In the last few weeks I've been out and about, enjoying in-person events for the first time in years. I report back from the HNS Durham conference, 'Write By The Sea' literary festival, and 'Literary Dublin in the Digital Archive'. I review 'Babel' by R F Kuang, and 'Crow Court' by Andy Charman.
Out and about
This year the Historical Novel Society held their conference in Durham, UK. It was one of the friendliest and most enjoyable events I've ever attended. Inspirational keynote addresses were interleaved with workshops about aspects of craft, book promotion, or historical research. There were many highlights, of which these are just a few:
In the opening session Emma Darwin described the ‘bubble of hope’ that leads us to create a novel - so easily burst, but then we inflate it anew every time.
Julie Cohen spoke inspiringly about her break-up with her publisher who described her 17th novel 'Together' as 'icky' and told her to change it. She stuck to her vision, repaid her advance, and made a successful fresh start, both with her writing career and her own personal life. I'll review her novel 'Spirited' next month.
Andy Charman, author of ‘Crow Court’ (reviewed below) regaled us with 19th century Dorset dialect and names. He had positive experiences of working with a book coach and of crowdfunded publishing with Unbound.
Graeme Macrae Burnet, skilfully interviewed by Katherine Mezzacappa, spoke about ‘His Bloody Project’, shortlisted for the Booker Prize, a crime novel constructed of unreliable witness statements relating to a 19th century murder. He's inspired me to write my fourth novel as an unreliable narrator.
Write by the Sea
In Ireland there are one or two literary festivals each week at the moment. Write by the Sea was in gorgeous Kilmore Quay, a fishing village near me in Co. Wexford.
The event focused on Irish fiction and poetry. For me the highlight was listening to Claire Keegan, author of Booker-shortlisted 'Small Things Like These', set in New Ross, Co. Wexford. I reviewed it in my November 2021 newsletter.
Claire originates from the Wexford - Wicklow borders and spoke of her development as a writer - for which 'I knew I had to go abroad.' Nowadays I hope she would find Ireland more conducive to the writer! She spoke of the writing process requiring compassion for the characters and a commitment to searching for the essential meaning of the text. She wrote 30 drafts of her novella, producing two crates full of paper: 'When writing the book is horrible and challenging, you are starting to see what is in the text.'
Literary Dublin in the Digital Archive
A meeting for historians as well as historical writers, this conference was in the extraordinary venue of the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, a museum piece in itself. Many digital resources for researchers into Irish history are being developed at the moment, and there were fascinating talks about the insights into the past from DRI.ie , DublinGhostSigns.ie , Duchas.ie , and various aspects of NationalArchives.ie
Martina Devlin, author of 'Edith' and Emma Houricane, author of the 'Guinness Girls' books, reflected on their research processes - which were not reliant on digital methods. They spoke of 'becoming the character,' of walking where their characters had walked, absorbing the aura of objects and memorabilia and handling the hard copy of manuscripts and letters.
Babel: A cinematic alt-history / fantasy novel
I was drawn to Babel’s beautiful cover and the promise of a novel employing alternate history and fantasy to examine colonialism and racism.
The fantasy element is an alternate Industrial Revolution based on silver as a source of power and control, concentrating energy released by the linguistic dissonance of similar words in different languages engraved on the metal. A concept hard for me to grasp, until I thought of the power of silicon in the computer chip, when code is applied. Oxford University, at the centre of this magical technology, is a Hogwarts-like setting, with arcane rules and etiquette; a city of enormous libraries, golden light, overworked scholars and black-gowned professors.
The political element of the book is the racism and misogyny of the institution, and of the British nation. It’s illustrated by the experiences of the protagonist, a half-Chinese student, and his companions, an Asian man, a Creole woman and a white woman. Of course, women were not actually admitted to Oxford during the historical period described but the author dodges around that. In her preface she makes it clear that she is manipulating history for the sake of the fictional story. The drawback to this approach is that it weakens her depiction of colonialism and racism, as it becomes hard to tell truth from polemic.
My other reservation about ‘Babel’ is the amount of research on display. Every couple of pages there is a paragraph on how a magical silver effect works, with an analysis of the derivation of similar words in different languages. The author’s etymology scholarship is admirable. But, like all research, it interrupts the action, and as this is a longer novel than average, I wondered if it could have been edited down. Historical research is also wedged into the text in big chunks, in a way that most historical fiction writers try to avoid. Moreover, due to the book’s fantasy/ alternate history genre, the reader doesn’t know how much of the research to believe. There are extensive footnotes which seem to combine fact and fiction.
On the positive side, the prose is of a stellar quality. There are extraordinary scenes that shock, amaze and chill the reader. Overall, it’s an exotic, exciting and well-plotted story that is richly written and builds suspense well. It would make a good film if visual short-cuts could animate the linguistic mechanics of the magic and display the historical background.
In 1840s Wimborne Minster, Dorset, a small rural town where everyone knows each other’s business, a choirboy commits suicide. The subsequent murder of an abusive choirmaster completes the inciting incident. This is followed by a series of interlinked episodes involving various townspeople, which gradually reach a conclusion.
The book has no single central character and the plot is not linear. The reader will need to re-focus from one point of view to the next, and to remember who the characters are. The protagonist, in effect, is the community of Wimborne Minster. The clue to this is in the title: a ‘crow court’ is seen in nature, when a flock of crows encircle and kill one of their number who has trangressed.
I love the use of crows in the narrative - they are the most intelligent of birds. As well as being social animals, modern biologists have found them to have problem solving, shape-matching, tool-using and tool-making skills.
The novel is vividly written with the Dorset dialect leaping from the page (a small glossary is provided at the back.) I had no difficulty following the dialogue, which really brought the novel alive. But it might be problematic in places for readers who are not native English speakers, and possibly for some American English readers.
The structure of the narrative is unconventional - essentially a series of interlinked short stories. While it’s refreshing to read a novel which avoids a conventional story structure, I also felt some episodes, though beautifuly written, perhaps did not pull the story forward. It’s worth reading the book twice - once to find out how the story resolves, and once to enjoy the episodes as short stories in their own right.