Thursday, 31 January 2013

Sex and dogma

Review: Amity & Sorrow by Peggy Riley

There is something oddly titillating about the idea of polygamy, especially when it runs counter to the prevailing culture. Why would a group of free and consenting women choose to share one man? As for the husband... well, perhaps that's self-evident. Not so long ago, The Sunday Times ran a feature on the so-called 'rampant rabbi' of East Sussex and his seven wives. In an attempt to justify his lifestyle, the husband told the newspaper: "A man is capable of looking after more than one wife and it's natural that a woman needs covering and safety." 
Book cover of Amity & Sorrow by Peggy Riley
God, sex and farming

When it comes down to it, our fascination with polygamy revolves around sex. How seven wives share the housework is less interesting. Rather we want to hear about the antics in the bedroom. In Peggy Riley's debut novel, Amity & Sorrow, there is plenty of sex to sauce her portrayal of a fundamentalist, polygamous cult. Sexual relations evolve into a ritualistic act to bind together Zachariah, the patriarch, and his fifty wives. More significantly, the nub of the story - the crisis that sets everything in motion - turns on a repugnant act of sex.

The book begins with the flight of Amaranth (the first wife) and her two daughters, Amity and Sorrow. They leave behind a secretive and insular community in Utah, on the brink of self-destruction. For four days, Amaranth drives non-stop before crashing the car on a farm in Oklahoma. Soon after their arrival, Sorrow suffers a miscarriage - or at least that is what we deduce as nothing is over-explained. This slightly fuzzy storytelling enhances the 'otherness' of Amaranth and her daughters. We can feel sympathy towards them, but it will take a while before we truly understand them.

The events of the novel unfold like a series of revelations, very much in keeping with Sorrow's apocalyptic view of life, imbibed directly from her charismatic, but deeply suspect father. We are not alone in having to piece together the fragments of their story. Even Bradley, the jaded farmer on whose land they end up, can't help but feel curious.

"Are you married? he asked. He has no idea." There follows four paragraphs of Amaranth's thoughts before the question is finally answered: "Yes she is married and married again. She is married fifty times, once for every wife. She was married to him first and last, married to him always." 

It is like a riddle that we have to solve. Amaranth still feels bound to her husband and the dogma of her former community, but her delay in answering shows a competing need to suppress the past. This dynamic runs throughout the novel as Riley weaves together Amaranth's backstory with the family's new life on the farm, often using the same motifs in both settings: fire, a key, seeds, the wives' habit of spinning in religious ecstasy.

The relationship between the two sisters also forms a central axis of the novel. Their names give them symbolic status, although Riley's characterisation saves them from becoming one-dimensional. Amity feels bound to her dangerous and delusional sister, through affection as well as a material strap (another symbol) that often attaches them to each other by the wrist. Inevitably it is Sorrow who yearns to go home, while Amity begins to adjust to their new reality, learning to read and integrate with people on the farm, including a young farmhand called 'Dust'.

Amity is also the bridge between her sister and her mother, who encourages her daughters to break the old rules. Early in the book, Amity feels "suspended" between the two of them. Later on, "she knows that she is the strap, stretching between what Sorrow is and what her Mother wants". The resolution of these complex family ties and their competing needs is grist for the mill. 

This compelling novel explores the effects of extreme faith on an idealistic and vulnerable community. It takes us beyond sex and titillation to the desires and motives that sustain (and eventually destroy) this polygamous family. At the heart of it, Amaranth, the first wife, struggles to conform. "Every act of her husband's, every change in the church, she had moved her own line of what was acceptable, further and further away from her, for love." Her momentous decision to break free finally sets her on the path to redemption.

Emma Clark Lam read an advance copy of Amity & Sorrow.  The novel will be published by Tinder Press at the end of March 2013. This article has been re-printed in P-oint magazine (issue 3, page 34).


Friday, 25 January 2013

Nana was the inspiration

The Birmingham Post and Sunday Mercury newspapers have written about my new novel, A Sister for Margot, this week. The focus of both pieces was the inspiration provided by my grandmother, Jean Morton. Thank you Brum!

Click below to read yesterday's article in the Birmingham Post:
Nana was the inspiration for first novel - Post Features - Life & Leisure from @birminghampost




Jean Morton in the Sunday Mercury
And in the Sunday Mercury 20/1/13


Jean Morton in the Sunday Mercury
Close-up of the Sunday Mercury newspaper






Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Favoured chicks

Hermaphrodite Mum
Three kids and a single mother

Sunday evening finds me packing the kids' snack boxes for school. There is a golden rule in my house - everyone gets the same snack, no arguments! Last weekend the cupboard was nearly bare but I found two cereal bars peeping out from the debris of crisps, biscuit wrappers and loose raisins. As I gingerly extracted them, I noticed that they had different best-before dates: one was fine, but the other was a month out. I hesitated for a moment and then I gave the out-of-date bar to Middle Child and the in-date bar to the eldest child (the Quiet One). Job done.

The shoebill: a mother with a favourite 
© Lukas Blazek | Dreamstime.com
It wasn't until Non-walking Toddler was safely tucked up in her cot that I gave some thought to my decision. Why had I damned Middle Child with a packet of mouldy grains? Was Quiet One my FAVOURITE child? Or was Middle Child my favourite? Perhaps I gave the fresher bar to Quiet One to compensate for a shortfall in love! From this cereal-bar index, could I extrapolate which child I might pull first from a burning building?

I had stalled at an unlikely spot - the intersection between maternal guilt and Darwin's theory of natural selection. One thing stuck in my mind: a piece of footage from a BBC documentary on Africa's Savannah. Deep in the swampy marshes, a stork-like shoebill looks after her two chicks. While she waddles off to find water, the eldest chick attacks the younger hatchling - a fluff-ball on wobbly pins with barely the strength to lift his own head. On her return, mummy shoebill notices fluff in the beak of the aggressor - like most mothers she knows what has been going on. The little fluff-ball gropes his way towards his mum, seeking comfort in her feathers, but heart-breakingly she brushes him aside and bestows her gift of water on the stronger chick. Shoebills, it turns out, rarely raise more than one chick. The younger one is merely an insurance policy in case the older one fails to thrive.

According to research conducted by Catherine Conger, a professor at the University of California, 65% of (human) mothers also exhibit a preference for one of their children - often the eldest one. Just like the shoebill, we apparently orientate toward our eldest, healthiest child - a throwback, perhaps, to earlier times of high infant mortality.

I think back to my pregnancy with Non-walking Toddler and remember how I couldn't imagine loving the new baby as much as the other two. But love comes in a feverish burst, along with the breast-milk and the cracked nipples. We are compassionate creatures. Our capabilities - love, empathy, imagination - set us on a different path to the shoebill. 

For the record, I love my three children equally, but in different ways, according to their strengths and weaknesses. Naturally Non-walking toddler takes up more of my mothering time, but less of my adult space which I am beginning to share gladly with the older two. Middle Child needs more cuddles and reassurance, while Quiet One is sustained by a current of mental sympathy that flows exclusively from me to her. 

And the fiasco with the cereal bars? I worked it out. It was a practical decision. Middle Child has a stomach like a cast-iron bucket. Mouldy cereal bars are no contest for his intestinal juices.  


Hermaphrodite Mum is a fictional creation of Emma Clark Lam
Previous posts by Hermaphrodite Mum


Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Dissenting voices

There are so may ways of telling a story. In the weighty tomes of Victorian England, authors like George Eliot took you by the hand and led you sententiously through the novel. Eliot's all-knowing, all-seeing 'voice' helped to shape your response to the characters, and ultimately the book itself. 


Tatty old books
Books of old: "Dear reader..."
© Photographer: Simon Lawrence | Agency: Dreamstime.com
As children of the modern age, we have rebelled against this kind of handholding. In The Art of Fiction, the writer and literary critic, David Lodge, explains that an intrusive, authorial voice claims "a God-like omniscience, which our sceptical and relativistic age is reluctant to grant to anyone". Modern fiction, he says, tends to present the action through the consciousness of the characters, or "by handing over to them the narrative task itself". 

In other words, readers of modern fiction are more accustomed to a quiet, third-person presence who moves deftly in and out of the characters' thoughts, or a first-person narrator who tells the story from their own point of view. This is not to say that the first-person narrator is a modern invention - in Great Expectations, Charles Dickens tells the story through Pip with great ingenuity. Despite the immediacy of the first person, somehow we can still feel Dickens' judgement of Pip coming through. 

Undeniably, however, there is something modern and spontaneous about the first person. It pulls us into the book with its confessional tone. There is no standing on ceremony. The authenticity of the first person can instantly bring a story to life. Immersed in the tale, we find it easier to forget that we are reading a work of fiction.

Nevertheless, there are limitations. The author, adopting the voice of a first-person narrator, has to stay in character. There are can be no sweeping descriptions of landscape (unless the narrator is prone to such diversions) or jumps into the minds of other characters. By contrast, a third-person telling allows the author to stand back, play God and pull all the strings. 

Now we come to my dilemma (and here I switch into the first person). I am in the process of writing a novel about an ex-patriate community in Jakarta during the 1970s. On a whim, I decided to write it in the first person. I wanted the novel to open with all the immediacy and distinction of a single voice. But, for the reasons above, I keep toying with re-writing the book in the third person! My view on which perspective works better changes from day to day.

So I am putting it to the vote. Below, I have included two versions of the same opening passage. If you have time, take a read of both and let me know which you prefer in the "Add a comment" box at the bottom of the page.


First Person


We arrived at dusk. Flaming Nora – what a trip! Forty-eight hours door-to-door, with fourteen pieces of luggage and a wooden crate. We were only off the plane five minutes before the sun deserted us, tunnelling down into another part of the world. Jakarta! Truthfully, I had barely heard of the place until a few months ago and here I was, one dark night.
Outside the airport window, the jumbo jet had melted away into a twinkle of lights. They swam before my eyes in fluorescent waves. Oh Holy Mary, Mother of God, grant me one cigarette, please! My fingers were twitching in my lap. And where in the hell was Daniel? I gazed out across the filthy floor of the arrivals hall and spotted him in the distance talking to some airport bloke in a cheap uniform. Daniel’s spine was stooped, his head hangdog. He looked as old as my dad. Something was wrong. Hauling myself to my feet, I tottered over.



Third Person

They arrived at dusk, a husband and wife. What a trip! Forty-eight hours door-to-door, with fourteen pieces of luggage and a wooden crate. They were only off the plane five minutes before the sun deserted them, tunnelling down into another part of the world. Jakarta! Louise, the wife, had barely heard of the place until a few months ago and now she found herself listening to crickets trilling in the trees outside the window.
On the runaway, the jumbo jet they arrived on had melted away into a twinkle of lights. They swam before Louise's eyes in fluorescent waves. Oh Holy Mary, Mother of God, grant me one cigarette, please, she prayed, as her fingers twitched in her lap. The sound of raised voices caused her to look up. Where in the hell was Daniel? She gazed out across the filthy floor of the arrivals hall and spotted him in the distance talking to some airport bloke in a cheap uniform. Daniel’s spine was stooped, his head hangdog. He looked as old as her dad. Something was wrong. Hauling herself to her feet, she tottered over.



Emma Clark Lam is the author of A Sister for Margot

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Psyching up for 2013

Another new year. Time to ring in the changes. January is a month of resolutions, stodgy thighs and enforced abstinence. We leave the excesses of Christmas behind and move into a new phase of betterment. For goodness' sake, why?
Red wine being poured into a glass
Not for me, thanks!
© Photographer: Milogu | Agency: Dreamstime.com

Facebook is full of miserable people bemoaning their decision to give up alcohol this month. Why do we impose these rules on ourselves? Lose half a stone. Go to the gym more. Learn a new language. Be nicer to the children / husband / mother / mother-in-law [delete as appropriate]. 

It's all in pursuit of happiness. Or at least an attempt to increase our sense of wellbeing during one of the bleakest months of the year. Setting resolutions provides a roadmap to a better future!

If we are to believe the American psychologist Martin Seligman, there are five elements that contribute to our sense of wellbeing. So aside from resolutions, we should also be thinking about:

  • Positive emotion (life satisfaction, positive thinking)
  • Engagement (being absorbed in something to the point of losing self-consciousness)
  • Relationships (enjoying and constructively building relationships with other people)
  • Meaning (having a purpose in life, belonging to something that is bigger than yourself)
  • Accomplishment (achieving goals)

Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, was asked to help develop a program to train the US Army in positive psychology. The goal was to make one million US soldiers more resilient to psychological trauma, at a time when the army was experiencing nearly a decade of protracted conflict. As a result, positive psychology is taught and measured throughout the US Army.

A few years ago, I had the privilege of interviewing Simon Weston, a British veteran of the 1982 Falklands War. Weston, a Welsh Guardsman, suffered severe burns when his ship Sir Galahad was bombed by an Argentine plane. For 23 years afterwards, he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, which took the form of vivid nightmares, panic attacks and broken sleep. He even contemplated suicide.

After a slow and difficult recovery, Weston has become a motivational speaker, encouraging people to take control of their own lives. He is a classic example of someone who finally achieved post-traumatic growth. "What does not kill me, makes me stronger," the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, once said.

Of course ordinary people like you and me are unlikely to experience the horrors of war. Our combatants are more often depression, divorce, bereavement, or on a more modest scale, relationship issues and job dissatisfaction. Weston believes that we have to accept our situation and turn it to our advantage. It is all about having a positive mental attitude.

Who knows if this or Seligman's brand of positive psychology work - the US Army is still evaluating the success of its training program - but I am interested enough to put them to the test. So here it is: 2013, the year of engagement, positive emotion and accomplishment (hopefully). I guess it beats enrolling for boot camp or attempting to shed half a stone.


Click here to watch Martin Seligman deliver a lecture on the PERMA elements of wellbeing to the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. I would like to thank Jamie Reed, an executive coach and author, for introducing me to Martin Seligman's work. 



Emma Clark Lam is the author of A Sister for Margot

Friday, 4 January 2013

Prehistoric parenting

Hermaphrodite Mum
Three kids and a single mother

I feel as if I am emerging from a dormant state. I open my eyes wide and I finally exit the kitchen. No more slaving over a hot stove, no more clearing up. The e-cloth is threadbare. Christmas is officially over.

At the same moment, a tiny prehistoric creature emerges from an egg the size of a full stop. It has become the newest member of our household: a Triops! This species of crustacean is blessed with three eyes and has existed for millions of years, just hanging out in ponds. The Triops ancestors shared an ecosystem with Tyrannosaurus Rex and now we have one living in our kitchen in a petri dish.

Triops
The un-parented Triops 
© 3drenderings | Dreamstime.com
Middle Child was given a "Terrible Triops" kit for Christmas. Ever since we have been peering into our puddle of Volvic spring water, attempting to spy our tiny vibrating hatchling.

I explain to Middle Child that the Triops is a hermaphrodite. "What's that?" comes the inevitable reply. "It means," I say, picking my words with care, "that she doesn't need a daddy to have babies." 

Middle Child pauses for thought. He wipes away a layer of snot laminating his top lip. "So you're like a Triops then," he says, looking me straight in the eye. "You are a herm-afo-dite."

In a manner of speaking, I suppose I am (Errant Husband has taken a sabbatical from parenting). It is also well-known that I have an all-seeing eye at the back of my head. So that's what I am: some kind of human-Triops hybrid.

My eldest comes downstairs - the Quiet One. "What's for supper?" she asks. It is pretty much all she has said today. 

"I'm not sure," I reply, "I've only just cleared up lunch." Then in an attempt to distract her, I say: "Look! The Triops has hatched."

Quiet One leans over the dish. "It's a shame it never gets to meet its mum." 

"What?" asks Middle Child.

"Read your booklet nim-wim. The adults live for about a month, hatch their eggs and then they die. When the babies hatch, it starts all over again."

Middle Child looks to me for affirmation. "So they never get to meet their mum?" he asks in a trembling voice.

"No, love." Middle Child promptly bursts into tears. 

Upstairs there is the echo of a wail. Non-walking Toddler has woken up early from her afternoon nap. I go wearily up to fetch her. Maybe mother Triops was onto something when she cut parenting out of the loop. After all, the species has survived in identical form for more than 200 million years.

Non-walking Toddler stands up in her cot, cheeks flushed and arms akimbo. I pick her up and breath in her warm, yeasty smell. Ah! Maybe there is something to be said for evolution and intensive parenting.

Middle Child appears at the door. "I love you Mama," he says, his face still smudged with tears. I hug them both tight until they shriek.

Downstairs, Quiet One gives an uncharacteristic yell. We all thunder down into the kitchen to discover another hatchling. It is a conundrum - how has this species made it to 2013 without evolving? Middle Child gives his best T-Rex roar to welcome the new arrival.

"Is supper nearly ready?" asks Quiet One, covering her ears.

I sigh and glance round at my four walls. Oh well, I may live in the kitchen, but at least I don't spend my days swimming around a petri dish. Evolution has won me that much.


Hermaphrodite Mum is a fictional creation of Emma Clark Lam