Sunday, 23 February 2014

Words with JAM Runner-up

Words with JAM, the ezine for writers and publishers, announced the results of its Bigger Short Story Competition this week. I was delighted that my story 'Trumpet Dreams' was a runner-up in the Shortest Story Category (max 250 words) judged by Susan Jane Gilman.

A prize of £10 and inclusion in the anthology is a welcome result. Thank you to the judges and to Words with JAM for running this competition again this year.

This ezine contains numerous articles, reviews, interviews and practical information for writers. Check out the writers' toolbox here.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Translating poetry

Le Visage Perdu

Last week I found myself contemplating a short poem by Yolaine Maillet and attempting to translate it from French to English for in collaboration with poet Eleanor Hooker and writer/editor Ruth McKee.

Read the concept behind Spontaneity here.

We spent a few days pinging suggestions back and forth, translating the words but losing or changing the meaning, paraphrasing, but losing the poetry of the original. It felt exciting to be part of a project like this.

"Translation is like a women: if she is faithful, she is not beautiful; if she is beautiful, she is not faithful." Russian Proverb.


We ended up with about ten different versions, none saying quite the same thing. We consulted the poet to try to gauge what she really meant, why she chose certain words. Finally we agreed on a version that captured the intended meaning and stuck as close to the language of the original as possible. Then we decided that it would be a nice touch to add an audio version of the poem. See the poem, the translation and the audio version here.

 "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less." Lewis Carroll.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Short story: 'The Pram' by Roddy Doyle

The Pram by Roddy Doyle, part of ‘The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story' anthology, is a dark tale worth taking the time to read. I’m a fan of Roddy Doyle, especially the Barrytown trilogy, but I hadn’t read any of his short stories before.

Through the eyes of Alina, we are introduced to a (Clontarf-based?) middle-class family who have employed Alina as their au-pair. The first paragraph (‘But he did not cry very often. He was almost a perfect baby') sets the scene like a fairy tale. She adores the baby who she brings for a walk every day down by the sea.  It's too wholesome though--we sense a looming Big Bad Wolf or evil step-mother.

Doyle is the expert storyteller who sets the scene beautifully: ‘The piano was in the tiled hall, close to the stained-glass windows of the large front door. The coloured sunlight of the late afternoon lit the two girls as they played. Their black hair became purple, dark red and the green of deep-forest leaves (nice foreshadowing here). Their fingers on the keys were red and yellow.’

The two little girls Alina minds, although well-spoken and polite, have a macabre presence about them--I picture Wednesday and Pugsley Addams.  

Alina is from Eastern Europe—Poland, we learn later—and tries to carry out her duties as best she can. But when the little girls give her secret away, the mother's nasty side emerges: ‘Listen, babes, said O’Reilly. - Nothing is your private affair. Not while you’re working here. Are you fucking this guy?’

Alina begins to simmer: ‘Alina was going to murder the little girls. This she decided as she climbed the stair to her attic room. She closed the door. It had no lock. She sat on the bed, in the dark. She would poison them. She would drown them. She would put pillows on their faces.’

The author has given us time to believe that she will. But this is quickly followed up with ‘She would not, in actuality, kill the girls.’ We are left feeling uneasy.

Then comes the story within the story. This is nicely executed. I can clearly picture the old woman in the forest as the woodcutters draw closer. Doyle paints the scene perfectly, the two little girls sitting on Alina’s feet listening, the pram creaking. 

The portrayal of the mother, though, is a little clichéd. As a working mother, she is portrayed as a hard-nosed bitch who cares more about her BMW, her expensive pram  and her material possessions than her children. She ‘took the pram and pushed it through the gateway. She tapped the brick pillars. - Don’t scrape the sides. She tapped the sides of the pram. - It is very valuable, said the mother.’

The mother's evil traits emerge further. She frightens her two daughters by telling them the pram is haunted. She speaks crudely to her colleague on the phone: ‘We have to cancel tomorrow’s meeting. Yes. No; My Polish peasant. Yes; again. Yes. Yes. A fucking nightmare. You can? I’ll suck your cock if you do. Cool. Talk to you.’

And she exploits the au-pair, and treats her like she is disposable. Alina is subsequently fired with a simple ‘You can stay the night, then off you fucking go.’

The husband is also a walking cliché: He touches Alina with his foot under the table, and his wife says ‘lock your door tonight, sweetie.’ Alina comments that she has no key. A little disconcerting - is this the usual and acceptable routine for the husband to take the key and fuck the au-pair?

So I'm a little disappointed at the way the family is depicted. Yet most clichés are based on reality and maybe this story of a middle-class family employing and exploiting an au-pair is a story that is worth telling.

 There used to be an urban myth doing the rounds of an au-pair who sent a photo of her charges in the middle of a dual carriageway to the parents before resigning. So, although hard to read, it is a story that makes you think.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Review: 'Apple Tree Yard' by Louise Doughty

Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty is a psychological thriller and courtroom drama - a compelling and sometimes gruelling read.

Yvonne Carmichael, a 52-year-old geneticist, has an affair with a man she has just met. He exudes confidence, and controls how the relationship evolves. Unfortunately there are disastrous consequences for both of them.

Themes of judgement, guilt, truth and innocence run though this novel and the author raises many questions which leave the reader pondering well after the story has ended.

Spoiler Alert: It is impossible to review this book without revealing some of the key plot points so please read this later if you haven’t yet read the book.

The story is narrated by Yvonne as she records her feelings about her affair with Mark. She is flattered by his attention and enjoys the cloak-and-dagger element of their meetings. They have sex in the crypt chapel and other public places throughout the back streets of London. The evening they have sex in a doorway in Apple Tree Yard is the same evening she is violently raped by a colleague.

The Houses of Parliament. Source:
Yvonne’s decides she will not report the rape. She thinks the police would question how drunk she was at the party where it happened. They would accuse her of openly flirting with George. And they would find out that she had sex with Mark (who is not her husband) just hours before. Probably they would think she was asking for it. Her reasoning is measured. Her decision is shocking, yet understandable.
The story unfolds slowly then as George continues to taunt her and Mark decides to warn him off. When Yvonne drives Mark to George's house and then away again hours later, she is aware of important details (the length of time he remains in the house, the change of clothes), yet she doesn't ask him what happened. Soon afterwards they are both arrested. She finds herself on trial for murder. Even at this late stage, she wants to hide the whole truth from the legal team and the jury. She thinks she'll be able to protect her career and her family.
Part of the draw of this book is the slow reveal. It was hard to know where anything was leading. There were quite a few red herrings - Mark’s blood type, her son’s diagnosis, her husband’s affair and the perfect detail about the day a student propositioned her. In the latter, especially, we are totally misled—the relevant person in that scene was George, not the student. 
Also we begin to feel that Yvonne is only giving us one side of the story, the side where Mark is innocent, George is evil and she is the innocent bystander. The book could have been called 'Quite a few shades of grey' because nothing is as it first seems.
The sands are constantly shifting and it’s clear that no character is totally good or totally evil. Yvonne’s husband starts off steady and predictable, then we find out he’s an adulterer. Mark is mysterious and exciting but turns out to be a sad nobody who betrays her. George, the affable colleague, is the one who turns into a violent rapist. Yvonne herself is ‘competent’ and mature but acts like a needy teenager in matters of love.

There are plenty of unexpected twists in this story right to the very end when Yvonne reflects on the conversation she had in bed with Mark when he was half-asleep.

It is also a fascinating insight into how society views an attractive woman in her 50s, and the injustices of the justice system. The fact that the rape was so violent would have worked in Yvonne’s favour had it been a rape trial, but it actually worked against her in the murder trial. George, the rapist, is called the ‘victim’ even when describing the rape (because he was the victim of murder.)

Yvonne’s own view of her affair shows her own double-standards about sex. In the alley it was sexy and exciting, but when she viewed it through others’ eyes she saw it as sordid. The female barrister's twisting of her words about being 'free and easy' (when discussing what kind of coffee she wanted) were disturbing, especially coming from a woman.

In summary I thoroughly recommend this book. I loved the way the story moves forwards and backwards in time. I was enthralled by the workings of the Old Bailey and enjoyed experiencing the trial through Yvonne’s eyes. The only negative for me, which I found annoying and distracting, was the way the narrator addressed Mark as X and ‘You’ and ‘my love’ throughout.

I just wish I could get the image of the mother and baby chimpanzees out of my mind.

I enjoy a book that ricochets around my head long after I've finished. These are some of the questions I'm still considering.
  • How much did her husband know before the trial, having read the computer files? Why didn't he say something?
  • Will she meet up with Mark again when he gets out of prison? And why (cop on, woman!)
  • Why does she continue to call him ‘my love’ after his betrayal?
  • What was the relevance of Mark’s wife’s outburst in court (we heard about it a couple of times)?
  • What was the relevance of her son’s illness?
  • Was Yvonne actually unhinged? (We know about her mother’s suicide and her son’s illness. She knew Mark returned to the car in different clothes but didn’t ask him (or tell us) what happened in George's house.)
  • Did she ask Mark to kill George?
  • Did she only tell us half the story?

Looking forward to reading some of Louise Doughty's other novels.