I’m currently looking for some daffodils; four bunches in particular. These ones. I saw them the morning my mum jumped from the Humber Bridge. I stopped to take a photograph and then got the shocking news and forgot about the image for a whole month.
But today they’re still sleeping.
On my walk along the river this morning, whipped by the wind, I hoped a splash of yellow would greet me. But it must be too early; they can’t be ready. Though daffodils are the most reliable spring bulbs – flowering year after year, withstanding most weather, often with little attention – they might be avoiding this angry February. Perhaps it’s the storms that have been raging – Storm Dennis, then Storm Ellen.
I did see a cluster of that other hardy perennial; the snowdrop. Pure white against blades of green and a moment of blue sky, they were a small compensation. I took a photograph just as I did almost a year ago.
Then I carried on walking. And I’ll go on walking, go on waiting, continue looking. I’ll keep you posted. Because in eleven days, it will be a year since I first saw those sunny wonders in the original picture.
Today is nine days until the daffodil anniversary, and I saw some on my walk. But they weren’t the ones I want to see; not the ones near the water, in that solitary spot, captured forever in my photo. These were a sunny yellow huddle in someone’s front garden. I was hopeful, smiled, thinking mine would have arrived too, and hurried down to the river. But no, not yet. Almost; there were small green stems pushing through the overgrown grass near the water.
Will they bloom before the anniversary, surprise me with an early arrival before I go away next week on my book tour? For now, I’ll carry on walking, carry on waiting, continue looking. I’ll keep you posted.
Today is seven days until the year anniversary of my mother’s suicide attempt. She is doing much better now; in a wheelchair, but mentally on the mend. I walked, as always, along the river. Still no blast of yellow. I felt deflated. I’m going away in three days and don’t want to miss that first sighting. There were plenty in a different spot, closer to the place where my mum jumped. But, pretty as they were, they are not mine.
Today is five days until the anniversary. My last walk before going on tour. I’m going now and will report back…
There was one; a solitary daffodil, buffeted by the wind, barely blooming, but there. As if to reassure me. A new cycle begins. Life changes. It goes on. I guess I wanted to see the four bunches from last year to know this. But those ones are never coming back. Not exactly as they were. I have to face that. But I’m happy with my one yellow bit of sunshine.
And today, sharing this piece, is exactly one year since that shocking day last year. But like the daffodils, we’ve all withstood the storm to bloom again.
I wrote my new novel, I Am Dust, twelve days after that day. It helped me cope. Got me through. It’s now available in eBook… https://www.amazon.co.uk/I-Am-Dust-Louise-Beech-ebook/dp/B07X8SSJV7/ref=sr_1_2?qid=1582370486&refinements=p_27%3ALouise+Beech&s=books&sr=1-2
I typed and retyped the first line of this about a hundred times, the way I usually do with my novels. Where to start? With a book, it’s not always at the beginning, but usually at the most interesting point.
What a week. I was very sad at the election results. I still am. Sad and angry. But despite that, I accept that 43% of people voted this government in. I don’t like it, but I accept it. I tried to vote based on my own experiences and what I have seen in the world around me, not just read in the newspapers or online.
And this is what I’ve experienced.
In the last nine years I’ve seen my daughter’s disability benefit not just slashed but entirely cut. I’ve seen her NHS care drop catastrophically, resulting in debilitating complications with her condition. I’ve seen funding given to a fantastic organisation I volunteered with cut so harshly that the children in care who benefited from it now have nothing. I’ve seen my husband’s regular eye appointments (he has a disease where he’s slowly going blind) diminish from three-monthly to non-existent. He now has to ring them repeatedly just to be seen, never mind receive the essential laser surgery. I’ve experienced first-hand the dying mental health services, the lack of beds, the lack of help available. I’ve seen more people living on the streets. I’ve seen foodbanks open. I’ve had to fight a little bit harder every year for the most basic things. I’ve seen my young friend with special needs in abject poverty because of the new Universal Credit system. I’ve heard teacher friends tell me of children coming to school hungry.
So when it came to the election, I read the manifestos of all the parties. Then I made my choice based on the party that closely represents what I believe in and want. The one it turns out I’ve always voted for. Had they got in, they may not even have done the many things promised, but the fact that they want these things to happen mattered to me. They didn’t win and I’m disappointed but as one profound tweet I saw this week said, just because you lost, doesn’t mean you were wrong.
Of course, not everyone is me, or has my life.
Not everyone thinks or feels how I do.
This piece isn’t to persuade anyone to vote the way I did, I just wanted to explain why I made my choice, in a rational and diplomatic way, before I get to my ultimate point. These are just my reasons. Yours might be different. This is good. This is how we are humans. I’ll listen to yours too, any time, if you speak to me with the same consideration. Because I won’t block or unfriend anyone just because they voted differently to me.
How does that help any of us?
I work with people who voted differently to me; people I get along with. On my street, the windows have had a mixture of blue and red posters in windows. I won’t ignore neighbours I’ve chatted to for sixteen years because their choice of colour wasn’t my choice, though I bought fewer Christmas cards this year (just jokes, people). They may have reasons that I don’t know or understand for making their decision.
I’ll only call out hate when I experience it directly.
I’ll only call out any sort of extremism when I experience it directly.
This week I’ve seen (shared by others because I don’t follow her) far right, extreme hate from a certain conservative ex-Apprentice contestant; things like ‘God bless the white farmer’ and her telling a British woman of colour that the party is OURS now. I’ve seen similar from prominent so-called journalists. It began trending on Twitter that Tommy Robinson (far right activist) was joining the Conservative Party, but there are no credible news sources to back this up. I’ve read comments to this ‘news’ that we can now take back our country. Our country is here, you fools. It’s right outside your window. There. Look.
But these extreme examples are not everyone.
They are not all people.
Because I also saw a band on Twitter telling their 20k followers that anyone who voted conservative should not buy their records or come to their gigs anymore, that they ‘don’t fucking want you’. I saw people online saying they would block or unfriend anyone who voted conservative.
Block those who are hateful or extreme, yes, but it’s ridiculous to block 43% of the country. Democracy has spoken, whether I like the results or not. And I just don’t have the energy in me to hate 43% of the country. What good would it do? Most of them are probably as human as I am. We can protest further cuts if they happen under this government. Protest if we disagree with policies implemented. Protest if the NHS isn’t protected. But the election has been decided. Be the change you want. As we go into a new decade, I’m going to make the effort to be kinder. To look out for that elderly, widowed neighbour. To talk to those who are homeless a little more. To give more.
Of course, I didn’t feel quite as calm as I seem now when I first saw the results on Friday. I’m only human. Of course, I ranted. Of course, I conjugated the words cunt and fuck in ways they have never been conjugated before. But I didn’t take that online or out of the house. (Poor husband. That is all.)
Come at me with your thoughts, and we can talk.
Come at me with discussion, and I’ll engage.
But if you come at me with hate, be ready for my cuntery.
Whatever you voted.
I was nineteen and in the second year of my A levels when I found out I was pregnant. To say it was a surprise, would be an understatement. My boyfriend of two years – a soldier who was frequently away – was equally surprised, but initially supportive. I decided – in the iconic words of Madonna in ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ – hmmm, I’m gonna keep my baby. As she also sang, I decided, we can raise a little family, maybe we’ll be all right, it’s a sacrifice. Then my boyfriend changed his mind when I was six months pregnant. Aside from five minutes in a courtroom a year later – trying and failing to get maintenance for my son – I have never seen him since.
And so I became a single parent.
Just like that.
I lived at home with my single mother and three other siblings, in a small council house. I had no savings. Of course I didn’t. I was nineteen. Though I’d had summer and evening jobs since I was fourteen, I’d never expected to be a mum so young, and so suddenly, and on my own. I put my name down on the council housing list as it was the only way I might be able to move out and not have to pay a huge deposit. Nothing happened. No offer of anything. I wasn’t ‘desperate’ enough, which is absolutely fair, since I had a roof over my head, even though I was sharing a bedroom with my mother – not the best experience with a heavy drinker – because my twin sisters shared a tiny room and my brother, being now twelve, had to have the other.
My son Conor was born at the beginning of 1991. I fell completely and utterly in love. Despite a thirty-six-hour labour, and a whopping 9lb 9oz boy, it felt like magic to hold him in my arms. I’d been looking after my siblings since I was four so, really, it was the most natural thing in the world to me. He slept in a Moses basket baby on the landing. (My mother didn’t want to be disturbed by him in the night.) In January. In a council house with no central heating. But I’ve always felt this made him the hardy creature he is, very rarely ill. I’d often fall asleep there, next to that basket, feeding him in the night on the landing, both of us wrapped in a duvet, the sweet scent of him something I can still smell now.
Eventually, when Conor was nine months old, I’d saved up enough for a deposit and got a cheap rented property. There was no heating apart from one small gas fire in the living room, and no double glazing. But I made it homely. I looked for work. This was a time before the CSA enforced maintenance from absent fathers and so I had to pay for everything Conor and I needed. It was also a time before Tax Credits at least topped up low incomes and helped with childcare. Whatever I earned would have to pay the rent, childcare, bills, food and clothes – for two of us. There was no job I had a hope in hell of getting that would cover it. I had no experience. So I went on benefits. I got £80 a week. That was for everything. I wasn’t a scrounger. I wanted desperately to work. I went every month to the job centre to see if there was something that paid enough.
At times, I was lonely and depressed. All my friends were at university or travelling the world. My own father had not been in life since I was fifteen. Now I had a son with no father too. I had zero self-pity though. I’d made the decision to have my child, and that came with all the risks of ending up alone. But very few single parents end up that way by choice. Very few are scrounging or lazy. I used the words single parent rather than single mum as I know it can happen to anyone.
Once Conor went to nursery and then school – when childcare was therefore minimal – I went back to college and then got a job in a hotel. I eventually met my husband and had our daughter. And finally, when my son was eight, I got maintenance payments from his father.
Now, when I’m on the bus and see a very young mum with her baby, I feel huge compassion for her, and if there’s a chance, make a fuss of her child. She may not be alone. There may be a partner. I don’t know the full story. And this is the thing. We never do. But the fact is that behind every single parent there is an absent parent. And which is worse? A parent who is there – or a parent who isn’t?
They say you should challenge yourself. Stretch yourself. Do things that scare the bejesus out of you. I don’t know who they are, but in the last three weeks I’ve done three things that scared the bejesus out of me – four if you include having to cut my mother’s toenails – and one that set my bowels aquiver, but wasn’t quite as bejesus-y as the others. Why on earth did I do them? For the reasons above, to stretch like a laggy band and be challenged like a Krypton Factor contestant? Well, yes, actually. Yes, partly…
The first bowel-contracting thing I did was take to the stage. Become a thespian. Tread the boards. Break a leg. Friend Chloe, who I work with at Hull Truck Theatre, has written a beautiful script, I’ll Bring You Flowers, which was being showcased at The Roundabout in Lincoln, and she needed an actress in her forties. Having only actor friends much younger, she turned to me. Obviously the first thing I said was that I’d have to age up significantly, that people might not believe I was older than thirty. The second was that I’m not an actress. The third was a nervous yes.
So we rehearsed. Amelia, the other actress, suggested after two read-throughs that we go off-page. Off-page? Without the page? Without the words in front of me? Already? I put my script aside like I was abandoning life-saving medicine; then stumbled through while the other girls spoke with grace and confidence. On the bus, I listened to a recording of us to help me learn. At home, I listened to Chloe’s lines and tried to respond with mine in the gaps. I didn’t want to let her down. Look like a fool. Then we spent a weekend in Lincoln, rehearsing over and over and over, for hours and hours and hours. I realised something. I was enjoying it. I knew my lines. I was the character. But then we had to go on an actual stage and actually do it for actual human people. I waited in the wings for my cue. And went on. And bloody loved it. The buzz. The audience. The adrenaline. The applause.
Will I go on stage again? Never say never.
The next bowel-contracting thing involved being thrown wildly into the air, risking life and limb. Well, maybe not exactly like that, but I want you to read on. On a weekend walk around Hull Fair with husband Joe – where palmists who have ‘done’ celebrities like Mavis Riley, Jack Duckworth, and Sonia Fowler, will tell you your future – I suggested we go on the Big Wheel. This isn’t just a big wheel – it’s a fuck-off, mahooosive wheel. I’m petrified of heights but thought I’d get a nice snap of the view. Nope. I just clung to the central post like a really crap pole dancer and begged Joe not to move, not to breathe, not to speak, because then we would fall to our deaths. We didn’t. I recovered and got a bag of brandy snap.
Will I go on a Big Wheel again? Never.
The next bowel-contracting thing I did is something that most people fear. Public speaking. Can there be anything more stomach-churningly horrifying than standing in front of eighty people, alone, and talking for an hour? No. And guess who did, last week, for a Ladies Group? Me. Just days after the Big Wheel. Could it be worse? Actually, no. There was tea and good biscuits, for a first. There was a prayer at the start, for a second. Then I walked up to the front, thinking, ‘You’re not going to die, you’re not going to die … well, unless that huge cross falls on you.’ It didn’t. And the ladies could not have been more welcoming. I ended up loving it.
Will I do a talk again? Yes.
Now, the other thing. The thing not quite as bowel-quivering or bejesus-y as the others. On Friday, I interviewed another writer as part of the Festival of Words literature event. I loved the book so much – a beautiful memoir called I Never said I Loved You – that I was only excited to chat to Rhik Samadder about it. That excitement almost eclipsed my fear of public speaking. Almost. I still felt fluttery in the green room beforehand, but Rhik was so warm and kind and funny, that it was like going onstage with a long-time friend.
Will I interview anyone in public again? You bet.
I wonder now what it is I’m actually so afraid of. I guess, I’m afraid of failing. Of being criticised. Of being an idiot. Of being laughed at (for the wrong reasons). Of being ugly. Of being stupid. Of being utterly vulnerable. Don’t we all feel that way though? Is it just me?
So was it worth it, doing things that scared the bejesus out of me? Did I learn anything? Yes. I’m still alive. Yes. I felt chuffed for succeeding. Yes. Proud that I stepped out of my comfort zone. But has it prepared me for the next scary thing? The scariest thing of all. I’m not sure. I’ll only know when I click Open on my new Word document. On the file called Daffodils. On what might be my new book. On my own words. Not fiction. Not escape. Not adventure. Just me. A memoir.
PS – Back to my mother’s toenails. No. No. Never again. Well, until she asks me…
PPS – I also went to the dentist, but let’s just keep things simple.
I’m endlessly fascinated by other writers’ processes; by how the story forms for them, by whether they plot or don’t, by whether they know where they’re going when they set off. But then I also love the idea of this process being a total mystery and I don’t want to ruin the fantasy that some magical, impossible-to-explain thing occurs when we write. To be honest, it feels a little that way for me, and I guess I’m ultimately wondering if I’m the only one.
I find my stories by writing them. The act of physically writing delivers the novel to me. I don’t plot. I don’t know exactly where I’ll end up or how I’ll get there when I do. I might vaguely have a destination and a few stop-off points in my head, but some of those don’t happen, and others occur as I go. It’s a bit like getting on a bus for a mystery trip. Maybe I’ll know the region we’re heading for, but not the exact town. And I’ll have no idea how long it’ll take to get there.
I feel like if I know the full story before I set off, I won’t have those wonderful moments where a reveal or surprise naturally occurs. I feel like I won’t listen to my characters and let them lead. I believe the words my characters say when they say them and so hopefully on the page, for the reader, they ring absolutely true as well. So if I learn something new about a character along the journey, the shock I feel is raw and that hopefully goes directly into the prose.
I do begin a new notepad with each novel that I write. I still have most of them. They are full of random scribbles; of ideas that came to me in the night; of things I thought of on the bus. There is no order or pattern. I’m OCD everywhere in my life except in my writing. I’m OCD about my surroundings, my plans, my cupboards, my lists, my shopping. I guess my writing is the only place where I’m truly free.
When I started my current novel, I Am Dust, I knew it would be set in a theatre. I knew there had been a murder and I could see my main characters. I had a feel for it rather than a clear vision. I didn’t know who had killed the lead actress in my show until I was at the halfway mark. Then it was like I had always known, somehow, on a subconscious level. It takes the writing of the story to open that information up for me. Today, at the 55,000 words mark, I realised that one of my characters has been lying to me. I was as shocked as if a friend had done so. But because I didn’t know until now, everything I’ve written about them will seem true because I believed it was when I wrote it.
Am I ever afraid that the story won’t come? That the white page will remain blank? No. It always happens. I guess if it doesn’t, then my writing days will be over. How about you? Do you plot carefully … or do you just set off, loose ideas in your head, fingers on the keyboard, and trust in the process?
One of the huge highlights of having a new book out is the blog tour – or perhaps that should be #blogtour since these things can go viral, and are all about social media. With most people’s lives being lived online today, it’s the perfect way to share the #booklove. But these tours involve a lot of very dedicated people – and I’d like to thank them here.
Thanks to the sixty-plus people who came on the #CallMeStarGirl tour, it ended up trending. Thanks to the sixty-plus people who read and reviewed my first #PsychologicalThriller, other readers told me they now had to read the book too. Thanks to the sixty-plus people who shared and retweeted each other’s blogs, my timeline was full of glorious stars.
Bloggers, know that authors are so very grateful to all that you do, for nothing but the pleasure of it; for taking time out of your own busy lives, and writing the reviews with such passion and joy. I felt I had to take a moment out of my life this morning and thank you. Thanks for putting #CallMeStarGirl on the online map. Thanks for making April a bit magic.
Thank you also to the magnificent Anne Cater for arranging it all. I saw how she personally thanked each blogger. I saw how she shared and quoted each blogger. I saw how she commented on their websites thanking them too. She has her own busy life and she did all this and changed mine. My publisher Karen Sullivan does the same – she shares and thanks and comments on all the posts, not leaving a single person out.
Thank you from the bottom of my heart to all of you.
On the morning I took this beautiful picture I was walking along the river. It was exactly two months ago today. I went for a walk that I regularly take, hiking along the banks of the river, passing underneath the Humber Bridge, and then weaving through the leafy country park.
But because of a parcel I went an hour and a half earlier than I usually would. It wasn’t even my parcel. On his way out to work, my husband asked if I’d be in all day to sign for it. I said I wouldn’t, that I absolutely had to take my walk, after all yesterday I’d been on a mental health awareness course at work, and it had reiterated what I already knew – that physical exercise is up there with good sleep in combating depression and anxiety.
We argued half-heartedly, the way you do when you’ve been married almost twenty years, and in the end I said that if I went for my walk there and then – at just after 8am instead of at 9.30am – he could hang about for the ‘bloody parcel’and just go into work late.
On the walk, in the early mist, I saw these gorgeous daffodils by the water. I took the picture, intending to maybe share it on Instagram or somewhere.
I never did.
That afternoon my phone lit up with my sister’s name. She lives in Grantham and I knew she was at work, so I frowned, knowing it must be quite important. She said, ‘She’s OK,’ first and I knew it was bad news. Someone must be in trouble, but alive.
Then she said, ‘Mum jumped off the Humber Bridge.’
I don’t actually know how I felt immediately. It’s a bit like the misty picture of the daffodils where you can’t fully see the water, and nothing of the opposite river bank. She garbled the facts, clearly in shock. Mum jumped this morning. She’s at the hospital now. A miracle she’s alive. Life-changing injuries. I called my other sister. It took ages to get hold of her because she too was at work, and with every ring I dreaded changing her life the way mine had just been changed. I’ve always liked to protect my siblings, but there was no protecting them from this.
We rushed to the hospital. My brother was waiting there. We have been together, the four of us, through so much, and this was no different. The rest is a blur of medical staff and cups of tea and lists of injuries and standing around a bed and hearing the machines and having to tell my mum’s only brother in Australia.
If I had gone on my morning walk at the usual time, I might have seen my mum walking up to the bridge and changed things. Or I might have seen her on the bridge and been able to do nothing. Or worse. And this haunts me every day. Thanks to a parcel – that never actually came that day in the end – I wasn’t there when she was.
Four days after it happened, I had to go away.
Until the day before, I wasn’t going to, but my family persuaded me that I should, that I could come home if anything else happened. A good writer friend told me to go and be Louise Beech the author, which really helped. I had an awards ceremony in London that I couldn’t miss, and a book tour that despite everything, I didn’t want to miss. I did it. I smiled and did it. But I really was broken inside.
I like making other people happy. One of my earliest memories is sitting at my mother’s feet when I was perhaps six or seven, trying to make her smile. She was depressed. I didn’t know that then. I didn’t know that nothing would have made her smile.
So it’s two months on.
And I found the photo of the daffodils on my phone, with the date 28th February.
Daffodils symbolise spring and rebirth. If you look up their meaning, they also represent memory and forgiveness. They belong to the genus narcissus, a name that comes from the Greek God Narcissus. He was so enamoured with his own reflection in the river that he drowned trying to capture his reflection. The daffodils growing along stream banks took on his name, due to the beauty of their reflected image in the water.
Anyway, I’m writing again, like I always am.
And I’m smiling again, like I always am.
But just like in the photo, there’s always way more to it.
Since I’ve seen some writers creating many a Ten Things About Writing list – from what you should and shouldn’t write about, to where you and shouldn’t have been, to what you need to have experienced, seen, studied etc – I thought I’d have a go at mine. So, for your enjoyment, scattered with some of my favourite pictures from my writing journey, here are my ten rules of writing…
4. Write what you like, where you like, when you like, and how you like. Write whatever your heart tells you to. The beauty of writing is that there are no limits except those you set yourself. The imagination is boundless. Research will fill in the gaps. Write, write, write. Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy.
5. Write what you like, where you like, when you like, and how you like. Write whatever your heart tells you to. The beauty of writing is that there are no limits except those you set yourself. The imagination is boundless. Research will fill in the gaps. Write, write, write. Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy.
6. Write what you like, where you like, when you like, and how you like. Write whatever your heart tells you to. The beauty of writing is that there are no limits except those you set yourself. The imagination is boundless. Research will fill in the gaps. Write, write, write. Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy.
7. Write what you like, where you like, when you like, and how you like. Write whatever your heart tells you to. The beauty of writing is that there are no limits except those you set yourself. The imagination is boundless. Research will fill in the gaps. Write, write, write. Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy.
8. Write what you like, where you like, when you like, and how you like. Write whatever your heart tells you to. The beauty of writing is that there are no limits except those you set yourself. The imagination is boundless. Research will fill in the gaps. Write, write, write. Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy.
9. Write what you like, where you like, when you like, and how you like. Write whatever your heart tells you to. The beauty of writing is that there are no limits except those you set yourself. The imagination is boundless. Research will fill in the gaps. Write, write, write. Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy.
10. Write what you like, where you like, when you like, and how you like. Write whatever your heart tells you to. The beauty of writing is that there are no limits except those you set yourself. The imagination is boundless. Research will fill in the gaps. Write, write, write. Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy.
Amazon Should Do Zero Stars
Too much of a stretch.
I really did my best.
I should have stopped at 30%.
Should never have reached the end.
I wouldn’t have missed
Amazon should do zero stars.
Colin and Ken bored me to tears.
It could have been so much better,
with an injection of tension or fear.
It’s a terrible book.
It’s a pity she didn’t concentrate on one subject
or the other
but then she wouldn’t have had enough material
to write two novels.
Am I missing something?
Amazon should do zero stars.
I could not carry on reading.
Okay, not great.
Can’t use language? Don’t write a book.
What the fuck?
Needs a judicious pruning.
Worst thing I’ve ever read, and I’ve read lots.
It’s not you, it’s me.
There’s too much good literature out there to
waste time reading
Amazon should do zero stars.
I hope my review saves people the pain
and wasted time
I have endured again.
Full of clichés and predictable.
Don’t waste your time on this
Not a man’s book.
It’s written like a children’s book.
What the fuck?
Make your mind up.
A children’s books,
and not a good one at that.
Amazon should do zero stars.
It’s not often I don’t finish a book
But this time I have been
Perhaps this should be repeated –
This book wasn’t for me.
I’m unable to find any positive comments
Oh, try. Do try.
Two stars – I was enjoying it
until I stopped halfway.
Lions are my favourite
but the facts are all wrong.
It’s too long.
Amazon should do zero stars.
This book arrived late.
It did not fit on my bookshelf.
It is not what I thought.
It is not what I bought.
She is not quite right.
This is not quite right.
You are not quite right.
Amazon should do zero stars.
In this gorgeous creative nonfiction, Thora Karitas Arnadottir writes with aching beauty, gentle simplicity, and raw truth about her mother, Gudbjorg Thorisdottir. About the appalling abuse she endured at the hands of her grandpa. About how she spent half of her life trying to forget it. The book is a journey – that of a woman who did not seek professional help until she was forty-eight-years-old for the ‘ugly secret’ she had buried most of her life until then, a secret that caused acute claustrophobia.
“It does no good,’ my mother said on her deathbed, ‘carrying your past around on your back. Write your story: the good and the bad.’
As someone who also has many buried memories, these words resonated so powerfully with me. But oh, there is good as well as bad in this story. There are beautiful scenes of the love between Gudbjorg and her mother – memories of suckling at her breast, then looking at her loving face, recallingthe absolutely joyful and perfect emotion. There is her absolute love of poetry and stories. There is a love of the land where she lives, so vividly evoked in the prose.
‘I hardly ever cried when I was a child, however I remember one summer night when I uncharacteristically lost control, and my emotions burst out frighteningly. I was about six.’
The book explores how shame silences the brightest child. How silence then was Gudbjorg’s worst enemy for most of her life. How this silence created a chasm between her and the rest of the world. The abuse began for Gudbjorg at the tender, tender age of one. She knows this because of the particular dresses she wore with knee-highsocks. She even told her own mother that her grandpa had kissed her ‘with his tongue’ but cannot remember that anything happened as a result. When her mother then saw them together, in a painful scene in a bedroom, nothing happened. As a reader I felt such sadness and anger at how Gudbjorg, therefore, continued to bury her pain.
The writing is exquisite – nothing is lost in the translationfrom Icelandic into English. There is such a gorgeous sense of place, enchanting imagery, and every emotion is evoked in deft strokes. The message of survival and forgiveness is strong. Gudbjorg says she is aware that she was definitely ‘bent and contorted’ from her abuse but that she had an inner strength that helped her have a ‘normal’ life, one she is aware many don’t achieve.
‘Stories heal the soul. There’s relief in giving the wings of fiction to life’s secrets and watch them trailing up to heaven like an offering of incense.’
I’ve always felt that stories are powerful. That in fiction we can explore what is too painful to look at directly. So And The Swans Began To Sing really sang to me. It’s a stunning book that I won’t forget for a long time.
And The Swans Begin to Sing by Thora Karitas is published by Wild Pressed Books on 10th January 2019.
Thora Karitas is an Icelandic actress and author and this is the English translation of her Icelandic debut. It’s a narrative non-fiction about her mother’s life in Iceland.
THORA KARITAS ARNADOTTIR studied drama in Britain and is best known for the award winning TV series, Astridur, in her home country and for hosting Unique Iceland, a highly popular travel magazine show about Iceland.
Thora is currently working on her first novel, which will be released in Iceland in 2019.