Tag Archives: intertextuality

Books Within Books

When I was at university, a hundred million years ago, there was a lot of talk about ‘intertextuality’ on my English courses – the idea that, essentially, every text which exists carries within it the influences of a great many other texts, whether deliberately or not, and that the reader also brings their own experiences of other texts to their reading of everything they encounter. It’s a fascinating idea and I whiled away many hours daydreaming – I mean, doing intense research – on the topic.

The Eye of the North, while most definitely being a book which sprang from my head, is no exception to this idea of intertextuality. The seeds which eventually brought it to fruition were sown over many years, and the basic outline of the tale began over fifteen years ago. It’s silly to think that the books I’ve read – of which there have been many – played no part in the shaping of the book I would eventually write; I have long been fascinated, too, by the polar regions and their history. There are a few books, however, which I could point to as having had a direct impact on my writing of The Eye of the North, and here they are.

1. The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean (OUP Children’s, 2005)

I love a great many books, and there are few I love more than this one. The spine of my copy is creased like an old boot, such are the rigours I have put it to over the years. I read it in my twenties, long after I had first come up with the basics of The Eye of the North, but the reading of this book has definitely helped to flesh out my own mental idea of what the polar regions might be like – despite the fact, of course, that The White Darkness is about Antarctica, and not the Arctic. It tells the story of Sym, a girl who is taken on a trip to the South Pole by her strange uncle, a man who has definite nefarious intentions, and her struggle to survive there when things go pear-shaped – but what I love about this book more than anything is Sym’s unwavering devotion to Captain Lawrence ‘Titus’ Oates, who was one of the brave men on Scott’s expedition to the South Pole in 1912. It is he who uttered the fateful words ‘I am just going outside; I may be some time’, as he sacrificed his own life in an ultimately fruitless attempt to save those of his comrades, and it is he who accompanies Sym, inside her mind, as she navigates her daily life. The book begins with her declaring her love for Captain Oates, despite the fact that he has been dead for over ninety years, and I am never left unmoved by the very real relationship between them, even though Sym knows, on some level, that the Captain Oates in her head is merely her own imagination and not the real man himself.

But then, how does he tell her things she wouldn’t have known any other way?

This book is a wonder. I heartily recommend it, as I do most things that Geraldine McCaughrean has written.

the-white-darkness

Cover of ‘The White Darkness’, OUP Children’s Books, 2005

2. The Ice Museum: In Search of the Lost Land of Thule by Joanna Kavenna (Viking Books, 2005)

This is a travelogue, of sorts, as well as an exploration of myth and legend surrounding the North of the world, most particularly the idea of ‘Thule’, long thought to be the most northerly outpost in existence. Mentioned in texts going back centuries, it nevertheless proved impossible to pin down exactly where Thule was; some thought it was the Orkneys or the Shetland Islands; others Iceland; others Greenland, or Estonia, or a variety of places dotted around the northern regions of our planet. Some thought it was entirely made up. Kavenna, in her book, takes us through the whole Arctic region, exploring not only the landscape around her but also her own mind and heart as she searches for the mystical lost land. It’s a love letter to the Arctic, which deepened my own passion for it, and it ticked all my boxes: maps, medievalish stuff, myths, legends, ice, and exploration. It’s been years since I revisited The Ice Museum, and it’s high time I went back.

3. The Cruellest Miles, Gay and Laney Salisbury (Bloomsbury, 2004)

Years ago, I worked in a bookshop, and when things were quiet I used to while away my time by cleaning and sorting the stock. In our World History section, a slim volume with a navy spine kept catching my eye. One payday, I walked straight over to it and bought it, and I read it in one sitting, gripped by the story it told. It’s the story of Nome, an isolated town in Alaska, which was ravaged by a diphtheria outbreak in 1925, when supplies of antitoxin serum had run dangerously low. Children were dying, and unless more antitoxin serum could be brought in, an epidemic would begin to rage. Nome, at that time, was more or less unreachable for months on end, and the only way to get the serum to the town was to use a chain of dogsled teams, who battled heroically through the worst conditions imaginable to rescue the children and people of Nome. I named a character in The Eye of the North after Balto, one of the dogs who was part of the lifesaving effort, and I have been passionately interested in dogsledding ever since reading this book. It made me cry on a packed train, though. I warn you, in case you want to read it yourself – prepare to have your emotions put through the wringer.

the-cruellest-miles

Cover of The Cruellest Miles (Gay Salisbury and Laney Salisbury, Bloomsbury, 2004)

4. The Arctic, ed. Elizabeth Kolbert, Volume I of The Ends of the Earth: An Anthology of the Finest Writing on the Arctic and the Antarctic, eds. Elizabeth Kolbert and Francis Spufford, (Granta Books, 2007)

I will admit I haven’t read all of this, as it’s an anthology of writing designed to be dipped into, but its introduction is a great statement on climate change and the danger of global warming, particularly the damage it’s doing to the polar regions. The pieces in this anthology are varied both in style and emphasis, and it’s a great wide-ranging look at the idea of the Arctic as a place, as a challenge, and as an idea.

So, there you have it. Every book I’ve read has, no doubt, left its traces on my mind and imagination and I’m sure there are many more books than these which I could point to as being part of the culture that went into the creation of The Eye of the North. It’s interesting to trace the journeys that the books you love take you on, though, both internal and external; certainly, without my love of books – and the fact that I was encouraged to read from an early age – I wouldn’t have cultivated the mindset to write one of my own. It’s great to feel that my own small contribution might sit among these books one day, and might even spur someone else on in their love of the yawning ice-fields of the far north – so long as you beware what you might find living deep in the ancient glacier…

 

 

 

Book Review Saturday – ‘Fire and Hemlock’

In honour of the fact that Diana Wynne Jones’ final novel, the posthumous ‘The Islands of Chaldea‘ (co-written with, and completed by, her sister Ursula) is being published this week, I decided that today’s book review was going to focus on the novel which is, in my opinion, the finest of Wynne Jones’ amazing canon. That book is ‘Fire and Hemlock.’

Image: leafsreviews.wordpress.com

Image: leafsreviews.wordpress.com

Some years ago, I was at an academic conference which focused on the retelling of stories – in other words, the differences between versions of tales over time, or between translations from one language into another, or when a tale is used as a basis for another story entirely. The best paper by far at that conference was given by a woman who compared the medieval Scottish ballad of ‘Tam Lin’ to ‘Fire and Hemlock.’ Her paper made such an impression on me that I immediately noted the name of the book and resolved to track it down. I couldn’t believe that, as a huge DWJ fan, I’d never heard of ‘Fire and Hemlock’ and – even better – it sounded amazing.

In short – it is.

Diana Wynne Jones was, as far as I know, married to a prominent medievalist. It makes sense, then, that her work would be informed by a sensitivity to that era and its literature, but this book displays that sensitivity more than any other. It is deeply influenced by ‘Tam Lin’, and also by ‘Thomas the Rhymer‘, and by any number of medieval romances in which a knight errant finds himself in Fairyland, is seduced by the powerful and jealous Queen and kept there as a prize, only to be won back by the bravery of a human woman prepared to sacrifice everything for him. That basic plot is the spine of ‘Fire and Hemlock,’ but a reader doesn’t need to be aware of the book’s influences to enjoy the story. ‘Fire and Hemlock’ is so much more than a retelling of a dusty old tale. It is a book unlike any other I’ve read, and it has a unique power.

The novel introduces us to Polly Whittacker, at nineteen, who is packing up her stuff in order to leave for college – or, at least, she’s supposed to be packing her stuff. Really, she’s reading a story entitled ‘Two-Timer’ in a book called Time Out of Mind, about a character with the power to go back into their own childhood and change the way their life works out. In the course of taking a break from her book, her eye falls on a picture she loved as a child, but which she is no longer terribly fond of. It’s entitled ‘Fire and Hemlock,’ and she wonders why it meant so much to her, once. She also wonders why she feels a lot like the character in her book, as though she has half-remembered memories of a life, a different life, one that she feels sure she’s lived through simultaneously with her own. All these thoughts coalesce as she gazes at the image, and she has a sudden moment of realisation. Out of the blue, she remembers gatecrashing a funeral at the age of ten, at which she met a charismatic man named Thomas Lynn.

But Thomas Lynn is a man whom nobody else remembers. A man who, it seems, may never have existed at all. So why does Polly remember him so clearly, now that she has resurrected the memory?

Well. That all depends on what world she’s living in.

Artist: Emma Jane Falconer. Colour risograph print. Image sourced: wemakezines.ning.com

Artist: Emma Jane Falconer. Colour risograph print.
Image sourced: wemakezines.ning.com

The plot of the book is rich, intertextual, and complex. It is, as I’ve said, based around the core concepts found in its medieval analogues – a person lost to one world, found by the love of a person willing to go to any lengths to get them back – but there is also an element of ‘quantum’ going on here. The idea of ‘other worlds’, existing side by side or in layers of reality, is found too; the book explores the idea that if a person decides to tell their own story differently, they can change the world in which they live. Stories and words shape reality, literally as well as figuratively. One of the central images from the book is that of a pair of large stone vases in the grounds of the large house in which the aforementioned funeral was held; both of them are adorned with the word ‘Nowhere’, but in such a way that a viewer can never see the whole word all at once. Each vase rotates on its base, one freely and one rather more stiffly, and when they are rotated, different combinations of the letters are revealed.  Wynne Jones uses these words in so many ways to suggest the layers of reality in her novel – ‘Now Here’, ‘No Where,’ ‘Nowhere,’ ‘Here Now’ – and the book, accordingly, has a dreamy feel at times, a hazy sense of reality slipping away and being remade as you read. It’s remarkable.

I love books in which the characters’ names are important. Thomas (or Tom) Lynn is clearly ‘Tam Lin’, the stolen hero; his dangerous ex-wife Laurel is named for the astringent, powerfully flavoured plant which, interestingly, is known as Laurus nobilis in the Latin. When one realises that she is an analogue to the powerful, seductive and exquisitely dangerous Fairy Queens of lore, this name becomes even more meaningful. Polly Whittacker, whose name conjurs up images of the ‘white acre’ (with its nuances of purity and the land), is unquestionably the heroine whose humanity is the key to salvation.There are loads of other nerdy connections that can be drawn between characters and their names, and the placenames Wynne Jones chooses, and if one has a knowledge of the texts she’s referencing it only adds to the richness of the book.

I loved the way Wynne Jones handles Polly’s relationship with Thomas Lynn. I can’t say too much, because I would hate to give away even a crumb of the brilliance of it, but let’s just say: it’s out of the ordinary. It’s unexpected. It’s wonderful.

And then, that ending. That ending. About which I’m giving away exactly nothing. It will leave you breathless with admiration and lost for words, and also – quite possibly – scratching your head in confusion, but that is why I love it so much.

This book is nothing short of a masterpiece. However, as it was originally published in 1985, I found it hard to come by when I bought the copy I now own. I’m not sure if it’s still in print, but if you are ever lucky enough to come across it, I strongly recommend you give it a try.

For what better way to pay homage to Diana Wynne Jones than by keeping her words alive?

Diana Wynne Jones, 1934-2011 Image: theguardian.com

Diana Wynne Jones, 1934-2011
Image: theguardian.com

Have a storyful weekend!