Something else I’ve been doing, while languishing (okay, it wasn’t that bad, but it felt like it) is catching up with my reading. After a hectic few months at the beginning of this year working on the final draft of Cold Light it was good to get a few lazy afternoons under the duvet with my books.
I’ve noticed what I like about books right now. The strange colliding with the domestic. The creepy and the unusual right up alongside cups of tea and cheese-graters, ashtrays and doormats and bottles of domestos. Until we’re not sure what we’re supposed to be scared of – the body hanging in the hallway or the half-chopped carrot on the chopping board. Odes to ordinary that are anything but.
I’m not going to get into this ‘domestic writing’ = ‘small, insignificant, female writing’ argument that crops up with dull regularity. I like novels about kitchens and marriages and houses just as much as I like novels about the end of the world, monsters, murderers and psychopaths. I like writing about people’s secrets, and to me, most of the secrets – the keeping and the telling – happen behind drawn curtains, closed doors and while we’re waiting for the kettle to boil. There’s nothing small or feminine about ordinary.
But that wasn’t what I wanted to get into, anyway.
So, I’ve read Lesley Glaister’s Chosen (in the interests of fairness, Tindal Street sent me this for free but didn’t say I had to blog about it, or anything like that…) and Tom Fletcher’s The Leaping – just out with Quercus (which I bought with my own money) and they’re such different books – worlds apart, really. Glaister’s is a kind of psychological thriller about a religious cult – a parallel narrative (they’re so easy to mis-step with, but she doesn’t) set in New York state and the UK. Fletcher’s book is a literary meditation on modern urban anxieties, the dead years after graduation, work, cancer and outside. And a were-wolf horror novel set in my favourite bit of Cumbria – Wasdale and Wast Water.
Actually, it’s not really Cumbria, it’s a kind of alternative West Cumbria. Like the Lancashire in my writing isn’t really Lancashire, but just the way I imagine it to be, or the way my characters think it is. I like writing where setting becomes character and theme, where it’s more than where it happens.
I think the thing these two books have in common and the thing I liked very much about them both was their attention to domestic detail – the dignity these narratives give to the ordinary, just by noticing it. In The Leaping we don’t just get a bloodbath, we get to see the characters cleaning it up. There are red skies and creepy snowmen and animals whose legs bend backwards and there are bits of bread going mouldy in the packet, dismal nights out at dismal nightclubs, horrible carpets, film posters, xboxes and arguments over who makes the tea.
Glaister’s book does this too. The hanging body and half-chopped carrot belong to her, as do the ‘spindly ends’ of meagre tab-ends crushed in an ashtray and smoked in a dreary house, on a dreary night. The Soul Life Centre – the house of the cult described in the book – isn’t mysterious so much as it is mundane, with piles of shared black socks and lilac pyjamas; constant tea that smells and tastes a bit funny and yet, without wanting to spoil the ending, there’s a lot here that is also too-strange-to-be-believed, unexpected and impossible-feeling.
Right now I’m reading P.D James, A Taste of Death. I really want to write a detective novel. I thought number three might be it, but I don’t think it will be. It will have elements of the form, but why always interests me more than how. The thing I notice about P.D James’ writing is how much information, how much detail we get – not all of it relevant or significant. I like James Wood on significant and insignificant detail, about using facts and information and noticings to build up ‘realism’. There’s a profusion of it in A Taste of Death – so much that it makes me forget the plot sometimes. It works though – mainly, I think, because the narration is focalised through a series of detectives and police officers who of course would notice and give domestic detail significance it wouldn’t have had otherwise. Or the fact of the murder intensifies the noticing – casts a bright light onto things, makes the brand-name of the mushroom flan important.
…people’s living space, and the personal possessions with which they surrounded themselves, were inevitably fascinating to a detective, an affirmation of identity, intriguing both in themselves and as a betrayal of character, interests, obsessions.
I think you could replace detective with ‘writer’ here and you’d sum up a lot of writers that I know and admire. The stuff people carry around with them, forget they own, choose to hide or display or forget in their houses. When I’m trying to picture a character I often start with the objects they own – the things he’d hide away if his mother were staying over, the objects he’d put out on display if a new friend came for tea. Writers are like detectives. I will think more about this.
I’m looking forward to doing more reading over the next couple of weeks. I’ve decided to stay in from now on. From now until I’m thin again, which won’t be very long at all. Partly because I get tired and it hurts me to walk about, and partly because if I’m on the receiving end of one more piece of unsolicited parenting advice, if one more person says, ‘ooh, you not had that baby yet’ (yes, I did, but I didn’t like the look of it so decided to stuff it back in there…) or asks me how long there is to go (one day less than the last time you asked me) or quizzes me about things that I blush talking to my doctor about (you wouldn’t believe the sort of things people think it’s okay to ask you) I swear down on both my red bookcases I will not be responsible for my actions. Best for everyone I keep inside the house, I think. That’s probably the reason they call it your ‘confinement’.