Thursday, 5 May 2011

Telling stories

I'm reading a lot of non-fiction just at the moment, partly as research for the new novel. At this early stage, when I'm seeking ideas to engage with, research takes the form of standing before the relevant library shelves and plucking at random those titles that catch my eye. I thought I'd blog about a couple of my recent choices, because they're great examples of how two different writers use different skills to bring very different stories to life.

The first is Sally Brampton's Shoot the Damn Dog: a Memoir of Depression, in which the former editor of Elle magazine recounts her experience with severe depression and its treatment. Brampton's style has been described as both 'candid' and 'brutal'. She pulls no punches in telling us how she descended into, and climbed out of, a subterranean depression. It's not an easy book to read; I cried every couple of pages, usually when she grazed the nerve of my own experience with depression, or spoke of her fears and hopes as a mother. One chapter, describing her relationship with her father, was uncanny. I became convinced while reading it that my own father, who died of Motor Neurone Disease, must have had undiagnosed Asperger's for most of his adult life. Brampton has said that she wanted to short-circuit the stigma that surrounds most discussions of mental illness. She did more than that, in my opinion. She took us straight to the heart of her story, so close it hurt to read the words, like touching a raw wound. When she diverted the story to talk impersonally about medical history, for example, it was a relief, a chance to regroup. Why read something that is so upsetting? Because I felt a deep connection to the text. And because I don't believe that the best writing should be easy on the reader. It should enlarge our experience of the world. This book does that.

The Eye: a Natural History by Simon Ings presents a very different challenge. Its author is a science writer, and science has never been my strong point. I felt a daunting distance from this subject matter, as if I was squinting at a night sky in the hope of observing patterns. But Ings is a smart guy; he's a storyteller. He slips in his science under the guise of adventure, intrigue, conflict and action. Did you know that each of us began life as a cyclops? Or that we learn to see not with our eyes but with our hands? I'd thought this book was going to be a struggle, worthwhile but work. In fact it's fun. Ings takes considerable care to tell us a series of stories which bring us as close to his subject matter as Brampton's painful first-person account brings us to hers. I'm going to re-read this slowly, with my notebook at hand. But first I'm going to zip through it, enjoying the ride.


Tania Hershman said...

What a fascinating duo of books, I can imagine that reading both simultaneously could spark some interesting connections. Wow.

Sarah Hilary said...

I won't pretend it wasn't a relief to get to the end of the depression book. Luckily 'The Eye' is genuinely gripping, so it's stepped right into the breach as it were.

Anne-Elisabeth Moutet said...

I have to get Sally's book. Did you work with her? She was my editor when I was on the ELLE launch team, and she was EXCELLENT. We had no notion she was going through depressive stages, but even from my own mild attacks I know how good one gets at dissembling. Thank you for making me want to read it!

Sarah Hilary said...

A-E, do read the book. Sally pulls no punches, writes really well and busts wide open the (dangerous) myth that we shouldn't talk about mental illness.

(I did work experience at Elle when I was at college in London, so I didn't really get to know her but I spoke with her team enough to know how well-liked she was.)

Jessica said...

Both sound like very interesting books.
Looking forward to hearing more about the second novel writing process!

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Jessica. I look forward to writing it. :)