Saturday, 1 June 2013

The Long Delirious Burning Blue by Sharon Blackie

The Long Delirious Burning Blue
by Sharon Blackie
Published by Two Ravens Press

This is one of the most satisfying novels I've read in a long time - it really had me gripped and when I got to the end, I cried.  Not many books nowadays reduce me to tears, particularly ones that have happy endings.

The main character, Cat, is a 39 year old legal executive with an American pharmaceutical firm based in Arizona.  She's in a long term relationship with a nice guy, earns lots of money, has a beautiful home and is deeply unhappy.  Cat has begun to have crippling panic attacks which, at first, she believes to be the symptoms of physical illness and it is only when faced with a doctor's diagnosis that she realises they have their roots in anxieties that go back to childhood.

Everyone believes Cat to be completely in control and indestructible.  But it's only a mask to hide her vulnerability. Not even her partner knows how fragile she is.  Cat is afraid of flying, and when she has a massive panic attack on a business trip and is almost unable to get on the plane, she makes up her mind to deal with her fear the only way she knows how; by confronting it.  Cat decides to learn to fly and the terror and exhilaration she experiences become the key to understanding herself.

  'I have been asleep for forty years. This is what I need: this fear, this risk, this wind rocking my wings. This is what I have been missing. This is what it means to be alive – up here, on the edge of death.’ 

This is a novel about how fear can cripple our lives and prevent us living fully.  It's a novel about mothers and daughters - Cat's mother is an alcoholic and their relationship has been poisoned by guilt and blame and anger. But it's also a novel about the power of stories.  Our lives are a narrative and we can choose how to tell it - not only that, if we don't like the story we can change it.  As Cat does when she walks out of her career and her relationship into 'the long, delirious, burning blue'.

Cat's mother, Laura, is a story-teller, an author of children's books.  When the novel opens she has been sober for years, but has lost the ability to write.  Returning to the west-highland village where she had lived with her violent husband, she begins to work through her own story and, in writing it down, begins to heal herself and her relationship with her daughter.

One of my favourite bits from the book is the 'mission statement' Cat has to approve in a board meeting, which is the subject of her first rebellion against corporate America.  She can no longer swallow the meaningless jargon and the half-truths.  My other favourites were the flying scenes - so vivid I was up there in the cockpit almost sick with vertigo.  And I really fancied the flying instructor . . .

The author, Sharon Blackie, is the editor of Two Ravens Press, based on the island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. Two Ravens publish poetry and fiction and the beautiful glossy magazine 'Earthlines'.  Their remit is broadly 'ecoliterature' but they state that they are looking for 'writing that is capable of challenging and unpicking the status quo, of shifting the worldview of their readers away from the creed of "Progress is Growth is Consumption".'  This novel certainly does that.  It's Sharon's first novel - and the only parallel I can think of is Barbara Kingsolver, who manages to combine ecological and political issues with beautiful prose. I'm now eagerly awaiting Sharon's second novel, The Bee Dancer, which is apparently coming soon.

The title is a quote from a poem called 'High Flight' written by 19 year old Canadian poet John Gillespie Magee, a spitfire pilot killed in a mid-air collision in 1941.

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