Struggling to bear the legacy of her grandparents' experience of the Holocaust and her mother's desperate fragility, Sally seeks to reconnect with her brother Steven. Once close, the siblings have become distant since Steven left London, separating himself from their shared history.
"Starlings" reaches back through three generations of inherited trauma, exploring how the impact of untold stories ricochets down the years, threatening to destabilize a coherent sense of self. Having always looked through the eyes of ghosts she cannot appease, Sally comes to accept that -Before- may be somewhere we can never truly leave behind and -After- simply the place we must try to make our home.
Starlings is published by Karnac books in 2016.
Today it is my great pleasure to welcome author Miranda Gold to my blog with a guest post. Miranda has very kindly written about the fictional landscapes in novels and her writing. I hope you enjoy the article.
The Life of a Book: Navigating Fictional Landscapes in a ‘Post-Truth’ World
A writer is always coming up against the limits of language; seeking, stretching, condensing meaning, trying to retain the plasticity of words even as they are set on a page. Print gives the illusion of fixity but words are porous, meaning can shift, mutate, disappear – a writer’s material is living, organic and on the move. For better or worse, words can speak far beyond the page. The landscape in which a writer begins may have changed by the time of publication and the resonances will change with it. This seemed to be the case with Starlings: even when it became clear to me that Sally’s family history of the Holocaust would become much more central to the book than I had previously intended, it was some time before the refugee crisis would come to dominate our headlines. Interviewers and readers commented on the parallels, but I felt cautious. Certainly history seems to be flashing before us and we ignore this at our peril, but no two moments in time are ever quite the same – today’s refugees have their own context and stories that no amount of comparison or hindsight should flatten.
What I did become acutely conscious of as Starlings developed was that I wanted to find and give voice to the individual beyond what they had come to represent – who and what might they have been before they became a number, short hand for those blinding symbols of victim or survivor? Who would they become? The point of crisis strips identity, an injustice that is only entrenched by mapping the past on to the present. And yet a theme key to Starlings is how the past is present, living on inside the characters, inhabiting them with a trauma that could not be heard or processed. This was why I didn’t just want to interweave time frames, I wanted them to cross paths. But my sense was that we must disentangle past from present in order to see the connections – or rather this was something I began to understand through Sally: the past is both inescapable and irretrievable. But for today’s refugees another journey and another legacy begins, one with distinct needs and challenges and comparison with the past runs the risk of cementing symbols and losing the individual all over again.
What does the future look like if we are ever only ever equipped for what has already happened? Is it possible that fiction can imagine another landscape? Could it be part of making that shift from despair to hope? If we can’t imagine another landscape we can’t create one. Start small. Start with recognising individual voices, seeing individual faces, seeking individual words. To quote Tom Stoppard: ‘If you get the right words in the right order you might just nudge the world a little bit.’
Perhaps it is precisely because meaning will never quite stay still that these simple black marks have the potential to translate the complexity and fluidity of experience, catching without destroying its flickering vitality. The beauty and power of language can work suddenly or quietly and its fragility is a part of both: flawed and vulnerable as the lives and characters it hopes to bring off the page. Writing that is allowed to move and breathe gives lie to the impression of permanence. Do we net the butterfly or watch it flutter? If we insist on pinning meaning to the page it loses immediacy, but if it is hinted at with nothing more than a cluster of impressions and fleeting sensations, it may be too easily lost. The writer has to find that point between and hinge there. This precarious balancing act seems appropriate though, a reflection of that deeply human, paradoxical desire to be both safely held yet free. Fiction is to me the most honest of illusions, one that can both admit and transcend its limitations as it invites readers to enter into a world to continue the process the writer has begun – a book does not end when the writer writes the last word, rather it evolves as a reader’s senses are touched, as they engage at visceral and emotional level, not just a cognitive one. For fiction to do this it has to compress meaning – a sentence throbbing with possibility might be the most unsettling but it is the most generous type of writing there is. Meaning doesn’t have to be grasped, unpicked, solved – this is not a puzzle but a door left ajar.
Absolutes can have a beauty of their own – but only when they are truthful, not when they are a distortion that conceals multiplicity. If there is a simple answer surely we must take it, but what fiction can offer is that rare space outside the frenetic rush to free fall into questions where there may be just possibilities, perhaps even no answer at all. We can risk leaving certainty, facts – we don’t have to speed along to the next page. We can engage with the unanswerable rather than run from it, we can do it alongside the characters, against them, through them. We can look into the seemingly impenetrable and tangled ways thought and memory, past and present, collide.
Identification is only part of the reading experience and I think there is a danger in valuing it as highly as we do, compelling us to hold it up against our own template and measure it – where does it fit? How far does it slip? Surely one of the richest characteristics of fiction is that it can take abstractions such as fear or grief or love and shows how they bear their own fingerprints. Compassion – to suffer with. This, surely, along with relating, is just as important as empathy and identification. Yes it can feel both a relief and a wonder when we hear a voice that echoes our own or see a reflection that we never knew might exist. But when Narcissus fell in love with the boy on the surface of the pool he didn’t know it was his own beauty that had transfixed him. If something is too close, how can we recognise it, even just a fraction of distance lends clarity. And how powerful it can be when this supposed ‘other’ is, in a more fundamental way, someone we recognise. Hold the mirror at an angle and the senses are tipped just enough to wake us up, to make us see, as Proust said, with ‘new eyes.’ That is the adventure.