MY VIEW ON: UNBECOMING by Jenny Downham

UnbecomingUnbecoming by Jenny Downham
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Got this after seeing it on several ‘Best Books of 2015’ lists. This book kind of stunned me. It started off – not slow exactly – but ponderous, like Downham was settling you in with the minutiae, lulling you, but it all builds wonderfully, like a slow tide coming in. UNBECOMING pulls no punches in its study of female relationships. It feels true. It was literary, ambitious, beautiful. 4.5 but I rounded up!

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Pullman and Proofs

A picture speaks a thousand words, an embedded tweet speaks that plus 140 characters, so here are a couple of embedded tweets.

Just in case I hadn’t made my feelings on Pullman clear yet, HIS DARK MATERIALS and THE FIREWORK-MAKER’S DAUGHTER are the two biggest influences on my writing, with the possible exception of SKELLIG and the EARTHSEA cycle. This is a true dream come true scenario, and now I’m off to digest it by walking along the river and smiling at everyone I pass. What is life, guys? WHAT IS LIFE?

Writing, the universe, and everything

“What I need… is a strong drink and a peer group.”

Douglas Adams, LIFE, THE UNIVERSE AND EVERYTHING*

A lot of very exciting things are happening, very quickly. A couple of weeks ago Emma Carroll (one of my favourite MG authors) brought my attention to this tweet, from the children’s preview editor for The Bookseller:
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Cue ectasticism. It’s not a word, I looked it up. But I like it.

This bizarre wonderful journey has nearly reached its pivotal point, and moments like this are hugely exciting and uplifting to me. They’re hugely important. But when I share news like this I often neglect to mention the flipside of it. That that same morning, just before I spotted Emma’s tweet, before the closest I’ve experienced to a Twitter storm (more a Twitter Scotch mist) for my book took place, I was in the kitchen crying because I’d deleted a whole file of poems for the OE project. That when my partner Tom found me I said I had no confidence in anything I’d written, that I was sure the book would fail, that my poetry had no worth, and my plays were – in the words of one reviewer – twee and derivative. I was having A Bit Of A Mini Breakdown™.

This is a regular pattern for me. Tom also works from home (he’s an artist and has a studio at the bottom of our garden) so he sees me at various points throughout the day and often jokes that everyday is a lifetime emotion-wise – joy, anger, fear, sadness – the whole Inside Out shebang. Plus an overwhelming level of empathy – I feel ready to cry whenever I see a pigeon with a gnarly foot. As my friend Daisy beautifully put it in a poem of hers – ‘we walk the length of a marriage in an hour.’ And it’s fairly exhausting.

I have this theory that it’s because my brain has learnt the pathways for both depression and anxiety – a panic attack a day for a year must leave its mark somehow – and automatically defaults towards those extremes when dealing with ‘normal’ levels of stress. That, combined with the fact I’m certain I’m a fraud and EVERYONE IS GOING TO FIND OUT. And that theory is why I’m not a neuroscientist. What I am is a person who writes, and the empathy is definitely useful for that. The crippling self doubt? Not so much.

Fast forward to today. Today is the last day my story is just an ms to me. Tomorrow I get the proof copies, in book form. With a cover, a spine, that will open into a v in my hands. Inside will be my story. I’m deeply excited, very scared, and also a little melancholy (writing this to Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness may have something to do with it).

My mum is currently in New Delhi with my great aunt, aunt, uncle, and cousin, Sabine. The latter was a surprise as she wasn’t meant to be back from boarding school yet. It was lovely to see her beautiful face on FaceTime – I miss her to the point of pain – and even lovelier that she’s finally seen the bound ms of THE GIRL OF INK AND STARS, the book dedicated to her. Sabine had even painted her nail all starry!

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And suddenly everything came careening into focus.

There have been more exciting tweets, from incredible authors like Emma Carroll, Abi Elphinstone, and Melinda Salisbury.

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There was the emergence of the gorgeous packshot. There’s my wonderful publicist Jazz and everyone at Chicken House, being supportive and encouraging and kind. But none of this matters if all it takes to drag me down is one bad review, which was the case with BOAT, or one deleted file, as with OE. Likewise, I can’t rely on other people to tell me my book is good – though when they do I need to enjoy that, not brush it off. I need to be more confident in it myself – in the immortal words of Christina Aguilera:

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Preach.

The acknowledgements thank Sabine for making me want to write a book she’ll love. And she may do, she may not, but ultimately, I tried. I wrote a story I think matters, that I want to connect for readers. I can’t be a fraud because I did not write this story fraudulently. I did my best, and as I have no control over whether that’s enough for other people, that has to be good enough for me.**

*You may be wondering what the above quote had to do with anything – that is how I get through my A Bit Of A Mini Breakdown™ Moments. Plus, any excuse to quote Douglas Adams, right?

** Easier said than done. Bring on the peer group and pub.

THE GIRL OF INK AND STARS packshots!

So excited to be able to share the beautiful packshots* with you – hope you agree that Chicken House and Helen (the designer) have done a quite extraordinary job! Here’s the drool-worthy front and flap…

 

GOIS - packshot

And here’s the drool-worthy inside cover and map flap…

GOIS - open book

Can’t wait to hold it! Only three months to go.

*packshot = literally a shot (photo/digital image) of the pack (packaging).

FEN by Daisy Johnson

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‘When we were young we learnt men the way other people learnt languages or the violin…We did not care for their thoughts; they could think on philosophy and literature and science if they wanted, they could grow opinions inside them if they wanted. We did not care for their creed or religion or type; for the choices they made and the ones they missed. We cared only for what they wanted so much it ruined them. Men could pretend they were otherwise, could enact the illusion of self-control, but we knew the running stress of their minds.’

– Blood Rites

Every so often a book comes along that not only interrupts the world for you, but seeps into it. The people you meet, the places you go, ignite with new possibilities, with different ways of seeing. The Border Trilogy did it, Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow did it, MaddAddam did it. This book did it. These short stories hold the world captive and make you take another look. They are bleak, beautiful, witty and strange. The writing style calls to mind Sarah HallKelly Link, and Evie Wyld – the latter’s glowing endorsement is on the back – but mesh into a wholly unique voice and a mesmerising study of people and landscape. Just brilliant.

These two stories are from Daisy Johnson‘s full collection of short stories, out in June.

Full disclosure: The author and I are housemates, having met on a Creative Writing course. Further full disclosure: The reason I wanted to be friends in the first place was because I fell in love with her writing.