Sunday, 22 May 2011

An Englishwoman in France: Wendy Robertson

I recently had a fantastic lunch at the Bowes Museum (a treasure trove hidden away in the Pennines) with my friends Wendy Robertson and Avril Joy.  It’s always such a pleasure to be able to talk about writing with fellow scribblers. We did almost more talking than eating!  And as we left, Wendy generously gave me a copy of her new novel ‘An Englishwoman in France’, excerpts of which I’d read, and been intrigued by, on Wendy’s blog.

There are many people who claim to have second sight (my grandmother did) and it is still being debated scientifically with claim and counter claim.   Though being generally on the side of science, I feel that there are things the human mind can do which science still isn’t able to quantify.  Telepathy, kinesis, being able to see/feel imprints of past events, so why not glimpses of the future?  Will science at some point demonstrate that the existence of parallel universes (which Quantum Physics claims to exist) enables us to ‘bend’ time and see round the corners?   A couple of times in my own life I’ve felt compelled to contact some member of the family because I’ve been convinced they were in trouble, only to find that the instinct (if that’s what it was) had been correct.  And twice, inexplicably, I’ve ‘known’ that something was about to happen.   How do we, as rational, practical human beings explain these things?

I was always fascinated, when I was a young child, by a story -  which my grandmother told as fact - about two women who were respectable teachers, who went to visit Versailles and stepped inadvertently through some kind of door in time directly into the court of Louis XVth.   Did they really do that?  Or was it what Wendy calls simply the ‘shimmer’ of history - being acutely aware of the layers of time and human movement through it that being in ancient places allows us to feel.

Starr, the heroine of Wendy’s latest novel, is just such a girl, with the gift of second sight, and of being able to see through the veil and move backwards and forwards in time.  When her daughter is killed she knows that they ought to be able to make contact, but there is simply a silence she can’t understand.  On a visit to France to try to repair a foundering relationship, she stays at the Maison d’Estella in the ancient town of Agde   It’s a house and a town that Wendy herself is very familiar with and the historical context is beautifully evoked. 

In the novel Starr finds herself becoming part of someone else’s story, which she eventually realises is also her own. Wendy said that ‘structurally, this novel has been perhaps the most subtle task I have given myself.  The challenge was to make the two stories merge then part and make it seem simple and natural rather than supernatural.’  The time shifts are very well-handled and I found it quite credible.   This is another good read by an accomplished story-teller.  It's currently available only in hardback, but I'm sure the paperback won't be far behind.   Wendy must now have published around 24 novels - not sure of the exact number, but it's awe-inspiring at a time when getting a novel published seems as impossible as one of Houdini's great escapes!
Wendy also presents a  radio programme on writing, called The Writing Game, broadcast on Bishop FM, but also available as podcasts.  There's a good link on her site (I tried putting one in here, but it didn't work very well!)

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