What is Love? A theme for the next story from the Mullins family and Hodge?

Mari Howard | August 19, 2015

It’s very early days.

It’s been the time to promote The Labyrinth Year, take stock as an Indie writer, see friends, host visitors, catch up generally, keep up the yoga …limit writing to short pieces and blogging, and do the garden, while the creative brain gears up for more writing action … as autumn looms, the ideas begin to gell.

‘Love’ is possibly one of the most indiscriminately used in the English language. Whatever do we mean – and what do others mean when they hear or read the word we’ve spoken or written?

As the twin towers burned and fell, messages of I love you were sent across from desperately trapped employees of the companies who worked in those buildings. A child reluctantly writing a thank-you letter to a hardly known relative, for a badly-chosen present, learns to send love from

We commit our lives to one another – or we express merely our lust of the moment … calling both acts prompted by love … There was once a popular phrase in some circles, Smile, God loves you …present-day preachers constantly refer to God’s love or even God’s unconditional love

We’re told we shall love or hate a film, a book, a political candidate’s agenda … we love chocolate, reading, your new hairstyle, your hat.

Enough examples: we say we love, yet we deceive. We say we act in love, but act selfishly, or out of despair. We use loving our children both to protect them from harm and to push them academically.

We endlessly use the L-word as a reason, or excuse, for emotionally driven behaviour.

In the Mullins family story, book 3, I want to look at how our concepts of ‘loving’ is operating in Max and Jenny’s family and extended family, and in another family, their friends Shaz and Elliott, parents to Alice’s friend Charlie. Elliott is also a partner in Max’s medical practice. How does Elliott use love?

How do the characters ‘love’ each other? How does love ‘drive the plot’?

It’s July 1997, and Daisy has taken Jenny’s girls to Lafrowda without asking her…

Mari Howard | July 6, 2015


Same time, St Just

The streets are decorated, the girls each have a balloon. Daze, recalling how she cheered everyone up last night, and even got David arsing around, feels good today. Gosh, Dave juggled fruit. And nearly choked himself to death! She grins to herself. The sun shines, the air is soft and balmy, people are smiling, the Etta thing’s on hold. It was nice to meet Max at the station. Even if he was miserable, and she has to share her house with them. This is her good deed for him: take the kids, then they can have some couple-time and sort themselves. While she shares her good mood with her nieces.

Crowds are assembling on the green behind the clock tower. ‘That’s the Plain-an-Gwarry,’ she tells Alice, ‘it’s a kind of stage. They acted plays there in medieval times. About, I dunno, maybe King Arthur?’

‘Or King David? He killed a giant in Grandma Fee’s story.’

‘Arthur’s story’s better: Arthur was a western king, he lived right here in Cornwall. In a place called Lyonesse.’


‘Not the animal. A place.’


Zoë pulls on Daze’s hand, so hard that her red balloon bounces, on its string, into Daze’s face. ‘You said, ice cream?’

Daze bats the balloon away, ‘Poof—yes, ice cream. But first, let’s look around a bit more. My friends said they’d be here, what colours were their costumes?’

‘Rainbow! With big hats and eyes and masks and scary bits!’

The sun, now the mist’s burned away, is very hot: she could do with a drink, water would do. And the music’s very loud: you have to shout to be heard. The hands in hers are very sticky. She’s too small to see much. The crowds surge them along like seaweed carried by the tide.

But she is careful: she won’t let go of them. Even if she is a bit high from smoking weed with her friends while catching up each other’s news, and now feeling the pangs of hunger that inevitably follow. She stops at an organic pastie stall, and insists on buying three, though Zoë takes one bite, then keeps asking ‘Auntie Daze, you carry my patsie?’

‘Oh wow, isn’t this fun?’ Daze leans down, and carefully breaks Zoë’s pastie in half. ‘Better? Now, I’ll carry this bit while you eat. Look, there’s a stall selling lemonade. We could have a drink. And listen: drums! That’ll be the procession, we have to see this!’

Zoë passes the piece of pastie to Alice, ‘You eat.’

Alice takes Zoë’s pastie, and drops it for her, over a garden wall. ‘What d’you do that for?’ Daze snaps. Children are so unpredictable. What a waste!

‘She’s fussy. Daddy says take no notice. Mummy says it’s tenshunseeking.’

The swirly crowd almost carries the girls away from Daze, who grabs them both, ‘I said, didn’t I, hold my hands!’ Gosh, you have to keep your eyes on them. Two kids, not enough eyes to watch both. The drums beat louder. As they pass a litter bin, Alice feeds it the remains of her pastie. Daze decides to take no notice: she’s spied amongst the crowds the headdresses her friends were making: a fish, a lobster, a jellyfish.

She lifts Zoë up to watch the lively procession. ‘Look! Isn’t this just awesome?’ It’s a miracle: the mist rolled away, the sunshine, music and dancing has transformed the dreary grey town into a total experience of colour, sound and excitement. First the band, and then the costumed people with banners and balloons and masks, waving and nodding and dancing. Daze bebops a bit to the music, jiggling Zoë, who laughs.

‘Can’t see,’ Alice says beside her.

‘One moment,’ Daze looks around. Maybe someone else could lift Alice up? She can’t manage two of them, and Alice is sturdy and heavy. A family with a baby sleeping in a buggy, and an older child sat on the dad’s shoulders, are beside her. Daze tries to attract the mother’s attention. Could she lift Alice up?

‘Sure, if she’ll let me. Great, isn’t it?’

‘Alice? This lady—Oh my god—’ Not enough eyes to watch them both—she’s disappeared. What to do?


The road to St Just

I said sorry to Max: it slipped out, obvious, and easy, because—? Because Daze took our children without asking.

I stare out from the front passenger seat of David’s car. We’re going with what Max said: my hands ball into fists with anxiety, I tell myself to trust his judgement. Hoping that Daze acted on impulse, nothing more.

When we park the car, David insists we look at his street map and split up to search. Max heads for the Plain-an-Gwarry and Market Square, David’s covering the library and surgery area, and then Market Street. I take the church, cafés, British Legion place, and anywhere else where people may be eating or looking at displays or exhibitions. ‘Meet up at that marquee—see, the Methodist Church is doing cream teas in there? In half an hour?’

I push through crowds in holiday mood, kids with balloons, ice creams, burgers, and dive out of the way of people in bright costumes with banners and musical instruments. Ordinarily it’d be huge fun. But the cheering and noise, smiling and colour, pushing and capering, is just irritating. Everyone’s so happy.

The church might be running a crèche, or serving coffees and cakes. In fact, it’s bleakly empty, a flower festival laid out but nobody here. I pause for breath, glancing around, noticing an ugly wall painting of a man with a sword.


Alice can’t see, feels too hot, drops Daze’s hand to struggle out of her jersey, since Daze isn’t helping. Or holding her up to see.

She tugs the jersey off, then begins pushing forwards, moving fast. The crowd of legs, skirts, buggies, and dogs on leads opens out. Once she can see the marching musicians and costumed people, she stops to watch, spellbound. The bright colours shimmer in the sunlight, the masks are even more amazing than anything Etta made for the Fun Day. The procession people laugh and sing: the crowd cheers. It’s like the Fun Day, only huger, and louder, and it draws her whole mind in, like being in the play only more so. Quivers of excitement run down from her head to her toes.
But then, the procession’s gone, the crowd thins out, she finds herself alone. Except for a few people who aren’t her family. And where’s her balloon?

A cold, empty, feeling wells up inside. Her hands go sticky, her legs go wobbly. She wants to cry, but stops to think. How did we get here? Where is the car? Which road was it in? All the roads look the same, but wasn’t it past that shop that smells of oranges? She decides on a road, and begins hurrying along, wiping away tears with her jersey, which she clutches close like a soft toy.

There’s another crowd, standing watching something. Alice walks into it before she realises. She sees scuffed trainers, and a pair of legs in denims. A voice says, ‘Ally?’ As she looks up, the legs fold and the voice crouches down. The face smiles, and the arms are ready to hug. ‘Daddy!’ He’s solid and real: he has a familiar scent. She nuzzles his chest as he hugs her.

‘Ally, is Auntie Daze here? And Zo-zo?

‘She’s with Auntie Daze.’

‘Yes? And where are they?’

Alice shakes her head. ‘I lost them.’

Extract from ‘The Labyrinth Year’ read at Hawkesbury Literature Festival

Mari Howard | June 17, 2015

hawkesbury literature festival

This is narrated from Max’s viewpoint. Jenny and Max are now married and she has a plan …

‘Listen? I’ve been thinking—about that work we couldn’t complete on the Persephone cultures.’

‘It’s in the past. Why are you really digging it up?’

‘Feel responsible. I so resented Daze when Mum and Des got together … Think what we have, and Daze has nothing. She won’t get over Persephone till she has a healthy baby.’

‘Who wakes her at five thirty wanting to play. Her life is simply different. To yours.’

‘No, listen. We’ve got our two, and I’m young and fit—’

‘You are. Leave it: you’ve enough to think about. You said. Postgrad supervision, conference paper?’

‘This wouldn’t involve me long-term.’

My heart misses a beat. ‘Don’t even think of surrogacy.’

‘Absolutely not. This’d be far less intrusive.’

‘Good.’ Can breathe again.

‘I—after the conference of course—I wondered, why not investigate egg donation?’ she says in a rush.

‘What?’ Horrified, I sit up, the bizarre words ringing in my head. The bedroom furniture looms at me from the gloom.

Jenny inexplicably reacts by tenting the duvet to cover us both. This only creates a draught, adding to my discomfort. ‘It’s no big deal, a few hormones, a bit of a clinical procedure, no pregnancy. Max, listen. Daze’s life was ruined by her mother abandoning her. She was Alice’s age. She deserves a break.’

A break? I can’t speak. An alien extends an arm around me, as if I’m the one who’s lost all sense of perspective. ‘Max? It’s all okay. I sounded out Simon. Preliminary chat, nothing more.’

Heart almost stopped. ‘Simon’s a partner, and our GP: how could you do this?’ Mouth is dry as a desert. ‘You’ve not started tests?’

‘No. I should’ve told you I talked to him, yes. But, if it was no go—you’d never have needed to hear it’d crossed my mind. And it’s my—’

‘Your body and your choice?’

‘Well, it isn’t yours, is it?’

Jenny’s challenge hits something so ingrained, I realise I’ve never thought it through. At home, at Dad’s church, we were taught from Scripture, and by example, the wife’s body belongs to the husband. Do I really believe that?

Thankfully John Humphrys suddenly blasts from the radio, reading the News. I rise, flip the volume dial down, and head for the shower. Can’t say ‘I’m wrong, aren’t I’ right away. Instead, ‘Spare me the feminism. If it must be done, what about Harriet? She’s the stepsister Daze was close to.’

‘Harriet’s in Australia. And if you’re worried about religious scruples, your father won’t know.’

‘Dad isn’t God.’

‘God’s supposed to approve of generosity,’ she calls through the door. ‘I’m loving my neighbour. You should be glad I’ve learned that from your incredible Mam—’

‘Leave Mam out of it. Your idea has nothing to do with God.’

‘Don’t junk donation. It’d be something beautiful for Daze, to misquote Mother Theresa.’

‘You’re twisting everything. I can’t believe it of you.’ I exit the shower making an effort to be equable, ‘It’s the shock. I’m not angry. I’m concerned from a clinical viewpoint, for your welfare. I’ve nothing against Daze.’

‘I want to help.’

‘That’s very generous. It’s actually rather sweet. It’s maybe a bit unwise.’

I don’t want her pumped full of hormones, then having her ova sucked out with invasive instruments by the fertility team. Irrational, maybe. To me, she’s not merely a body, or one that’s not my concern.

Downstairs, I try a last approach, as she makes the girls breakfast. ‘You know the clinical procedure’s painful? Never mind any side effects. How much do you really know?’

She shakes her head, not in front of the kids, ‘Drop it. May never happen.’

‘I’m relieved to hear that. Because, whatever science says, and I do believe in science, it’s not nothing to have your ovaries stimulated beyond the norm.’ I can’t discuss it further, or calmly eat breakfast here. It’s too horrible. Makes me feel ill. ‘We’ve an early meeting. Before surgery.’

I grab my bag and keys: she grabs at me. ‘Max, don’t!’

I shake her off. She stumbles against the table. ‘Don’t you ever hurt me!’ she spits.

‘That wasn’t—’


Zoë starts to cry.

Read the authors’ views on the First Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival.

Forthcoming… In The Labyrinth Year, by Mari Howard…

Mari Howard | April 5, 2014

Max’s father’s last book looks like a typical Evangelical tract for the faithful, but it contains a hidden key to Max’s emotional life. Will Jenny open it?

New Book Announcement from Reformed Truth Press

Living with Uncertainty


Alisdair Mullins, Pastor of Northumbria First Truly Reformed Church

Published August 1996 by Reformed Truth Press, Paperback £9.99

Alisdair Mullins develops the themes of his previous best-selling Christian books, Great is Thy Faithfulness andCovenant Love, in exciting new directions. What is the certainty we think we have? Pastor Mullins argues that it is a man-made construct, compounded of the many minor convictions we have wrought for ourselves, which are in reality little more than idols. In truly saving faith we are compelled to embrace the uncertainty that is, in fact, the reflection in this life of the ultimate Sovereignty of the Creator. Some leading themes:

Uncertainty and the Word of God

Can Rules bring Certainty?

‘Has your quest for certainty become a lock and key on the doors of learning?’

God’s Map in the Wilderness

‘Life is a journey, and on the journey, as we travel, shouldn’t we learn?’

‘Applying the wisdom we gain from experience is what moving forward is all about.’

This book is a must-read for Biblically-minded believers who want to move forward in their faith.

Want to know more?

Sign up for The Labyrinth Year’s progress newsletter.

A Poem for Epiphany (Twelfth Night)

Mari Howard | January 8, 2014

Epiphanies: moments of wonder and realisation… On the Twelfth Day of Christmas… After Christmas come the 12 days, says the carol… and on Twelfth Night comes Epiphany.

Have we had moments of wonder in the past year… do we have ‘resolutions’?

2013: Baby, Baby made the long-list for the Peoples Book Prize… having not made the short list, BB has now emerged in Kindle form – buy it on Amazon

2014: the follow-up novel should soon be here…

Meanwhile, we’ve joined the Alliance of Independent Authors and Hodge ‘inspired by nature’ cards are available and selling slowly but well.

The following poem (commissioned for a carol service) tries to tell the Epiphany story of the Magi with less resignation than Eliot’s (moments of wonder or of resignation?) while maintaining the mythological journey’s overlap into the present… our present, with a touch of reference to the realities of Syria today, and the question,Would the world be a better place without religion?

Eliot’s well known poem and take on the journey seems to have captured the market on Epiphany, and sneaked into this without invitation.

So with many apologies to TS ELiot, who was of course a real and distinguished poet, which this author doesn’t pretend to be…)

Epiphany 2014: Lights along the Way

It was a still, dark, still-dark desert
Ceiling-ed with pinprick stars, which gave
No light.

It was thick darkness, then: the struggle of insight into those
Pinpricks: hardly lamps to our feet.
We’d heard of Abraham, but that was long ago…
We’d read their Psalms…

It was a harsh crossing, breathing, tasting, hearing, sand,
day after night after day…
It was Syria, a harsh land to cross,
Treading faithfully, a path marked more by a feeling of rightness
Than by a certainty
By an increasing purpose, hope,
Than by a blaze of light…

And then, it was the verdant valley of the river, so seductive,
And a forgetting, with the relief we had arrived.
No more sand and darkness,
At last a palace, set on a hill…
And the king, Herod…

Who proved a hard man
Jealous to the core,
Angry, not grateful, to his mysterious, anarchistic God, who’d sent us.
Un-accepting of innovation, of thinking outside the box.

Catching each other’s glances, we had him figured out,
But bowed, respectfully, giving away nothing more,
Cursing our stupidity—
Back to pinpricks, and intuition…

It was then one of those settlements,
You see a lot of them, same-y, on a long journey,
A place like anywhere, where working mothers carried babies on their backs,
As they scratched the unyielding soil, or filled the unending water-jars.
Where toddling two year olds played in the sand,
And grandmothers, grinding flour, kept one eye out
That they did not fall, or stray—
While using the other to attend to village news.

We perceived there, from our experience,
That it would indeed serve us best to back a rumoured hunch
About one of the families…
About a child who’d already been the subject of a dream,
Since, peculiar as it was, this chimed
Their culture with our own,
and made sense – according to our estimations – Of the conjunction of the planets… those stars.

I foresee, though, if some peasant’s child’s their future king,
A challenge to the social order’s coming,
A revolution, yet more trouble in our region,
Strife, violence, divisions, mystery,
People aren’t going to like it, even if he blazes as a light,
Bright as a comet above an ancient desert,
Cleaving thick darkness,
Promising light.

People’s Book Prize: Please Vote for our Book!

Mari Howard | August 20, 2013

Baby, Baby’s author, Mari Howard, writes on her blog about Why You Should Vote for this Book in the People’s Book Prize (Voting ends with August – hurry!)

I am thrilled my novel was listed for the People’s Book Prize. Here’s the reason why I write, why I wrote BB, and why I am thrilled…

BB explores a clash of cultures on the small scale: the secular/religious cultures of contemporary Britain. As novelist Michael Arditti says (The Guardian, 27 July 2013), ‘While its influence may have declined in western Europe, elsewhere religion dictates peoples’ lives’. Western secularism is unlikely to squash it flat without a struggle. Arditti further comments that he ‘laments the lack of novelists willing to tackle the increasingly violent struggle between liberalism and fundamentalism’. If we ignore religion, or attempt to wipe it from our collective mind, we loose touch with how it fires up and influences people.

It is also only when and where there is faith that the march of secular philosophy, not necessarily always supporting what is best and compassionate for all, can be challenged. Secularism—the belief that there is nothing ‘beyond’ ourselves—may be thought necessary for many reasons other than the welfare of a population, or of a world. And in the debate, neither side has much, if any, real knowledge, understanding, let alone empathy, with the other. Each regards the other as totally weird.

The reason for this is the rise of fundamentalism. Our society may talk endlessly of equality, diversity, and human rights, while the actuality is the opposite: especially diversity. Whether or not the majority appear to accept one another, the loudest voices are fundamentalist, either secular atheist or evangelical christian. They shout at each other from opposing soap boxes with apparently equal hatred and loathing. We need to welcome novels which tackle the subject of religion, in its various forms, if only because giving a fair chance, in fiction, to both sides might increase our understanding of one another. And of what makes people of faith tick. We may otherwise throw away any opportunity to make a consensual, moderating and diplomatic peace.

BB is an unusual, genre-free novel, which isn’t ashamed to tackle this Cinderella subject. What is genre writing, and why can BB be described as genre-free? Genre writing, far as I can see, covers the range of popular themes for storytelling in the 21st century. Popular fiction has become divided (by publishers?) into shelvable categories (it does make the task of the shelvers in libraries and bookshops so much easier, and it does help the consuming public to hurry to the correct shelf rather than waste time browsing amongst crime when what they lust after is romance…).

Genre novels follow a known format per category, and are never too long – 100,000 words or so. They are good to read on a beach.

But, there are also numbers of novels which, while not being ‘heavy literature’ don’t fall into a genre – though publishers don’t tell you this. Rather, they ask, “What genre is your novel?” as their first question. (They can then dismiss it: not popular at present!) These non-categorisable non-genre novels have slipped through the net.They include Kate Atkinson’s early work, Sarah Waters’ and Jeanette Winterson’s books, Emma Donoghue’s ‘Room’, all the novels by Khaled Hosseini, and Leila Abulela, works by Patrick Gale, and many others – many in translation or by non-Europeans. These are novels which make you think. And this is BB’s home territory. This is why it is so exciting to be listed for the PBP and this is why you the reader are asked to vote. To vote for the thoughtful novel (maybe it is a genre, thoughtful novel??), the novel which examines our society and asks hard questions, without supplying answers.

We should question our society, those who run it and organise and influence it, and we should question ourselves. What influences us? Does it influence us for good—of others, of ourselves? Do we go with it, or challenge it? Is there such a thing as right and wrong any more—or have the Enlightenment thinkers swept these concepts away? Something which has disappeared from novels – and is especially rarely, if ever, found in genre novels (except a special category, the ‘Christian Novel’, by definition not a mainstream contender) is any discussion of the relevance or use of ‘faith’ in today’s world. To quote Arditti again, ‘Religious issues and their exponents remain as vital as subject of fiction today as in the age of Goldsmith or Trollope’.

This is as good a reason as any for voting for Baby,Baby—even if you haven’t read it from cover to cover—yet.

Mari’s blog, Write, Think, Edit! is at http://writethinkedit.blogspot.co.uk

Want to know more? Go to: http://www.peoplesbookprize.com/book.php?id=901

Baby Baby: really excited…Please Vote!

Mari Howard | August 6, 2013

Why no Hodge Thoughts for so long? Plenty has been happening… maybe that is why…

However: Hodge is still here, and we’re really excited that Mari Howard’s novel Baby, Baby was submitted (by an anonymous, unknown, reader) to the People’s Book Prize listing for this Summer (2013).

Voting is open until the end of August, and there are already some really nice, insightful, encouraging comments on the site – from people who’ve voted.

There’s a description of the novel on the site – but maybe you – who are reading this – have already read the extract available on this website?

Vitally, this is also where you can vote…

It’s a prize for new authors, and small publishers are particularly well represented. Need we say more?

Please vote for Baby, Baby – at http://bit.ly/1epAVCV

Losing a friend… by Mari Howard, writer

Mari Howard | February 28, 2012

Recently, I may’ve lost a friend. Whether I ever had this friend is maybe debateable, since in the losing process, it’s possible to see revealed that the friend and me saw each other differently. That is, the friend, looking at me, saw not me but who she wanted me to be – I think that’s how it was, but who can tell?

Whatever, I get this feeling she never knew me well.

Like a veil you trail, (the poet Wordsworth said), ‘clouds of glory’ in childhood – but as students, wives, mothers, that bit of life’s gone, over, we’ve moved on and what clouds we trail, (what personal traits, what interests, opinions, activities, and what family comes attached, as a given, to make or mar or enliven the friendship, or otherwise, what knowledge, what experiences good or unwanted), is liable to transmute over time. The clouds, that is. They transmute. The glory’s changed. In 40 years of friendship, can/does a person stay in the same ‘place’ if even in the same ‘space’?

My first friend, the one I first remember losing, was lost to me at about age 5 (along with my lovely grandparents): she went to my school, lived in a house that backed onto the District railway, somewhere between Wimbledon and Putney, she was called Janet West, and of course I believed that a friend once found (like grandparents) was there for life. Not so. Life flowed on very soon, taking Janet with her. With Daddy Janet’s work. This you learn: can’t clutch another person to you and think you have more power than what, in a charming Edwardian kid’s novel I read as a child, were called ‘The Olympians’… parents, family, the job. Or even the friendship itself wears thin. Or, as with my just-lost friend, friendship is fragile, prone to change, and if you can’t both roll with it, it may break.

A friend is not a sister or a brother, a husband, wife, lover, parent: these come attached, givens, or selected, bound by legal ties, children, a mortgage, the concept of faithfulness (or not…). A friendship is a delicate thing. Pour out your heart, share your sorrows, and your happiness, try out your latest theory of how to grow potatoes, children, an art project, old gracefully, or whatever. Shop, (‘Does my bum look big in this?’ ‘No, but it’s not your colour…’). Moan about your partner. See a movie, lend a book. Measure out your friendship in coffee spoons.

A friend discovering that another sees them as a sister, husband, brother, parent can be forgiven if they flee… (I must forgive myself…)…for heavy to carry is a friend who’s tangled up in you… after all, the job may take you far away, the partner or the kids may need you more, the business may demand your (reluctant) time, your elderly parent can’t be left…a friend is not a partner nor family, a friend is chosen…and remains free… while I love my friend, I still need to be myself…that is the fragility and lightness of friendship, however close the bonds.

Tread softly, for you tread on my friendship, friend, and I can be no more, no less, than friend… sadly writing is a very time consuming calling… Thank you to all my lovely friends who are still here…thank you for seeing me as me, and still being there.


All in the same basket?

Mari Howard | January 29, 2012

Where do you keep the books you have ‘on the go’– those books begun, got into, but somehow not engaging enough although you do really mean to finish them? And the ones which defeat the woolly weary brain, but are great for an early-night read? Plus, of course, that light, funny one which is wonderful for a few lines before sleep takes over?

I have basket by my bed. A lovely square Fair Trade basket made of banana leaves. Or similar. Right now, it’s rather full: I lost my phone in its book-ridden depths. Hunting through, what was that thick red book?

That Eugenides novel? Had forgotten all about it …the Eugenides Marriage Plot so wonderfully written up in reviews that I’d bought it from Amazon – (having enjoyed Middlesex a clever novel about a hermophrodite, written by someone who can’t have experienced this for himself.) But this one’s a hugely disappointing read. The guy has done so much research, describes so cleverly the contrasting lives of the bio-scientist and the religious seeker, yet smudges it all over with useless, confused, messy in every way, sex. To the extent that the characters are borne down by their instincts to a place where despite the higher activity of the brain, the biological urges of the body will always win out. As for the woman caught in the middle, how can she ever escape this hormone-driven existence to do anything useful, interesting, or fulfilling?

Maybe that is his point? If so he takes an awful lot of pages to make it….
pause for thought…

What am I reading now?
• Alexander McCall Smith’s The Importance of Being Seven – wonderfully fantastical and creatively real. McCall Smith observes humanity’s foibles with a smile, rather than a sneer or a sigh of despair.
• Fiona McCarthy’s big fat biography of Edward Burne Jones The last Pre-Raphaelite . Who was related to whom in important London society of Victorian England? What drove the creative set? Wonderful photos. Fascinating insights.
• A mystery novel by someone I kind-of know, awaiting review.
• The winter copy of Mslexia magazine ‘for women who write’. At least two main articles in there which have got the grey matter working on controversial issues. Poetry, short stories which are… predicatable? Sociological? Clever? Great writing exercises.
• Two books which are background research for my novel-in-waiting: Tom Wright’s Virtue Reborn and Robert Winston’s A Child Against all Odds And, dare I admit it, my NIV Bible is also in that basket…

But… that Eugenides novel… the guy’s done the best job of pointing out the futility of human existence, blown to bits (note verb) any idea that passion and romance are sweet-smelling, joyful, mutually satisfying or lead anywhere but towards boredom, dissatisfaction and tawdry gloom… painted a wonderful picture of the mutual exclusivity of the aims of male and female… a tour de force, really … even a document to send more of us into the life of celibate contemplation of the Other… How far from poor Mr Burne Jones, and his bohemian high-society friends… the foibles never show a funny side, there is no virtue to be re-born – the lesson of mature adulthood is a hard one in Eugenides’ upper-crust, intellectual, privilegedly-educated North American world.

We all have our ways of looking at stuff. Here are two more, admittedly not contemporary…

God loved this world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who has faith in him will have eternal life ….’
(The Bible, John’s Gospel chapter 3)

I wish I loved the human race
I wish I loved its silly face
I wish I liked the way it walks
I wish I liked the way it talks
And when I’m introduced to one
I wish I thought ‘What jolly fun!’

(Sir Walter Raleigh, apparently, who lived 1861-1922, not the one who knew Queen Elizabeth 1st)

Progress, regress, and is it better to live (and write) in a pre-post-modern society?

Mari Howard | November 2, 2011

Egyptian-born Leila Aboulela grew up in Khartoum, Sudan, and her 2 novels, Lyrics Alley and Minaret reflect this. In both, she explores the interactions of family life and Muslim society, moving from a situation of relative discontent and chaos for the protagonist to resolution and peace, with a light touch of genuine spiritual progress.

Living in the West, in a culture which has, in public and in the majority, abandoned the idea of spiritual progress for one of economic progress, I found these novels refreshing. Aboulela doesn’t make out that the West is ‘wrong’, she isn’t heavy-handed. But a story set amongst a group who take seriously their boundaries and customs, and struggle to make sense out of a society which struck me as in many ways more diverse, not less, than ours, she has the raw material of real conflicts and tensions. More diverse? Yes, because although all the main characters are Muslim, and Egyptian or Sudanese, the range of their degree of traditional outlook, religious belief, and ‘westernisation’ actually drives the plot. As it leads to situations of conflict and total incomprehension within one family and for the main woman character, within one person. An interesting, significant point for contemporary Western storytelling, is that with secularisation and prevailing liberal attitudes upheld as the norm, we have possibly ironed out the creases which previously provided conflict, tension, and plot. Everyday life is too easy for a novel, it’s ‘boring’. We are driven to find plot in crimes, extremes, and fantasies.

Not so in the East. Like the leading characters of Adhaf Souief’s novels, the well-educated young women must tread a careful path between what is expected of them and how they see themselves (what they ‘want’?). And the considerations, the process of choosing, is a serious, thoughtful, process, in which we follow the maturing of a favoured, pampered, girl, owned by her family, to an independent woman. I found Soraya, and Najwa, (of Lyrics Alley and Minaret respectively) both more satisfying to read about than Soueif’s Asya – who admittedly gets into worse tangles in her relationships, and is more introspective. Aboulela’s leading women are a little tougher emotionally.

Aboulela’s writing also hints strongly, and realistically, that it is possible that in going beyond ourselves we may find, if not the pleasure we set out to discover, then a complex and affirming maturity. And reflected in this maturity, the image we see of ourselves is of a person of more depth, and more value to themselves and to others around them, than the rather shallow first ambition. A chrysalis with a purposeless lifestyle has become a butterfly with strength, compassion, realism. A woman who is a force in the world.

This process, for anyone, may include that we do not end up with the person we first thought of, in terms of walking into the sunset with the partner we lusted for at the beginning of our tale. But in these books, life is definitely a journey, and we keep on walking. Bad stuff can be turned to good, if we accept it and work with it. Often a hard lesson. Actually, never ever an easy one. On the positive side, if you can become less brittle, you may not actually break.

In Lyrics Alley, the bad stuff is truly awful for Nur, the boy whom Soraya wants to, and imagines she will, marry. Yet it takes many years for her to accept and to feel for him – rather than for herself. And also, to understand she just isn’t right for him. Badr, the educated son of a rural farmer, must care for that farmer in his old age: the portrait of Badr is wonderfully drawn. A man who gives up and gives up for his family, and at last gains at least an apartment in a high rise, with mod cons. And, touchingly, adores his daughter, born after four sons. Badr, in a sense, is the image of the human who lives for others, symbolically (perhaps) a tutor in the house of the well-off Abuzeid family. But Badr is not trying to teach the Abuzeids his philosophy, that would be a plot line too obvious.

A huge contrast with these writings is Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, which I’m now reading: a tale of privileged Brown-university American graduates. Absolutely not the book to follow on with. Their dreary existence: campus life laced with parties, sex and ‘disillusion’ born of studying deconstruction, is told with meticulous attention to detail. So much detail you could be there, in their timescale. These characters may be dealing with similar issues of coming of age, becoming young adults who will have to fend for themselves. Surrounded by such opportunities, and the ability to indulge is such clever conversations, they enrage the reader with the way they waste time, waste money, and generally waste themselves.

I guess I shall finish the book. I may as well know the outcomes. I am at present sorry for poor Madeleine, with her immense pain over loosing the rather obnoxious Leonard. Eugenides certainly makes the point here that even in – even in – our democratic society where women are equal, the girls still trail around behind the boys, desperately needing the ‘love’ which is expressed by the sex act, messy though it is to describe. Humiliating though it can be. Where I am in the novel right now, Madeleine is taking the labels off boxes she packed to take along when she trailed off with Leonard to his next step on the way towards earning a living: while she herself has no firm plans or place to go. And now, they’ve broken up – so she really has absolutely no place to go. Without her virginity – ironically so highly prized by the rather more backward grandmother Waheeba in Abulela’s Lyric Alley that female circumcision is practiced, to the fury and dismay of her modern Egyptian daughter in law. Without her virginity, or her self-respect, or even having attended her own graduation ceremony, Madeleine must move forward and become. What or whether she becomes, we shall see. (I fear a housewifely existence, playing second fiddle to a useless husband, and working as an editor in New York?)

A few questions: For this we got education, the vote, the equal opportunities act? For this we regard the casual loss of our virginity a step forward to becoming an autonomous adult?

And isn’t this a casual loss of more – of innocence, of spiritual values, of the journey of life, of ourselves?

And, was decadence ever attractive?

As an undergraduate, of course, it was seductive!