We think of it as clockwork. Spring, wheel, ratchet, pinion, click, click, click. It hasn’t been scaled down to fit behind a face. It’s a rambling, whirring tangle of intricately interlinked pieces, and it’s impossible to figure out what sets it ticking, or how the tiny movements eventually resolve, until they do. And by then it’s too late.
We think of it as fire. An ember glowing hot and steady, a pulsing heart. And while backs are turned the kindling fuel, the dry debris builds up around it, twig by twig, and we don’t see the catch until the glow becomes a bright tongue, becomes an inferno. And by then it’s too late.
And easy ideas catch in minds like burrs thrown into a gale wind, working themselves in deep, and we could spend an eternity trying to unpick a single burr from this tangle of wet wool. Anyway. It’s too late.
I’m here because I need to write, but both of the novels I’m working on have toxic fumes coming out of them.
I only started the second novel because the first one — the one I’ve been “working on” for three years now — was doing the toxic fume thing and I needed another writing outlet and now look at what’s happened! Goddammit! Infectious novel-rot. “Give it up,” says my brain. “Give up this writing dream until you’re 45 and you have something to say and the skill to say it.”
My brain and I are not always the best team. But here I am. And here’s a life update, courtesy of my brain, soothed by tea and the breeze coming through the window on my left and the peace lily on the desk on front of me. That’s a good place to start.
1. Luc and I are living in a new flat and we’ve been filling it with plants, because plants are happy-making and alive and they’re not technically pets, so they don’t violate the terms of our tenancy. That doesn’t mean I won’t be upset if (when) one of them dies. I will, in fact, be very upset. So far, in addition to the tiny dragon tree I bought at Ikea two years ago (named “Hogarth” after the street we were living in then), we have:
A big dragon tree with two smaller dragon trees in the same pot. (Currently unnamed. Taking suggestions.)
Two peace lilies. (Named Simon Pegg and Angel, both names related to the movie “Hot Fuzz”, which I finally got around to watching at the insistence of our recent guests and which brought the existence of peace lilies to my attention.)
Two ferns. (Currently unnamed, though I have a few ideas I’m toying with…)
A ragged little buxus tree. (Named Renly Baratheon. He was our first purchase for the balcony. I might have doomed him by naming him after a dead king. Despite repotting him, he’s looking a bit yellow.)
A cupressus macrocarpa. (Named Fartknocker. I asked Luc to name this one. He doesn’t take the naming of plants seriously enough, in my opinion.)
Two little lavender bushes. (Named Trinity and Serenity. These were gifts from the aforementioned guests, who helped with the names — twin names, bringing to mind two of my favourite bits of pop culture: The Matrix and Firefly.)
The new flat is conveniently located near to shops and the underground and it has a spare room that I occupy as an office when it’s not inhabited by guests… Guests!
2. We had guests! Guests with luggage! Guests all the way from South Africa! Two of our oldest friends came to stay for nine days this month and it was fantastic. It was hot and sticky in London for almost the entire duration of their visit, but that didn’t stop us from doing loads of touristy things (and not-so-touristy things). Some things I experienced for the first time and felt like a tourist again myself: the London Eye, the London Dungeon, Madame Tussauds, etc. I was pleasantly surprised at how much guiding I was able to do. I’m certainly not the greatest guide, but I’ll confidently state that I can do a better job of showing people around London than I could ever do in Cape Town, and that’s something. I sort of know how all the important bits link together and I’m familiar with enough cool things to fill up at least two weeks for London newbies.
We also had another guest at our flat, just briefly, before she headed back to Berlin. We went for a picnic in my favourite London park. There was cheese. It was a good day! I had last seen her in Cape Town. It’s so weird and so nice seeing old friends in new contexts.
3. I joined this feminist meetup group in January and have been to a quite a few cool events with them since then. An exhibition, a debate, a lecture, a body-shaming protest/ body-positive celebration… I’ve slacked off a bit lately because of the heat and other engagements, but I’m so grateful for meetup. And for feminists. It’s difficult to build a social life from scratch, especially in a place like London, and it’s great that technology can help to bring likeminded people together.
4. I’m sort of working backwards. Which brings me to… our wedding! After our rushed coffee-shop marriage in 2014, we decided to have a belated wedding celebration on the week of our first anniversary, because these sorts of opportunities for merriment don’t come around all that often. It was a beautiful, colourful, special day of heightened emotion and over-consumption. (I mainly over-consumed the iced tea.) The sun was out, we had friends and family there, and we did it our way. It was, I think, a bullshit-free wedding, and I will always remember it with great love and fondness.
5. Antidepressants. They might seem like a downer to mention at the end of such a merry list, but they’re ANTI-depressants, sooo… yeah. I’ve been on them since the end of last year and I think they’ve made a big difference. Can you tell? As evidenced by some of my blue-tinged/-soaked blog posts last year, the sads kept coming back, no matter what I did, and I was finding it all a bit debilitating, so my doctor (I call her mine because I ask for her specifically these days and begrudge having to see anyone else) recommended the meds. I never wanted to join the ranks of the medicated, but fuck it. Sometimes, you have to do what you have to do, and I don’t regret it. Things are way better now (apart from my energy levels and, relatedly, my writing, but I’ll save all that for a whingey blog post some time in the future when I’m feeling whingey).
I could write much more about this year so far, buuuut… maybe I should have another go at one of those novels. Urgh. “CACKING ICKRICK!”, as Berro would say. It’s an inside joke. I mean, it’s a joke that only I’m in on. Actually it’s not a joke. Man, writing is a lonely business.
I often want to blog when I’m sad, but then I almost never know what to write and, if I write anything, I’m usually quite reluctant to post it. I just want it to be articulated, so I can identify what it is and then stamp it flat and go back to being fine again.
I think it has something to do with feeling torn in half by emigration, and lonely in the sense that I want to confide in someone, but I don’t know what to say or who to speak to. I’m a bit unmoored today. Tonight. Shit, it’s late. Why am I awake?
Last year, these things would’ve reduced me to a grey saline gloop, but now I’m just a bit… numb? and that weirds me out. I’m abstractly sad, in the same way I’m abstractly excited for upcoming events and abstractly hopeful about the future and also abstractly pessimistic about everything. I feel a bit floaty and disconnected. Lack of sleep, perhaps.
I just need to get out and socialise and try not to think about how fast time goes and how nothing stays the same and everything ends. Is there a pill I can take to purge myself of sentimentality? A vaccine against homesickness? Something to patch up self-doubt and stimulate productivity and social bravery? No? Well, shit.
Oh, brain. Why do you do this?
Things will be better when the sun comes up. Positive thinking. Sunshine. Bananas. Meditation. Family. Home-cooking. Living in the moment. Lucky, lucky, lucky. Yesss. Ok. Onward.
Nicola Barker herself says that she’s an “acquired taste”, and I can see why after reading Darkmans… It’s weird. And I loved it. Once I managed to click myself into the rhythm of the broken sentences, the excessive parentheses, the interjections and the repetitions, it started to make sense even though it didn’t make any sense. Does that make sense? This story is a sort of rambling slice of life; more than 800 pages that don’t scope over a huge amount of time in the narrative present, but pull in swathes of history — the history of place, the history of language — in a big, bizarre stew that skilfully combines the mundane with the fascinating, utterly creepy and inexplicable. It’s a ghost story, a human story, and a literary high that will enrage you but also grab you (by the feet, specifically) and drag you all the way to the end — which doesn’t feel much like the end at all — and then infect your nightmares (and your daymares) and make you want to start writing something off-the-wall that gives no fucks about literary conventions. Because it can be done to great effect. This has been proven. Well done, Nicola. I’ll be back for another hit soon.
Verdict: Definitely DEFINITELY not everyone’s cup of tea, but if you’re feeling adventurous, it’s a cup of tea worth sampling, just in case. I wasn’t sure if it was my cup of tea at first, but then I found myself slurping it up and refilling my mug, despite the freaky flavours.
Given the amount of time I spent lying in bed feeling sick and/or miserable this year, my general feeling about 2014 is that it was a bit of a write-off and not much happened… but actually, stuff DID happen. Lots of stuff. Significant stuff. Here are ten things.
1. I GOT ENGAGED.
I was in my pyjamas and he used a hair-tie instead of a ring. Talk about spontaneous.
2. I GOT DEPORTED.
No regrets. I had a great three-month break in Cape Town, and the fact that I was (rather unfairly) evicted from the UK is going to be a good fireside tale for the rest of my life.
3. I GOT MARRIED IN COFFEE SHOP.
The wedding hasn’t happened yet, but the paperwork was done two months after the engagement. I wore a dress.
4. I TEMPED FULL-TIME AT A LITERARY AGENCY FOR FOUR MONTHS.
Learned a lot, confronted my fear of answering phones and even got to meet some authors.
5. I TRAVELLED.
A long weekend away in Brighton, a week away in north Wales, two trips to Guernsey and a day-trip to Sark. I also discovered many great things in London, which still feels very new to me.
6. I GOT A JOB WITH A LITERARY CONSULTANCY.
So it’s not full time and it’s not lucrative, but it’s something and it’s a challenge and I’m good at it. I got some other freelance work, too.
7. I DID SOME NEW/FUN/HEALTHY/INTERESTING THINGS.
Attended some life-drawing classes, went to David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks book launch, saw Wicked and 1984 at the theatre, enjoyed a feminist meetup in a pub, ran three times a week (until I got sick/sad), spent time with various friends and family members on their trips to London, etc.
8. I TOOK MY MENTAL HEALTH SERIOUSLY.
Well, at first I didn’t, but then I did, and now things are getting better! 🙂
9. I RECONNECTED WITH PEOPLE.
Not as much as I should’ve/could’ve, but I feel like I’m more connected now than I was a few months back, and I’m deeply grateful to everyone who has reciprocated.
10. I STARTED PLANNING MY WEDDING.
This has been tricky, especially in the circumstances, but things are falling into place and I’m starting to look forward to this sentimental life event. It’s going to be wonderful to have so many special people together in one place.
2014 was not an easy year. I didn’t achieve all (or even most) of what I wanted to achieve, but I did learn a lot and I feel like I’ve set myself up for a pretty interesting year in 2015, with a stronger foundation of self-awareness and a better focus on health and happiness. Thanks to everyone for their positive contributions to this year. No matter how small or distant those contributions may seem — a Skype call here, a comment there — they are very much appreciated and they make a big difference.
This is without a doubt one of the weirdest and most unexpected books I’ve ever read. I saw the stage play first, absolutely loved it, and decided to read the source material. It’s definitely a case of ‘inspired by’ rather than ‘based on’. They’re very, very different and I was initially thrown by the dark, adult nature of the book after the child-friendly nature of the play. But enough pointless comparison. What’s the book like? There are some fantastic ideas, sparkling prose, wonderful characterisation and razor-sharp observations about humanity, politics, religion, prejudice, violence, love and hate, good and evil, and everything in between… There is so much going on and it’s so frantic and off-the-wall that the initial weirdness of the pacing and exposition is quickly forgiven and forgotten (or you grow accustomed to it)… at least until the denouement, where it all becomes a bit scrambled. I struggled to retain my empathy for Elphaba when her actions, like the plot, became seemingly random. There are many loose ends and others that were tied into awkward knots. I guess I should read the rest of the series, but I need to take a break first. One could quite easily write a PhD on this novel; however, this is just a mini review, so I’ll sum it up by saying that this book is very good but also very messy.
Verdict: If you’re looking for a neat, coherent story with a clean narrative arc and a consistently relatable protagonist, then this is not the book for you. It’s a mad scramble of characters through a broken timeline in a world that is at once hilarious and absolutely terrifying. It’s an experience and it makes you think and you won’t forget it in a hurry. If that appeals to you, then read it.
We rented a car and drove to north Wales. It was a glorious green week, almost entirely sidestepped by gloomy weather. Rain clouds only made an appearance once or twice just to give our raincoats an opportunity to be useful and to show us some other shades of this beautiful, sheep-studded landscape. We were looking after a little old dog that needed twice-daily walks and I was unwell for a while, so we couldn’t pack every day full of activities from dawn to dusk, but even with our loose planning and slow starts, we still managed to see plenty of amazing things. Like castles.
It’s no secret that I have a special place in my heart and bookshelf for Mr Mitchell. Why? To name but a few reasons: the beautiful imagery, effortless humour, diversity of style, wild ideas and the fact that he doesn’t quite follow the “rules”. It’s not for everyone, sure, but I get such a kick out of this sort of genre-bending weirdness. This novel is six books stitched together with a character and a thread of the paranormal. It almost needs six super-mini reviews… Hmm…
Super-Mini Reviews: The Six Parts of ‘The Bone Clocks’, by David Mitchell
1. A Hot Spell, 1984: The protagonist’s voice is strong, the setting is vivid, the skin-crawl factor from the paranormal bits is like a fish hook through the face, dragging you onward.
2. Myrrh Is Mine, Its Bitter Perfume, 1991: My favourite of the six. Despicably eloquent snobs and such a perfect contrast to the first bit.
3. The Wedding Bash, 2004: This one was a mixed bag; parts of it were on the plodding side, I felt, and the focal character voice less interesting than the previous two, but the climactic scene was brilliantly handled.
4. Crispin Hershey’s Lonely Planet, 2015: Shameless metafiction bathed in acidic humour. I wanted to hate Crispin, and sometimes I did, but I don’t think any writer or wannabe writer could ever hate him completely…
5. An Horologist’s Labyrinth, 2025: The paranormal becomes the focus here. If any of the parts are going to chase away the more literary readers, it’s this one. Super weird, but it had to be there and I was entertained throughout.
6. Sheep’s Head, 2043: A sobering conclusion. It’s not without it’s paranormal thread, but it’s chillingly real after part five’s flights of fantasy. There’s hope too, thank goodness; hope for us tragic bone clocks.
Verdict: Did I love it? Yes. Was it as good as Cloud Atlas? I don’t know. Should you read it? Absolutely, unless you’re allergic to the paranormal stuff!
Holy mother of unreliable narrators! This book had me humming along, forming opinions and feeling mildly intrigued and then suddenly it turned around and punched me in the face and I couldn’t put it down after that. The author has crafted the most toxic relationship ever, and I loved to hate these people. It’s a skilful dissection of a marriage that feels plausible in so many ways, making the implausible stuff all the more horrifying. I can’t call it a page-turner only because I read it on my Kindle, but it was a button-clicker of note. Not sure about the ending; a bit of a fizzle rather than a bang, but it was exasperating in its own way, and I guess that’s in line with the rest of it. Gone Girl is slickly written, darkly entertaining and fucked-up on so many levels. It’s so clever that there’s almost a smugness about it and I can see why it was a best seller. I really enjoyed it, even though it made me feel slimy; somehow complicit in all the awfulness.
Verdict: You might run out of fingernails to chew on and hair to pull out, but read it.
This book was twee, a bit repetitive and plodding (har har) at times, but it hasn’t completely wafted out of my head yet, even though I was quite distracted reading it in an airport and on a plane while being deported. You could call it overly sentimental, sure, but I enjoyed it slightly too much to dismiss it in that way. I like literal journeys (couldn’t be too bothered about the metaphorical one here) and I like pretty descriptions of nature and I like fuddy-duddy domestic characters like Harold and Maureen finding their routines and the smallness of their lives opening up against the unexpected. It’s satisfying, somehow.
Verdict: If you’re in the mood for a tear-jerking mixture of terrible tragedy and sweet, floral Britishness, then this is the book for you. It’s well written and compelling enough to pull you through the slow bits.