Tag Archives: faith

Updating, writing, news and a scholarship

Follow me on twitter https://twitter.com/BookwormVaught 

Hello all.

I am just in the process of updating this site so that the rolling twitter feed is engaged and I will also be producing a newsletter. I’m gathering steam – so it’s about time.

I have just finished edits on my second book, novella, The Life of Almost. This will be out on August 31st with some events local to me. If you’d like to invite me further afield to do or share in an event, go ahead. That would be lovely. Also, if you would like to review the book, great.

You can order the book here, from the press website or buy through a lovely indie bookshop. If they don’t stock, they can order. It is available online at both Amazon and Waterstones, but the latter is still not stocking texts by this lovely little boutique press for – I asked a manager – ‘purely commercial reasons’. Well.

http://patricianpress.com/book/the-life-of-almost/ That’s boy Almost on the cover; he’s reading on the sand with a brace of mermaids…

The Life of Almost, by Anna VaughtPublished August 31st, 2018

 

 

This is a dark comedy set in Wales and a spectral reworking of Dickens’s Great Expectations. Almost is a boy, brought up by his sister, Perfection. He is shrouded by bereavement and surrounded by the hauntings of his family’s undead. He plays in the sea caves, visits graves, amongst mermaids, longing mermen, morticians, houses that respire and a poltergeist moss that grabs your foot. A cast of family and friends drawn from sea caves, the embalming table, the graveyard and the dark Clandestine House, which respires heavily and in which time has stopped. And like Pip, he sings into the sea and likes to tell stories – the key theme of the book which is the story of his life, his struggles and triumphs. He is thwarted in love but understands – the night he meets a ragged convict, for the convict is a merman, come on land – that he has deep and commanding powers. 

A substantial extract from the first chapter of the book is published on the 25th of May in New Welsh Reader. You can navigate to information on that from here:

https://www.newwelshreview.com/ Cover of NWR issue 116

Next month, two of my (short) short stories are published in volume two of The Shadow Booth, a great place to read weird and eeried fiction. Boom.

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-shadow-booth-vol-2-books-horror#/

I have applied for a Gladstone’s Writer if Residence slot for next year because, reader, day job, three kids, assorted other folk to look after, books three and four to edit and A RESIDENTIAL LIBRARY OOOOOH. Fingers crossed for me?

I mean look at this place? https://gladstoneslibrary.org/events/writers-in-residence I am determined to book a stay there if I don’t manage a writer in residence slot – it is, I know, very competitive.

Also, my husband and I are sponsored a weekend ticket for The Literary Consultancy’s Get a Job in Publishing weekend course

https://literaryconsultancy.co.uk/2018/03/get-job-publishing-sponsors-showcase/

and I just did the same for the Bare Lit Festival and it has gone to a wonderful home: you know who you are! Have a wonderful time xxx

http://barelitfestival.com/

Sponsoring the ticket for TLC led me to write this blog post for them; it’s about writing a book when you have no time and managing self doubt as you do it. Here:

https://literaryconsultancy.co.uk/2018/04/managing-self-doubt-write-book-dont-time/

It begins…

am in my early days of my writing, so you are not looking at someone who is a seasoned professional.

I’ll tell you what I am.

I am a quick learner; I chat and make contact very quickly. I am acquisitive of information, always reading, thinking and noticing. In a way, I am always working. What I thought was not possible has turned out to be something rather different. Not easy exactly, but more accessible than I had managed. And I seem to have written a good deal.

In late summer 2014 I sat at the kitchen table and started typing a question. That question became the first line of an autobiographical novel. That first book was published in March 2016. I realise now that twenty months from first line to publication is a bit of a clip, but didn’t know it then because I was so naive. I do think, for what it’s worth, that naivety is underrated. My second book comes out this summer (2018), the third is placed for 2020, and the fourth is going straight to an agent and I want you to cross everything here. I am also pitching something non-fiction collaboratively with a much finer writer than I (if she reads this; don’t argue) and working on pre-publicity for the second book. At last count I have also published two poems, a very short memoir, reviews, features, guest blogs, short stories, and creative non-fiction. Flash fiction is on its way. I think in all I’ve published twenty or so pieces across journals and magazines, web and print. I’m quietly increasing my stock; my ‘profile’. No-one told me to do this. Again, it’s that naivety. I just thought, ‘Give it a go,’ rocked up and started pitching. And it worked. I also found time in that period for some rejections, lost manuscripts, and serious faffing about when second and third books were written to time for someone who then rejected them with a form letter and didn’t invite me to send further work. That set me back – time-wise, mood-wise – but I’m tougher now. And I realise the passion I felt for one of my rejected projects obscured the paucity of its quality. Or marketability. The fact I had no adequate platform. Cave scriptor.

None of this is my day job.

Now, you may have seen elsewhere on this blog that I have a bursary called The Fabian Bursary. Do you think you might to like to apply for it for this September. Read this, but just something to note: I have removed all age restrictions. My background is largely secondary teaching, but I do see that as I move along with my writing, I could be supporting a broader demographic. Also, it needles me that there are age limits on things, such as literary prizes and funds. Because so many people come to writing – or study – later. Because of lack of confidence, physical and mental health problems, caring responsibilities, prejudice or poverty. So this is a gift. It’s hopefully the gift that no-one gave to me when I was younger. You could use it for a GCSE, an A level or any creative writing project, say! xxx

https://annavaughtwrites.com/the-fabian-bursary-announcing/

Right: what else have I done. Creepy memoir – NOTE MEMOIR: ARE YOU GLAD THIS AIN’T YOU RA HA??? ‘The Shadow Babies’

http://www.theshadowbooth.com/2018/01/memoir-shadow-babies.html

Also, the few reviews I’ve done in the past few months:

http://review31.co.uk/essay/view/50/diversity-risk-taking-and-community-a-celebration-of-2017%E2%80%99s-small-press-anthologies This is about small press anthologies.

http://review31.co.uk/article/view/542/laughter-in-the-dark This is about Takeaway, by Tommy Hazard at Morbid Books.

https://thecontemporarysmallpress.com/2018/02/16/he-built-a-house-and-next-to-it-a-church/ This is my review of As a God Might Be, by Neil Griffiths. This was my book of 2017.

And here my review of the late Naseem Khan’s memoir, Everywhere is Somewhere. https://thecontemporarysmallpress.com/2017/12/01/everywhere-is-somewhere/

And did some co-editing on this https://thecontemporarysmallpress.com/?s=my+europe Currently waiting for commissions for the next anthology from this press, Tempest, which I’ll help to edit and for which I will write a foreword. You’ll be able to follow it here: https://patricianpress.com/books/ And aren’t they pretty books? Such strong artwork.

And finally, I have a July deadline for my fourth book, The Revelations of Celia Masters (news on which will follow, when I can) and my third book, Saving Lucia – which is about the last days of the Honourable Violet Gibson who shot Mussolini in 1928 – oh and her co-patient in Northampton Infirmary, Lucia Joyce, daughter of James Joyce. Bluemoose is a wonderful press and it’s so lovely to see it in the sun for works by Ben Myers and Harriet Paige, and the work the press is doing as part of the Northern Fiction alliance. Here: https://bluemoosebooks.com/ and go and buy the book below now?

Anyway, head down now with finishing fourth book and teaching (and my own eldest is doing GCSE at the moment so it’s all go) BUT I am having a little two day holiday in London, when I get to go to the launch of this little beauty: RAISING SPARKSThere’s a launch at Waterstones Islington on June 21st and it’s pubished by Bluemoose. I was lucky enough to read a proof copy ahead of time and thoroughly recommend it to you. Here: this is a synopsis from the website of Foyles:

Malka grows up in the Old City of Jerusalem in the confines of the Ultra-orthodox Jewish community. Meandering through the narrow streets she finds herself at the door of one of the city’s most renowned and reclusive mystics and discovers her father’s top rabbinical student, Russian immigrant Moshe studying forbidden Kabbalistic texts. She has a disturbing vision of a tree of prayers growing up inside the house, and the prayers all seem to be talking to her. The prayers become a giant bird, and chase her from the house. Malka has unwittingly uncovered a great mystical gift. Kabbalists believe that since the world was spoken into existence, if they can hear and understand that original Divine language, they can use it themselves, to shape and manipulate reality. Once in a millennia, a kabbalist is born with this ability. It turns out that Malka is one of them. After a disastrous first date with Moshe, Malka flees Jerusalem for Safed where she is drawn into a cult called Mystical Encounters, run by charismatic cult leader Avner Marcus. Avner is unsettled by Malka’s authenticity, and she is not allowed to attend classes. Her only friends are former night club singer Shira, and traumatised ex-soldier Evven. Malka sets up her own mystical retreat in the woods, at an abandoned construction site. When she reveals this to Avner, he forces her to take him there and tries to rape her. Malka manages to evade him, and then burns down the cult after manipulating the Modern Hebrew word for Electricity, Chashmal

Malka heads for Tel Avi, and sleeps rough on the beaches of the mixed Arab-Jewish city of Jaffa. Here she is discovered by legendary Arab chef Rukh Baraka, who is seeking to rekindle his career by training Arab and Israeli street children to create extraordinary food for his new restaurant, the Leviathan. Malka bonds with fellow runaway Mahmoud, who is escaping the wrath of his Imam father at his “deviant” sexuality. Mahmoud reveals the city behind the city, the hidden Palestinian history of which Malka has been ignorant. Moshe has been trying to find Malka and is forced to confront some of his own demons, including the disappearance of his younger sister when she was in his care. Moshe swears that he will not lose another girl he loves.]

And that’s it for now!

Anna xx

 

 

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The Life of Almost – some Pembrokeshire settings

Earlier in the year, I pledged a couple of things for the Authors for Grenfell fund-raising drive. Tomorrow I’ve got an author chat and what was once an afternoon tea with it has turned into hanging out at my house and then lunch and a signed copy of my first book, Killing Hapless Ally. Most recent comments on that, by the way, have included “brilliant but patchy”, “this book has changed my life”, “..if this is you how are you still sane?”, “you’d have made the shortlist if the everything was up to the standard of the best passages” and, “reminiscent of Faulkner or Thomas Wolfe.” Are you laughing with me?

BUT ANYWAY

Next weekend I’m off to Pembrokeshire (where lots of my family are, living and dead: read on) because I am picking someone up in St David’s and then I am going to take them on a tour of the settings in The Life of Almost. This novella is out with Patrician Press (nice boutique press; awesome and brave catalogue – possibly foolhardy because they’re so keen on me?), autumn, 2018. It’s a strange tale, starring a flotilla of my relations, and settings, secret places and houses known to me, in which the narrator (previously drowned, aha..) returns to bring happiness and ignite the imagination of someone who is sad and desperately tired of life. He does this by telling the extraordinary story of his life – of sea-boiling mermaid love; lonely dragons on the shore; the Virgin Mary in the corner of the room; murders, crimes, love found and enduring; love torturing and mending – or not, because you can also pick the ending. In it, you’d recognise threads of Great Expectations, a favourite book of mine (indulge me this), not to mention a love affair with the Mabinogion and old Welsh lyrics. I will tell you more as we get closer to publication, but for now, be here with me as you won’t be there at the weekend.

And importantly, I want to make a plug. You will know the appalling things endured by those who were residents at Grenfell Towers. Well, here’s another literary endeavour and it is brilliant. Already 120% funded. I’m so pleased. Have a look and buy it when it’s out.

https://unbound.com/books/grenfell

So, settings in Almost. m making a selection. This is the walk down to Barafundle Bay, accessed, this way, over the headland from Stackpole Quay on the Stackpole Estate (National Trust now). Almost recalls happy times rolling on the beach and out at sea with his mermaid girls, who are so devoted to him – though, all his life, he has been in love with the sour Seren, out at Clandestine House on the Cleddau Estuary. Hmm. Almost is not binary in his sexuality or his gender identity. Oh no no no. I see him as questing and fluid. All things, in this book, take up boundaries and blur or break them.

barafundle

Here. This is Walton West at Church, just above Broad Haven Beach. In the churchyard, so very close to my heart. sixteen relations are buried (and probably more that I’ve yet to clasp to me as my relatives). My grandmother is here and my nanny. Uncles, great uncles and cousins, aunts. Also, some plaques for those interred elsewhere. At least two of the dead are suicides and one, a mother and daughter in law of those who took their own lives, was a figure who has haunted me my whole life and I have fictionalised her as Muffled Myfanwy, both here and in my first book. That’s because she suffered so much, her voice was stifled. When she did speak (I suppose it was selective mutism as I never heard her speak beyond the home), well now it was like a whisper in the breeze. You had to lean in to let it touch your cheek and then you heard and you knew her a little better, perhaps. In The Life of Almost, this character is…by the very particular gifts held by Almost…released. Her throat is loosed; her voice howls into the bright sunlight and she feels safe enough to test love again.

walton

If you want to go and visit, you’re looking, mostly, for a lot of Llewhellins. Now, don’t correct the spelling; this is how my family had it BUT there’s some variation even so – Llewelyn, too, as middle name and surname. I do have another churchyard – this time with my grandfather (Pop) and great grandparents, and this is out at Bethesda, nearer to Tenby. My grandparents’ marriage – they still had thirteen children, ten surviving (one died as a babe) ended acrimoniously and it was said he went and shacked up with a landlady from Tenby, who was a terrible tart and known for it.

I was raised, depending on your point of view, by maudlin, morbid people. And yet…when I think about my family, I find I don’t always differentiate between who’s alive and who’s not. I think that’s because their legends permeate into corners of my life. I am not afraid of darkness. Or graveyards at night. I speak plainly of death and leaving. I was orphaned, anyway, by the end of my teens and that was sad, but by God I’ve learned a few things. And this death in life way of embracing pied beauty, sour beauty, has stood me in good stead. It feels like a Welsh thing and it is thus integral to the book. You’ll wonder sometimes, as I’d ask you to do, who’s alive and who’s dead in The Life of Almost. Also, as in my first book, who’s there, and who a figment in your imagination.

Ah the Virgin Mary. Perfection, sister to Almost, behaves terribly. But in her quiet moments, she visits this place, at St Non’s, on St David’s Head, to see if Our Lady can set her straight. She also spends her days tongue lashing the whores and the ingrates of where they live, but she then, in a fit of piety which is true and real, rushes out to pray for their souls and for her own. And she prays again, to the Virgin, in her own home. At night, Our Lady is illuminated (by Wilko’s solar garden lights, if you’re asking) and below her is the healing well. Ah – also the song, Myfanwy. May her voice and soul flow free.

Now, when Almost begins to tell his tale, he’s out on an unspecified beach, which I’ve imagined directly below the Walton West churchyard I described above. Really, the nearest beaches to this headland would be Little Haven (where my grandmother was born) or Broad Haven, but in my mind’s eye, I saw a particular sea cave. It has been in my mind for as long as I knew what mind was. Pembrokeshire is rich in beautiful caves – I love those at Barafundle – but this was the first I saw and knew as a tiny child. It is on Newgale Beach and you can go right through it to different sections of this spectacular place. I had this in mind, more figuratively: the notion of channels and conduits between worlds, if you would only open your eyes. Or, I suppose, prove an adequate listener to Almost’s story.

And who have we next to the cave? There are some very fine mermaids in the book and you’ll just have to wait and see what they all get up to.

Now here is a beautiful place. These are the woods through which you can walk to Abermawr. Here, they are full of bluebells, though I love this walk in a winter storm, too. But the bluebells are significant because…as I said, I’ve given you two endings to the book. It’s a fantastical story, which also celebrates the tortured love between Seren and Almost. Why does she hate him yet love him? She breaks his heart again and again, this sour suffering beauty. In Great Expectations, Estella is the adopted daughter of Miss Havisham at Satis House. He loves her and eternally. But there were two endings to the book. The original, in which they are parted, and that which was eventually published, in which (though I still feel it bears a shadow of doubt, delicately done) Estella and Pip end up together. I’m not going to tell you why, in my book, Seren hates Almost, save to say it’s something to do with land and sea and freedom and Derian Llewhellin, the escaped convict (spot the Magwitch connection) that Almost helps in the first part of the story. But near the end of the book, this fine bluebell wood is the scene of…an event I struggled to write. Yep. You’ll judge for yourself, now te, whether it is erotic; if I judged it aright.

Abemawr Woods. Beyond them, always, the sea. Coedwigoedd Abermawr. y tu hwnt iddynt, bob amser, y môr.

bluebells

Which brings me to Clandestine House, on the Cleddau. This is Cresswell Quay and is, in fact, the place where my grandmother lived. Cresswell House became Clandestine House and inhabited by the claw-handed spinster, Miss Davies. Ah yes, Elleri Davies. This is a mysterious, changing, respiring house. And, like Seren, Miss Davies is miserable but imaginative. But just like Myfanwy who is oppressed by sorrow, might there not be a way to satisfy the cravings of the land, to comfort the grieving house and to mend hearts?

I do miss you, grandmother.

I will write more in the coming months but, for now, especially for you, Lorna, whom I will meet in St David’s at the weekend, remember that there is no there, there. Trust in Almost, instead. More on which at the weekend. x

st david's

The walk to St David’s

On Failure. For J.

All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

That’s Samuel Beckett. From his 1983 prose work, Worstward Ho. It’s funny. Recently, I’m wondering if it’s the new ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, in which case we could have a ‘Fail Better’ gallery – mugs, doormats, handcuffs, you name it. What would Beckett have thought? Probably that it was tomfoolery, but hopefully he would have laughed.

I digress. Why do I begin with this quotation? My late grandmother once said something along the lines of how you had to fail with style and in an interesting way before you could call yourself a grown up. I remembered that. She also said that you have to get quickly off your arse when the devil vomits into your kettle, which was a terrifying jumble of stuff, right there. Could have been Beckett, with a bit of polishing, and less scary Welsh grandma. Anyway, I think that she didn’t take the bit about failure far enough: I think you keep doing it. I’m not saying you actually aim for it, but that you accept it, more, as the natural state of things, just with economies of scale.

Now, I have failed aplenty. I like to recast it so that I failed majestically, heroically, as if I were looking at me from the wings, going, “See what you did there?” (actually, I sort of did that: read my autobiographical novel, Killing Hapless Ally for a load of that) and clapping, like a pissed cheerleader. True, there have been some comical moments of failure: falling off a desk in front of a GCSE class and tearing down an entire wall display of their work, trying to steady myself, in the process; attending meetings with my dress in my knickers; in one accidentally saying ‘sex’ when I meant ‘notes’; talking a bit too excitedly to mums on the school run and seeing them begin to sidle away; very recently saying to a class teacher, ‘Has my son been a bit of a twat?’ when I meant ‘twit’; falling asleep on my first date with my husband and falling over in a perfectly flat field on my second. That sort of thing. I relate these sorts of things to others sometimes, should we be discussing delicious things like, I don’t know, embarrassment, and it might happen that they go, “Noooo…how awful” – and I think, “Do you not do that sort of thing regularly too?” Then I think maybe it’s just me; like a dervish at a particularly stifled funeral. But I’m not so sure. It’s not that others will have done the same things, but, truly, everyday embarrassments and failures: aren’t they normal? Human.

These were not important failures. Just untidy life.

There are bigger things too. Hearts I broke, people I disappointed. The fact that my mother thought I sucked. Some of these things I thought to be my fault, but time and reflection may tell a different story.  Ah what else? Career blips; no career; the PhD I didn’t complete (I won’t tell you the whole story here), the fact that people weren’t very nice to me on my wedding day (again reflection might not point to me here) – oooh loads of stuff. Parenting mistakes; financial ones; soured relationships. Oh get out of here. This isn’t very interesting. It’s more that I want to tell you you’re not alone. But, most of the time, I, you, we did our best, yes? Then there you go.

You can get big bold places, high on failure and not seem to know it. Donald Trump is, in my opinion, a colossal failure as a president. His world view is egregiously limited, his ego needs to be regularly stroked because it must be upheld, like gossamer. Do you think he goes to bed worrying about his failure or reflecting on it? Well, I’ve not been with Donald at bedtime, praise the Lord, but I rather doubt it. And therein lies the crux of the matter. To acknowledge that you misjudge, misprise and misrule; to be compassionate and self-aware enough to know that you failed and to attempt, where you can, to make amends – that is the key thing. When it’s missing, what might that make you? Appetitive; governed by your own wants and a desire to be, err, stroked and told that you are right. Ugh. That makes me want to barf on my shoes. And oh, it makes me cross. I realise I am simplifying about Trump, and that he probably has some latent virtues, but he seemed a decent enough exemplar.

To be human is to err. To err splendiferously. In teaching – and I don’t know why anyone would pretend otherwise – you will misunderstand some of those you are teaching and fail to see their ability, their wants, even, sometimes, the terrible pain they might be in. You will get a lot right, but a lot wrong. In your life, you will accidentally upset friends; say things that reverberate in others’ ears for a very long time. But you did your best and that’s all that can be asked of you. If it’s a failure where you know you have hurt someone and done what you can to fix it and make amends; if you’ve felt guilt and reflected and looked at yourself sternly – painful but necessary – then take that and move forward and not just for yourself. Learn. If it’s a comical failure – like, say, trying (I actually had a conversation about this recently which reduced me to helpless, snorty laughter and tears – and no I am not naming its provenance) a new sexual position, striking the bedside lamp in flagrante and singeing the side of the duvet, please LAUGH. You know what’s not hot? Being joyless and mirthless. You know what’s not sexy? Perfection. Also, it’s bollocks and doesn’t exist.

I had a friend once (note past tense) who said, with passionate confidence, “I don’t know what failure is. I have never failed at anything.” I was in awe of her; I had chronically low self-esteem, was battling depression: I thought she was someone to look up to. How wrong was I? It’s humility and humour; kindness. That’s where it’s at. That’s success. Arrogance is not a success. That is definitely a failure, in my book. Anyway, I don’t see this person anymore. Don’t wish ill, there. This person may be deliriously happy, for all I know. Sharp suited and driven, but maybe not having messy sex in the back of a pick up…or feeding a sad-looking pony an apple…or maybe even comforting another person whose life has unravelled at the seams. What do you think? Am I over-simplifying?

Parenting’s an eye opener for this success/failure malarkey. I have seen other parents chortle at how their child is top of the pecking order or say, without apology, that their child will go a long way and, in the meantime, tends only to be friends with other high achievers. It is bang on to be proud of your child (I have three myself), but a) your child is not an extension through which (she says cattily) you get to swat drippy under-achieving fellow parents (like me) and b) can you HEAR YOURSELF? Pipe down.

Now, I do think that failure is normal. A lot of dreams and career aspirations tank. Of course they do. Marriages or your final sense of acquiring a sense of identity may feel incomplete. In some work – the creative industries – I’d argue that failure is hardwired into your job. Having your work rejected or not even acknowledged. But hey there, frownie, suck it up. It’s normal: fail again, fail better. Carry on.

I do think – and I speak as someone who has had many years of battling mental health problems – that we place too much emphasis on achievement. And not, I might say, always that achievement which is in line with our core values; with what we truly believe and value. If you are driven, then go drive, but maybe know that when you get to the place called THERE, you might well discover that there’s no THERE, THERE (if you follow my meaning). I am not suggesting that we don’t aim for things we would like to do or be, just that it might be healthier and make us happier if we were honest about those things. And – I speak from hard-won experience here – I don’t think it helps to be led by comparison with others. In fact I’d say, “compare and despair”. I know when I do that, the comparison thing, I incline to come off worse and likely to feel awful, physically and mentally. I did kind of tell you at the beginning there that I was an epic failure!

There has been a great deal of study of this of late, but the role of social media and what we absorb and ingest therein can be a problem. I talk to the teenagers I teach about it. Some of them struggle, but find they can’t stay away, frightened to miss out. But that feeling is not unique to those in this demographic and, in fact, I’d argue that younger people are often way more sensible than older people and not just because they are digital natives. Yet I think we all need to be mindful of the fact that what we see is a version of reality; a curated narrative. I love social media for the friends I’ve made and things I’ve been able to learn; the writing project I am currently pursuing came to me through twitter. A picture, a conversation: serendipitous, exciting and joyful. But the braggy, showy stuff can go hang.

Is all this depressing? I’d say no. Stuff up. Let go. Go and rehearse the facts of life in a sober manner and I wonder if you might actually start to giggle. Because the failure provides a much better anecdote and releases you from much stress. Achieve, according to your own lights, but when I go, I just want to be remembered (if you do remember me) as the funny lady who tried every day to be kind. Fell on her arse constantly. Loved Jesus but enjoyed cursing. Embraced paradox and irreverence. And pie. And kittens. And gave a sad-looking pony an apple. You know.

All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

On you go, then.

Love, Anna x

 

 

 

 

What’s Passerines about? Here. “What do you know, who has not been mad?” and “Those who are confined have the best imaginations.”

Don’t nick it. It be @copyright Anna Vaught

Passerines. A synopsis

How would it be if four lunatics went on a tremendous adventure, got to taste full liberty, revisit and reshape their pasts, their futures, make us question what we think madness is – and kill Mussolini? That would be extraordinary, wouldn’t it? How would it all be possible? Because, as Violet Gibson, the key protagonist of the book would tell you, those who are confined have the very best imaginations.

This story is grounded in truth but, as historical fiction, it fills in the many gaps by imagining the interior lives of its four female subjects, and lends it a supernatural air in Violet’s invoking of the birds of the air (and with them, the birds of religious texts and iconography) to help her connect with other three (apparently mad) women, and their tortured lives. In 1926, in Rome, Violet Gibson, an aristocrat, tried to kill Mussolini, having previously failed to kill herself. Violet was not the best shot. Mussolini was struck on the nose and though he bled copiously, he lost only a divot of flesh and was soon off, bandaged, to carry on; plans of Il Duce, Mare Nostrum and the creation, he thought, of his Augustan Empire. Meanwhile, Violet was trampled to the ground, taken to prison, placed in a lunatic asylum and then, by the grace of Mussolini (and with copious thanks from the Foreign office, her father the Fifth Baron Ashbourne, and Winston Churchill) she was deported and placed, for the rest of her life, in St Andrew’s Psychiatric hospital in Northampton. She petitioned for release for the rest of her life, but was always refused; many of her own letters remain, unsent (contravening the 1890 Lunacy Act). She died in 1956, was denied the burial she requested and rests in a shabby corner of a a municipal ground. This much is true.

For the last few years of Violet’s life, Lucia Joyce, daughter of James Joyce, was incarcerated at St Andrew’s. She also died there, in 1982, and is buried steps away from Violet, away from the family grave in Zurich: isolated, arguably in death, as in life, like Violet, her records and letters burned or sealed by decree of the keeper of the Joyce flame. Lunatics both, these women. Of course. That must be true, musn’t it?

Meanwhile, not so long ago, Blanche Wittmann dances and crawls like a dog while under the hypnosis of the great neurologist Dr Charcot at the Salpêtrière in Paris. Le tout Paris turns out to see her; she is painted, in a state of hysterical glamour, by the fêted Andre Brouillet and Le Tout Paris turns out to see her. Dr Freud observes and learns and is fascinated, though he comes to a different conclusion; that it is psychiatric, not a disease of the nerves. When Blanche goes back to her room, or rather cell, alongside the other eight thousand mad women at the hospital, the evening continues elsewhere in fine apartments with absinthe and a tinkling piano. Just a little after Blanche, comes Anna O; a woman who retches at water, swerves between languages and tells stories like those of Hans Christian Anderson. She suffers hallucinations of snakes, has paralysis and a persistent choking cough. Anna O becomes a patient of Dr Breuer and, later, a subject in Dr Freud and Dr Breuer’s book, Studies in Hysteria. Blanche never leaves the Salpetriere, but later works in one of the laboratories while, paces away, Marie Curie experiments with pitchblende. At some point, Blanche disappears from records and we do not know where she is buried; Anna O, meanwhile, remains a mystery until, in 1953, twenty years after her death, she is discovered to be Bertha Pappenheim, an Austrian-Jewish pioneer in women’s rights, sometimes referred to as the first social worker. What she has built is later razed by the Nazis. These women are the four majestic feebles (as Lucia Joyce has it) of the story.

The story imagines what their lives were like as patients and how it might have been were all these women to be free and meet and have an adventure together; from the Ireland of Violet’s youth, to Vienna, Paris – a meeting with James Joyce. It is also an alternative history: had Anna O ever been free, a voyager, a scientist; had Bertha found the love she hoped and her work not destroyed; had Lucia written her novel, been able to carry on dancing, as she had been trained to do by Margaret Morris, William Morris’s grand-daughter, had she been able to have the work she was offered at the Gotham Book Mart in New York or to be a tumbleweed at Shakespeare and Co in Paris: had she got out; had Violet been successful in securing the end of life she wanted, a Catholic burial and to change history: had they all been with her, that day, on Campidoglio, in Rome, 1926, and all held a Lebel revolver – and killed Mussolini.

Why Passerines? Because part of Violet’s therapy in the psychiatric hospital was to go outside to feed the birds, of which we have a deeply moving photograph. She communes with them, and the birds of the air make sure, through a kind of magic, that her letters to Blanche and Anna O arrive, just as they stimulate her to thoughts of freedom, possibility and to whisper to Lucia Joyce through the walls of the asylum. Does any of it really happen? We return to the question posed by all the women: “What do you know, who has not been mad?” – and Lucia Joyce, who never got out, lays a passerine on the grave of her friend.