Elly McDonald

Writer

Formative books – 7 books in 7 days

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There’s a game going round on Facebook where a person posts over seven consecutive days about seven books that had an impact on their life when first read. Each day, the person nominates a Facebook friend to take on the same task, in a book review-memoirs chain letter.

My friend Chris Stafford nominated me. Due to my long-standing issues with poor impulse control, I found myself writing six posts on Day 2. I’ll try to release them one by one, day by day, on Facebook. But here are all seven now. Because I can.

Day 1: We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch. I don’t know why I picked up this book at that time (1998), as it was one of the more insular moments in my life, when I was immersed in the London advertising village. It might be because Gaby Rado’s coverage of the Bosnian war for Channel 4 had made such an impression on me. I remember going on a date with a 21 y.o. Serb boy named Kristin in 1993 and he was completely bewildered, adrift. At any rate. I bought this book as a house-guest gift when I visited Robyn Dixon in Russia late ’98 and it gives me some satisfaction that she’s now spent many years bringing conflict (and other issues) in Sub-Saharan Africa to the awareness of Los Angeles Times readers through her work as their foreign correspondent based in Johannesburg. I look forward to what she writes from her new posting in Beijing.

This book almost certainly dictated that when I attempted a novel it drew heavily on the Rwanda (and Bosnia) scenario.

Day 2: Blood Red Sister Rose by Thomas Kenneally (1974), a novel about Joan of Arc. There were a number of historical novels that impacted me powerfully as a child and young adolescent, usually featuring traumatised male loners (One is One by Barbara Leonie Picard, The Lantern Bearers by Rosemary Sutcliff), but Blood Red Sister Rose was quite different stylistically and in its concerns.

I was 14 when I read it in 1975. Here was a book about a very young girl asserting herself in a very brutal male environment, written in extremely direct, contemporary language. To my recollection, I understood its representation of war as a response to the Vietnam War. In that respect it prefigured my reading of Michael Herr’s book Dispatches, which blew me away a few years later at age 17.

But Blood Red Sister Rose was also about gender and authority and sexualities and menses (mildly mortifying for a pubescent girl to read about, but there it was – echoing Neville Williams’ psychosexual analysis of Elizabeth I in his biography of the Virgin Queen, which impacted me strongly when I was 12).

Blood Red Sister Rose doesn’t follow Joan – or Jehannette, as Keneally calls her – through to her capture, trial and execution by England’s Burgundian allies. It addresses how an uneducated peasant girl might relate to French commanders bred within a military cast, and to their troops. The most memorable passage for me was the shocking image of Gilles de Rais witnessing at close quarters his (male) lover’s head blown off by a cannonball. I understood at once the traumatic conjunction of violence and eroticism. Gilles de Rais is known in legend as Bluebeard, the nobleman turned monster who practiced dismemberment for its erotic charge.

Day 3: Roxana by Daniel Defoe (1724). I was enrolled in an MA at Melbourne University trying to research a thesis on Transformation and Shapeshifting in Early Medieval Celtic Literature when I stumbled on a dusty antique copy of Roxana while employed part-time in the English Department library.

It amazes me now that I didn’t recognize Roxana tied in with my ‘transformation and shapeshifting’ project. After all, the novel’s full title is The Fortunate Mistress: Or, A History of the Life and Vast Variety of Fortunes of Mademoiselle de Beleau, Afterwards Called the Countess de Wintselsheim, in Germany, Being the Person known by the Name of the Lady Roxana, in the Time of King Charles II.

At the time I was in urgent need of self-reinvention and it was serendipitous to encounter a character as resourceful as the Lady Roxana, who is a C17th forerunner to William Makepeace Thackeray’s Becky Sharp, of Vanity Fair (a book I discovered with wonder when I was about 12), and spiritual ancestress to the pop idol Madonna.

Unlike the eponymous Amber St Clare of Forever Amber, Kathleen Winsor’s bestselling 1947 bodice-ripper, which I had swallowed whole at age 13, and which also centres on a fallen woman rising to become King Charles II’s mistress, the character who eventually becomes known as Roxana does not obsess over any lover. Amber is punished for her sinful career by having her son taken from her. Defoe assures us Roxana is to be punished, ultimately, but when the reader leaves her she has successfully achieved high social status and financial security by calculatedly killing off her discarded identities. This has required tacitly permitting the killing of her eldest daughter, who could not let her mother go.

Roxana is spiritually discomfited by her daughter’s fate. But I had the feeling material comfort mattered more to her. Roxana has the ‘I will prevail and survive at all costs’ tenacity I aspired to over the following decade of my life.

Day 4: The Owl Service by Alan Garner (1967). I already knew Alan Garner through The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960), The Moon of Gomrath (1963) and Elidor (1965) when I first read The Owl Service at about age 10 or 11. Those first two books I bracketed as a sub-genre with Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, which I adored, and Elidor scared me: I had as yet no idea how extraordinarily scary Alan Garner’s writing would become, with Red Shift (1973), one of the most disturbing reading experiences of my life, then, much later, Boneland (2012), the belated completion of the Weirdstone trilogy.

I read The Owl Service the summer the 1969/70 BBC TV adaptation went out (delayed I think in Australia). I was girl-crushing on the actress who played Alison, Gillian Hills. The Owl Service is a contemporary take on an episode from the Welsh mythological cycle The Mabinogion, in which a wizard fashions a woman from flowers, then is driven to murderous rage when she loves another man, and turns her instead into a night predator owl.

This is the episode of The Mabinogion that was to be the centerpiece of my MA thesis (on Transformation and Shapeshifting in Early Medieval Celtic Literature). I think my love for The Mabinogion, and for Garner, links to my love for the novels of David Mitchell, who in his fantastical, speculative novels (The Bone Clocks) wraps witty, confident homages to many writers of British myth and fantasy whom we both admire.

In this past year I have had DNA tests done. While my father’s DNA is almost wholly Connacht Irish, and my mother and my sister have extremely similar profiles heavy on the Yorkshire-Pennines region and Scandinavia, it turns out my DNA is predominantly Welsh and West Midlands. Yes, I feel like a changeling. When I saw my DNA results, one of my first thoughts was: Ah yes – my affinity for Welsh myth and for Alan Garner’s tales. Ah, yes.

Day 5: A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel (1992). Hilary Mantel is best known for her Man-Booker Prize winning Tudor novels, Wolf Hall (2009) and Bringing Up The Bodies (2012). This is the unpublished novel in a drawer that piggybacked on the critical success of her fourth published book, Fludd (1989). Mantel says she started writing A Place of Greater Safety for her own satisfaction, to write the historical novel she wished to read, and that she researched it obsessively, right down to the actual wallpapers and décor, using the historical characters’ actual words wherever possible. The New York Times critic speculated whether, “more novel and less history might not better suit this author’s unmistakable talent.”

The New York Times critic is mistaken.

A Place of Greater Safety is an extraordinary reading experience, a fully-realised world like a Tolstoy novel. It’s a remarkable, immersive evocation of how it might have been to be a major player living though the French Revolution – to be Camille Desmoulins, Georges Danton or Maximilien Robespierre, although of course it’s incorrect to describe these epoch-making actors as “living through” the experience.

One of my close friends in high school studied the Enlightenment at university. “Les philosophes”, she told me, breezily. I, a rock music writer at the time, felt humbled. I knew next to nothing about the French Revolution. I remember reading about it in primary school and earnestly telling my French-speaking headmistress I was reading about “Rob-ess-perry”. After reading A Place of Greater Safety, I felt I understood more about the genesis of democracy as it’s understood in America, and about modern politics. I was also astonished to find I’d fallen in love, just a little, with a character dead more than 200 years, re-presented in fiction. Mantel’s Camille Desmoulins is, to my mind, one of the greatest re-animations in literature.

Day 6: We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver (2003). My psychologist asked me if I’d read this book. I was wary. Why would she ask? Lionel Shriver, a female novelist, is a provocateur. The propositions for some of her novels are deliberately perverse and confrontational: Malthusianism and racism (Game Control, 1994); rivalry between a couple within marriage (Double Fault, 1996); family inheritances (A Perfectly Nice Family, 1997); obesity and self-control (Big Brother, 2013); capitalism’s meltdown (The Mandibles, 2016). In We Need To Talk About Kevin, she addresses motherhood, maternal instinct, and high school shooters. If a mother is convinced, from the outset, her baby is a psychopath, can it be her instincts are correct, or is she cursing that child’s development, determining its fate? In either case, can she be held accountable? What are the costs to such a mother? To the child? To society?

We Need To Talk About Kevin made a splash on publication and has only become more salient since. In 2005 it was filmed with Tilda Swinton playing the mother, who in the novel is of Armenian extraction. Tilda was brilliant, I’m told. Me, I can’t go past the novel’s image of a mother gazing through the rear window of a car at the bright police lights outside a school in lock down.

Day 7: So many great books, so few to be name-checked within seven days! I didn’t mean to focus as much as I have on books I read when very young. But with just one book choice left, the one book I need to include is a children’s novel from 1958 – Tom’s Midnight Garden, by Philippa Pearce, which I think I read in 1970 at about age 10. I re-read it recently. I cried, again.

Tom’s Midnight Garden is, as many of my childhood favourites were, a novel about childhood loneliness. Also, as with several of my childhood favourites, a novel about time travel, or ghosting across time.

The best of the ‘ghosts’-in-time novels is in my opinion Daphne du Maurier’s The House on the Strand. But that’s a novel for grown-ups, about the ugliness of addiction (really – the medieval romance is a McGuffin).

At 10 (thereabouts), I encountered three time travel ‘ghosts’ who left their imprints on me. Lexie in Nan Chauncy’s Tangara (1960) is linked in time with Merrina, an Indigenous Tasmanian, and witnesses the extermination of Merrina’s community. Penelope in Alison Uttley’s A Traveller In Time (1939) ‘ghosts’ back in time to C16th Derbyshire, befriending a boy named Francis, becoming embroiled in the Babington Plot, a Papist plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I.

Tom’s Midnight Garden is a gentler affair.

Pearce’s character Tom ‘ghosts’ back to a late Victorian garden on the grounds of a large country house, where he befriends another lonely child, Hatty. Hatty and Tom form a relationship that transcends time. But while Tom remains a child, each time he visits the midnight garden Hatty has grown incrementally older. Each time he visits, the fabric of his being in this other world becomes slightly more translucent, slightly less material, until, after one wonderful day where the two skate on a frozen river towards Ely Cathedral, he effectively evaporates, as Hatty moves towards her adult life.

But, as they say, love never dies. A child is heard crying in a hallway. A name is called. Eyes are opened. Eyes fill with tears.

I think this is a novel about cross-generational love, and change, and loss, and love recovered, love as a legacy. I think this is a novel about love.

Author: Elly McDonald

Worked in the Australian rock music industry as a journalist and published widely as a poet before moving to London and spending the better part of a decade in advertising agencies. Returned to Australia and tried teaching, primarily teaching English to non-English speaking, newly-arrived refugees but also briefly as a high school classroom teacher. Has travelled Western Europe, North Africa, Russia, Northern India, East Asia, coastal USA, some Pacific Islands, and Australia.

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