Monthly Archives: March 2013

Happy Memories

Today is a very important day. It’s the day the terracotta army was uncovered in China in 1974, for instance. Did you know it’s also the day Queen Victoria opened the Royal Albert Hall in 1871? The Battle of Towton made Edward of York into King Edward IV on this day in 1461. As well as all that, it is (in Christianity, at least) Good Friday, a day which had huge psychological value for me as a child (I was a very weird kid.) It’s a day off work here in Ireland. It’s a day when people tend to go off the rails with drink, which they’ve purchased on Holy Thursday because the sale of alcohol is illegal on Good Friday in this country, and all the pubs are shut. It’s a day when people of my parents’ generation observe a day of fasting, and when they feel free to grumble to anyone who’ll listen that ‘a day without stuffin’ yerself never did me any harm, and it’ll do you no harm either.’

Today is all of those things. It’s also my wedding anniversary.

Image: losangelesmystery.com

Image: losangelesmystery.com

We’re having (as I’ve mentioned!) a very cold March here, but the year we got married the sun split the sky. Our wedding guests wore sunglasses, and at least one person had to make an emergency dash to the chemist’s to pick up an economy-sized bottle of sun lotion. It helped everyone (including the bride and groom!) to have a wonderful day. I’ll never forget the sight of half our wedding party sitting out on the sun terrace of the hotel, enjoying some drinks and snacks, as well as friendly banter, al fresco. In March. In Ireland. It was quite something.

Of course, Easter being a moveable feast, our wedding didn’t coincide with Good Friday (or Holy Thursday, as it would’ve been) the year we got married. That would’ve been no fun at all. We’d have had to get married in a cavernous, dark, empty church, and there’d have been no priest there because we couldn’t have had Mass. We might have got away with having a proper wedding reception (and by ‘proper’, of course, I mean ‘one at which alcohol was served’, because that’s usually all that matters to an Irish crowd). But, overall, it would have been a weird day.

We chose March 29 as our wedding day because the first day we met was on March 28 – at another wedding. My husband and I had always had friends in common, but we’d never managed to actually meet one another until two of those mutual friends decided to get married. So, at that momentous gathering, we finally got to run into one another, after years of wondering if our friends were ever going to introduce us. It wasn’t quite ‘and the rest is history’; it took us a little while to get our act together. But in any case, when it came time for us to consider our own wedding, we didn’t want to hijack our friends’ day of March 28, so we went for the next best thing.

I feel very lucky and blessed in my husband; he is a wonderful and kind man, and the best husband anyone could wish for. Today is a day to remember that we have a lot to be thankful for, as a couple and as a family unit, not least of which is the fact that we have a huge group of friends and family who love and support us. I know I am a lucky woman to have such good memories of my wedding day, when everything (including the weather) was perfect, and when so many people took the time to spend our special day with us. Those memories, filled with sunshine and laughter, help to remind me – and my husband, too – of how wonderful a thing it is to be surrounded with love, and how grateful we should always be for it.

Happy Friday – and I hope it’s the start of a wonderful weekend for you all.

Gritty-Eyed Lunatic

Your correspondent is a tired creature this cold and frosty morning.

This woman is not me, but I look somewhat similar at the moment.Image: makeup.lovetoknow.com

This woman is not me, but I look somewhat similar at the moment.
Image: makeup.lovetoknow.com

This is despite the fact that fatigue drove both me and my husband to bed at a fairly early hour last night, and both of us (unusually) slept right through, dead to the world, until the alarm rang at 6:15 a.m. I suspect it may have something to do with the fact that we’re having the coldest Easter weather since 1960-something; just living, without actually even exerting yourself, is costing more energy than normal.

Maybe.

Or perhaps it has to do with the fact that I made two submissions yesterday, three if you count the ‘Wednesday Write-In’. One, to be entirely fair, was extremely short – a piece of ultra-flash fiction – but as anyone who’s tried to write a story like that will probably attest, it can be harder work than writing a full-length story. I loved doing the work, and when I was stuck into the middle of it I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else, but – sometimes – when it comes to the day after, and you feel like you’ve been hauling rocks, and your eyes feel like you’ve tipped sand into them, and your brain is weeping, you wonder why you allowed yourself to get into such a state.

I’ve been here before. I know that allowing yourself to get over-tired impacts negatively on the following day’s work. I know. But I still do it. When the siren-call hits my ears, and the words start singing to me, there’s just nothing I can do. One of my stories yesterday is about a man who has an unbearable compulsion, and who can’t control his reactions to a particular stimulus; I wonder, now, if I wrote it because that’s how I feel when it comes to writing. Sadly, the story doesn’t end too well for the character. I hope I don’t meet a similar fate, but whatever may be facing me, I have a feeling I’ll walk willingly into it.

There are at least two more submissions I want to make before the end of March, and I’m hopeful I’ll be able to come up with something suitable for the particular magazines I have in mind. That’s the beauty (as well as the terrifying thrill) of submitting your work to magazines, or indeed anywhere – not only are you taking a chance on whether the editors will like your work or not, but you’re also trying to hit the mark when it comes to the artistic vision of the magazine in question. Occasionally, it can be a bit out of your comfort zone, and you find yourself thinking in different terms to normal. This isn’t a bad thing from a creative point of view, but from a stress point of view it can sometimes be tough. However, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Stretching your mind creatively is a wonderful thing; getting yourself to write in genres and styles to which you’re not always accustomed is a wonderful thing. Even if the submissions don’t meet with approval, I’ll have ventured into newness, created a story out of it, and lived to tell the tale. And how could that possibly be bad?

I have a busy day ahead, not only with writing, but with other life-stuff, so I shan’t detain you much longer. I hope I manage to stay upright when I venture outside and don’t end up skidding all over the place – but it would be nice (if a little weird) to get caught out in a snowstorm again, as happened to me the other day. Here’s hoping everything I need to do today gets done, and that I break ground on these new submissions – and that I build in a little bit of ‘down-time’ for my poor old brain.

Hope your Thursday’s going well, and that you’re happily fulfilling your brain’s creative needs. Just remember to tell it to shut up once in a while.

Image: indie-visible.com

Image: indie-visible.com

Wednesday Write-In #32

This week’s prompt words are:

cardboard cut-out  ::  exhale  ::  brittle  ::  gleam  ::  acrid

Image: throughhimwithhiminhim.wordpress.com

Image: throughhimwithhiminhim.wordpress.com

The Perfect Family

Your acrid breath wakes me. Once upon a time, it would have been your gentle, giggling kiss, but I can’t remember the last time you touched me out of anything other than duty or, at best, simple kindness. I watch your face, frowning even in sleep, for a few moments. When you exhale, it sounds like a sigh.

‘Hey,’ I whisper, nudging you gently. ‘Come on. It’s time.’ Your frown deepens and your eyes start to move, rolling back and forth behind your taut, yellowish lids.

‘Wmff?’ You lick your lips and your eyes flick open for a split second. ‘What time is it?’ Your voice is early-morning hoarse.

‘Going for seven,’ I answer. ‘We need to move if we’re to make it.’ You roll away from me and scrub at your face with your fingers, worn thin. Your wedding band catches the light, gleaming as brightly now as it ever did. As it ever will.

‘Right,’ you say, flinging off your covers. ‘Thanks.’

‘Yup,’ I reply, my skin puckering in the sudden gush of cold air. ‘Turn on the heating, will you?’

‘Really?’ you say, pulling your hair into a rough bun. ‘We’ll be gone within the hour. It’s hardly worth the effort, is it?’ You turn away and start to rub some sort of cream into your face.

I warm up in the shower instead. I’m as quick as I can be, but by the time I come out you’ve already gone downstairs. I hear the clink of crockery as you finish your breakfast.

It’s a brittle sort of day, snow-clouds sitting low on the horizon, needles in every breath. By the time we reach the motorway conditions improve a bit. The road is warmed with traffic and dotted with grit. We make better time.

‘Strange weather, isn’t it?’ I say, squinting at the sky. You neither look up nor answer me.

‘We need to take Exit Four,’ you announce, tapping on your phone. ‘There’s been an accident on the old road, and it’s closed to traffic.’ I thank you, but you just busy yourself checking email. I can hear the soft bleep every time a new message comes in. Each one demands your full attention, and I don’t dare to put on the radio for fear I might disturb you. After a few minutes, a sharp pain in my shoulder starts to impact on my concentration, and I relax my grip on the steering wheel as much as I can. But it’s never enough.

A man in a high-visibility vest guides us to the appropriate car park once we arrive. His face is almost entirely muffled with a scarf and hat, and he jogs on the spot to keep from freezing solid. It’s still snowing, and the wind is blowing the flakes into soft drifts. I drive slowly, keeping my eyes peeled for a space.

‘There,’ you say, tapping my arm gently. I feel it like a spider’s bite, warm and aching, radiating through my flesh. ‘Take care – it’s slippery.’

‘I’m fine,’ I mutter, nudging the car in beside its gleaming neighbour. A new BMW. Don’t hit it. You hold your breath until we’re parked, and I’m not sure what’s in the look you shoot me as I switch off the engine. It’s not pride, it’s not relief. It’s not gratefulness. That’s all I know.

We slide up through the campus, toward the Conferring Centre. Gaily painted signs direct our every step, and before too long we’re stamping off the snow in the vestibule, trying to make ourselves presentable. I hold the door for you as we follow the crowds into the Centre, up a corridor with a long mirror to our right.

‘There he is,’ I say, quickening my pace. ‘He’s in his robes already.’ As if he hears my voice, my son turns towards us. Tall, beautiful like you. I feel a throb in my chest as I look at him. I smile, and call his name. I see him looking at us, first at his mother and then at me; he raises his hand to wave, and then lets it drop to his side again. His grin fades, and from here I can feel his heart breaking. He shakes his head gently and turns back to his friends.

‘What have you told him?’ you hiss. ‘I thought we were saying nothing until his big day was over!’ You grab my arm and we stop, people milling past us. Joyful reunions are going on all around, and the room is filled with happiness and pride. Reflections flicker in the mirror behind you and I raise my eyes to look at us.

We are a cardboard cut-out, a painting. We are an anatomical diagram. The Husband. The Wife. The Perfect Family. Arrows point to our notable features. Our faces are blank with formaldehyde. We are fooling nobody.

‘Come on,’ I say. ‘Just one more day.’

As we walk towards our boy, you slide your hand into mine. I’m not sure if you’re urging me on, or holding me back.

Keeping Up

Have you ever taken the time to really search the internet for writing competitions? Perhaps it’s because I’m based in Ireland (the land of Saints and Scholars, lest we forget), but it feels as though there are literally hundreds of competitions and possibilities for submission. Everywhere you go there are more and more.

Image: spc-intheworld.com

Image: spc-intheworld.com

I’m definitely not complaining about this. It’s wonderful that there are so many places interested in, and willing to take a chance on, unpublished work and authors that are just starting the process of carving out a career. The only problem I have is keeping up with them all. For every opportunity I find, I know I’m missing ten more; I have to tell myself that this is okay, and hope that I’m being drawn to the ‘right’ ones. It’s annoying to not know about a competition until after the closing date has passed, particularly when it sounds like one which would have been really enjoyable and challenging – and even more particularly when the closing date has only just passed.

I’ve no idea how hard this process must have been before the internet existed, and all these competition notifications weren’t available at the touch of a few buttons. I presume, perhaps, that people were more proactive about attending writers’ groups or events and actually talking to one another about what sorts of openings were available. That’s not always practical or possible, of course – it’s a lot more convenient to keep up to date with this sort of information through the web. There’s literally no excuse not to submit work, at least not in terms of there being a lack of opportunity – the opposite is definitely the case. It’s a full-time job in itself keeping on top of everything, though. I’m the first to admit I don’t always manage it.

In the past four or five weeks, I’ve written about twenty-five short stories of various lengths and styles. The longest was 3,500 words, and the shortest 99; I’ve experimented with form, voice, and content. Some of them have found homes in competitions or in submissions, but most of them are just like delicate linens, wrapped in soft tissue and stored out of direct sunlight. I hope that these stories will be brought out and displayed at some point, but there’s no real guarantee of that. A lot of competitions, and even some literary magazines which call for submissions, will be looking for stories written to a particular theme. This can be very inspirational – being given a theme and/or a word limit can definitely spark the creative flow – but it also means that if you’re drawn to writing stories about psychopathic rabbits dressed in luminous spats who go on to reform their characters and fight crime against cucumbers, you might struggle to place your work with some literary magazines. Also, there aren’t a lot of competitions (at least, not that I’ve seen) which call for that particular theme, though the world would be a better place if there were.

I’ve tended to write whatever stories come to mind, not worrying too much about writing ‘to order’, and I’m enjoying the feeling of building up my personal stockpile. I’ve actually enjoyed this process so much that I don’t really want to bring it to an end (or even to a temporary halt), but I do plan to do that during April in order to focus again on my longer pieces. I wish I’d tried to write short stories years ago! It goes against my instincts to edit or change a finished piece, one that I’m happy with, to suit a particular competition or fit with particular submission criteria, so I hope I’ll be able to find a place to let all these more or less miscellaneous tales out into the open sometime in the future, just as they are. Even if they never get lifted out of their storage drawer, their value lies in the fact that writing them stretched my brain and got me to think, and that’s fantastic.

Image: colourbox.com

Image: colourbox.com

A lot of competitions and calls for submissions are quarterly, which means that March 31st is a deadline I’m seeing all over the place. This is why I feel April is a good time to get back into the novels I’ve neglected for the past while – I can spend a few weeks, perhaps a month, immersed in the longer forms before focusing on shorter works once again. I can’t believe how much I’ve enjoyed my experiments with short fiction, though, and it’s quite possible my brain will drag me back to the short story form a little bit ahead of schedule. Of course, I can keep my eye on the various calls for submissions that regularly pop up even while I’m not focusing on the shorter forms, and if a story I’ve written is suitable I can happily send it on its merry way. It’s great to get the best of both worlds.

I’m lucky to have a husband who does his best to help my writing endeavours whatever way he can; this includes making me a nifty Excel spreadsheet to keep track of all the stories, submissions and competitions I’ve entered, as well as those I want to enter. I also keep a separate folder in my documents file for each magazine or competition to which I submit work, so there’s no confusion over what I’ve submitted, and when I submitted it. As well as that, a lot of places use software called Submittable, which is a great way of tracking your submissions and finding out at a glance what stage your submissions are at. Technology can help not only in finding out where the opportunities are, but also keeping track of what pieces have gone where. It wouldn’t do to submit the same story twice to two different places, of course. You want to give yourself the best chance, so it’d be a shame to disqualify yourself over a silly mistake.

The most important thing, of course, is to enjoy what you’re writing and not stress overmuch about competitions and submissions. But when you’re ready to submit, there’s no shortage of opportunity. When and if you do, good luck!

 

Workin’ Nine to Five

What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?

Image: bbcamerica.com

Image: bbcamerica.com

I’ve worked at a great many things during the course of my life so far; some of them have been great fun, but a lot have not. The first job I ever had (besides the usual suspects of household tasks and babysitting) was in a ladies’ fashion boutique, where I worked one summer at the age of fourteen or fifteen. My duties included cleaning (which I actually didn’t mind), as well as helping to serve customers. I was probably the least fashionable human being on earth at that point in my life, so I often wondered what the customers thought of me – a creature in Doc Marten boots and long flowery skirts – attempting to offer them advice on what to wear. I learned several valuable lessons in the course of this job, however, including how much I hated the lengths to which some retailers will go to try to sell things to people, and how much I hated being considered ‘just’ a person who worked in a shop.

I worked in a supermarket for years, too, through my secondary school life and well into my time at university. The work was hard, the hours were long, but I made friends in this job which I’ll keep forever. The camaraderie among the younger staff (I was young at the time, don’t forget) was always good, and we nearly always managed to find something to smile about in the course of our working day. One of the first things I was ‘headhunted’ to do during this time was work behind the supermarket’s fresh meat counter, to my horror; I was sixteen, going on seventeen (sorry if you’re now thinking of ‘The Sound of Music’), and a newly fledged vegetarian, but at least my stint as a ‘trainee butcher’ didn’t last very long. I remain, to this day, the only person I know who has ever started a conversation with the line: ‘I used to cut up hearts for a living’. I always hasten to reassure the listener that I’m talking about beef hearts, of course, but they’re often not reassured. There were many disgusting aspects of this job, but I don’t think I’ll ever top the experience of taking the blade of our huge band-saw off in order to clean it, and having it snap back and hit me in the face. If I was to pin-point the nadir of that job, I reckon that would be it. (It didn’t leave any lasting injuries, thankfully.)

I went on to work in several offices, a health centre, a printer’s, a tourist office (which was one of the biggest patience-testers I ever endured), and at a university for many years. The only thing all the jobs I’ve done have in common is that they all involved hard work, and that’s something I’m really glad of. Every first day was fraught with terror, every new thing I learned seemed unimaginably difficult until I’d got the hang of it, every new challenge gave me palpitations and sleepless nights. But – importantly – I met every challenge I faced, and I prevailed.

Image: danandrewsmarketing.blogspot.com

Image: danandrewsmarketing.blogspot.com

So, even though I’m not ’employed’ in the traditional sense at the moment, I have many years of work experience behind me, and every second I’ve ever spent in paid employment up to now has gifted me with knowledge, expertise and skills that I’ve found indispensable over the past number of months. Writing, as a career, is an extremely difficult and slow-moving thing, which calls for huge reserves of patience, resilience and self-discipline. The jobs I’ve done in my life so far have all brought something to my life – whether it’s the conviction that I never want to do anything like that particular role ever again, or simpler things like how to prioritise tasks and manage time effectively – and I’m grateful for them all. When a job is hard, or the work is heavy, or you’re not getting on as well as you could with your workmates, or you’re getting injured from flying blades (ouch), it can be hard to remember that there’s a point behind it all, and it can be tough to imagine that, one day, you’ll look back on it and realise you’re grateful for the experience.

I’ve often found myself, during the course of my working life, in the middle of experiences I never thought I’d have, wondering how I was going to get out of them. When I was thigh-deep in thirty years of correspondence, paperwork, and filth as I cleaned out a retired professor’s office, I asked myself what I thought I was doing. When I was waist-deep in student records, trying to alphabetise and file them in a room smaller than the average downstairs loo, I asked myself if I was crazy. As I dealt with the loudest, longest and least patient queue of customers I’d ever served in my first week of working in a university bookshop, I had to convince myself not to run out the door. And as I set foot into the biggest lecture theatre I’d ever seen, ready to deliver my first lecture (on the major historical events of the fourteenth century, and their likely effect on English literature of the period), I almost had myself convinced I couldn’t do it. But I did, and here I am – finally doing the one thing I want to do more than anything else.

These are the things I think about when I feel like what I’m doing right now is ‘too hard’, or ‘beyond my capabilities’, or ‘too much’. I remember that I’ve organised an international conference, I’ve delivered lectures, I’ve set exams, I’ve given expert advice on books, and I’ve dealt with busy-ness, deadlines and stress for the last twenty years. I also realise that I’ve done so many things which I’d really like not to have to do again, and how lucky I am to have the freedom, at the moment, to pursue what I’m doing. I know, too, that I have all the skills I need. Treating writing as a job, even if you’re not being remunerated at first, is vital to making a success of it, in my opinion, and I hope I’ll never be ‘changing career’ again. If this is true for me, it’s true for anyone who wants to write – every challenge you’ve faced makes you better able to write, and every working day you’ve had deepens and strengthens the skillset you need to be a writer.

In other news: I came second (or, in the friendlier American term ‘first runner up’) in this flash fiction competition at the weekend. Check out all the entries – they were amazing, and it was fantastic to see so many different takes on the prompt image. As well as the motivation and skills I’ve been talking about in today’s blog, and how they’re helpful in forging a writing career, little successes like this one are just as important. So – write! And enter competitions! And – most of all – believe you can do it, and keep going no matter what.

Happy Monday!

Battening Down the Hatches

You can always tell an Irish person by the fact that they’re obsessed with talking about the weather. I’m afraid to do a search on this blog to find out how many times I’ve mentioned it so far; I’d probably break the internet if I tried it, so I won’t.

This being said, I have to mention the weather today. It’s atrocious.

Sort of like this, except not as well dressed.Image: delilahskye.wordpress.com

Sort of like this, except not as well dressed.
Image: delilahskye.wordpress.com

There’s wind. There’s rain. There’s freezing coldness in abundance. At least there’s no snow this week (at least, not where I live), for which I give grateful thanks to whatever deity/ies may be listening.

This would all be fine, of course, if the weather wasn’t supposed to look like this:

Image: telegraph.co.uk

Image: telegraph.co.uk

It’s depressing to look out the window and see grey, rain-lashed, puddle-dashed concrete when what you want to see is a hillside full of nodding daffodils. My everyday life is soundtracked by sneezing, nose-clearing, voices thickened by sore throats, and people complaining (I’m not excluding myself from this list), and I really can’t wait for the weather to lift, the sun to come out and a little bit of warmth to soak into my sodden country. Irish people are a whole different race when they’ve had a bit of sunshine. We can be troll-like in wet, cold weather, but in the sunshine we turn magically into poets, raconteurs and professional comedians.

Anyway.

In writing news, I’ve been making good on my promises to keep submitting work for publication. This week, I’ve submitted work to one competition, and submitted two more pieces to literary magazines. I’m still pinching myself at the thought that over the next few weeks, three of my stories will be seeing the light of day in three separate magazines. It’s a feeling I’m not sure words can adequately describe. An added benefit is that with every small success, submitting work to new places gets easier and easier – you feel better about yourself when you can say in your covering email that ‘My work has appeared in X Magazine, Y Magazine and Z Magazine’. It makes you a better prospect for a new publisher if you’ve been published elsewhere, and it also makes you feel like less of a spoofer and more of a professional (albeit an unpaid one).

That’s not to say it’s an easy thing to do, this submitting pieces of your heart to the cold scrutiny of an Editor. In fact, it’s been one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. And it’s only when I started talking about it here, and on Twitter, that I realised how many other people struggle with it, too. Other writers, many of whom I deeply admire and whose talent leaves me in the shade, find it hard to summon up the courage to submit their work to journals, periodicals and magazines. I hope that my efforts will encourage them, just as their efforts may encourage me in the future. The writing karma-wheel spins on.

In April, I’m planning to get back into ‘Eldritch’. It’s been so long since I’ve mentioned it that I’ll forgive you if you’ve forgotten all about it. I’ve had a break from it for long enough now to come back to it with fresh eyes, and I’d love to get it edited, trimmed, tidied-up, scrubbed and tied in a bow, and flung around to agents and publishers before the end of April. I think having a small clutch of publications in my sweaty, hopeful fist will look good when I try to find a home for my precious little novel, so the work I’ve put in all during March won’t have gone to waste. At least, that’s what I’m telling myself.

It can be hard to keep going at times, and occasionally the inspiration/motivation engine will burn low. Finding out that a story you’ve loved, sweated over, tweaked and fiddled with until it’s nearly driven you cross-eyed has been selected for publication is like having a shovelful of coal thrown into your writing furnace, and it’s a very welcome boost. The only problem is, those shovelfuls of coal can be rare and unexpected, so it’s hard to rely on them to keep you stringing one word behind another. Then, I guess the beginning stages of any writing career are like the rainy, cold, unwelcoming weather we’re having at the moment – hard to put up with, depressing to live through, but a necessary precursor to the sunnier days that will follow.

If I can believe that sunnier days are on the way, I’m certain I can believe that things will – one day – turn up golden for my words, too.

Happy Friday, all. Stay warm, stay well, stay writing!

 

‘Cinnamon Toast’ and a Book Review*

Behold the loveliness of this book cover:

Hypnotic, isn't it?Image: amazon.ca

Hypnotic, isn’t it?
Image: amazon.ca

I read this book over the long weekend, and it wasn’t a second before time. I’ve been waiting for it to come out for several months (it’s so hard to wait for books!), but it was more than worth it. It’s the kind of book which turns its reader into a really rude so-and-so, a person who’s unable to talk to anyone or take part in anything that doesn’t involve their faces being stuck into their book. So, apologies to anyone who might have tried to speak to me while this book was anywhere within grabbing distance. I probably didn’t hear you.

The book (Janet E. Cameron‘s debut novel, ‘Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World’) is set in 1987, in a small town in Nova Scotia. We meet Stephen Shulevitz, a boy who spends his early years living with his parents in a hippie commune, dealing with their unusual relationship with one another as well as with him. At the age of eight, he moves to small-town Riverside with his mother and begins to attend regular school, where he suffers due to his perceived ‘snottiness’, or superiority, over the other children. Of course, Stephen has no intention of elevating himself above his classmates. He simply sees the world differently, has been educated differently up to this point in his life, and finds it hard to adjust. His parents separate, and we read of the sometimes poignant relationship between Stephen and his mother. There is a lot of love between them, but on occasion it fails to find its way to the surface. The book basically takes us through Stephen’s life as he negotiates his family difficulties (including re-establishing a relationship with his estranged father), makes friends, makes mistakes, deals with his Ukrainian, Russian and Jewish heritage, and falls in love. And all this before he’s even finished school.

The book begins with a scene from Stephen’s teenage years on the night he realises he’s fallen in love with the ‘wrong’ person – this is the ‘End of the World’ of the title. The story flips gently back and forth between the pages of his life as he tries to explain to us how he got to this point, and why, exactly, he fell in love. The book is narrated by Stephen himself in a very effective ‘memoir’ style; at times, he feels he’s ‘left out too much’, and he’ll go back to fill in the gaps. We are brought from the ‘present day’ back to important scenes from his childhood – the day his father left, the day he meets his beloved (and the circumstances behind their becoming friends in the first place), among many others – which gives a very realistic feel to proceedings. Despite this, the story doesn’t flinch from telling us all about Stephen’s mistakes. When he messes up, he’s self-aware enough to tell us about it without attempting to explain it away. One particular episode, when he (almost without meaning to) betrays his best friend, had me in tears. I wasn’t sure if it was because I felt terrible for Stephen, or because I could relate so much to his friend (Lana); perhaps it was a bit of both. In any case, it was moving and real and completely believable. Despite the fact that it’s set in Canada (and there are significant differences between their ‘High School’ experience and ours here in Ireland), the emotions, insecurities and relationships were so effective that the story immersed me completely. For the length of time I spent reading this book, I was an awkward Canadian teenager in the 198os (despite the fact that the real me in 1987 was a greasy kid wearing glitter-boots, a sideways ponytail and a Jason Donovan t-shirt).

The characterisation in this book is excellent – even the minor characters are memorable. I found it interesting that the most fleshed-out and ‘real’ character in the story is the person with whom Stephen falls in love. This person’s failings and flaws, as well as their heroism, protectiveness and kindness are all described with such tender touches that by the end of the story I was a little bit in love with this character myself. It surprised me, because the love-interest is full of anger, and at times the hatred and darkness they exude oozes out of the pages. At one point, they hurt Stephen very badly and his life is put at risk, but despite this, Stephen’s love doesn’t waver and, as a result, neither did mine. I understood the character’s reactions, and I felt I knew where they were coming from – product of a broken home, left to take care of a much younger sister, overlooked by teachers and allowed to fall through the cracks at school – so their rage seems natural and even understandable. I was left feeling sympathetic and sorry for this character, as well as full of admiration for Janet Cameron, the book’s author – how right it is that the person into whose psyche we are given the most insight is the one with whom our narrator is in love. Who else does he know more deeply?

I enjoyed everything about this book, from its structure to its narrative voice to its evocation of a world at once totally alien, and completely familiar, to my experience. I have been the character of Lana, also in love with the ‘wrong’ person, feeling too large for comfort, not quite fitting in with the other girls; I felt such affinity with Stephen’s mother Maryna, dealing with her own memories of a hard childhood with an unforgiving father and the cultural baggage she carries, not because I’ve experienced this myself but because Ms. Cameron describes it so well. I admired Stephen for his bravery and constancy, and I hated his father, Stanley, for the way he treated his son. The book deals unflinchingly with drug use, AIDS (particularly the fear felt around the topic during the 1980s), sexuality, self-harm and suicidal thoughts, and rape – so in some ways, it may not be for the faint-hearted. But if you like books which touch your heart and make you think, books which evoke a time and place so skilfully that opening them feels like stepping into a time machine, and books which deal with the Great Universal of unrequited love, then this is a book worth reading.

Image: frontroomcinema.com

Image: frontroomcinema.com

 

*In the interests of full disclosure, I feel I should say that the author of this book is someone with whom I communicate on Twitter; this has not affected the impartiality of my review, however.