jean Anouilh, Stefan Sweig, Maupassant, Fred Vargas, John Irving, and I’ve recently discovered Jonathan Safran Foer, whose writing style I admire.

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Thanks to Hélène for taking the time to respond. The Confidant blog tour continues tomorrow at Novelicious, which will feature Hélène’s writing room. Then, on Wednesday, Stu at Winston’s Dad will be reviewing The Confidant and asking Hélène about her favourite books.

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