Posts Tagged ‘Sophie’s Choice’

Mothers: 11 from Literature and History

March 29, 2014

It’s Mothers’ Day in the UK this weekend: time to appreciate the woman who brought you into the world, or the one who brought you up. A time to stop and think about all that love, all that unconditional love that made you who you are.

I’m going to stop there. Mothers’ Day is one of those things, a bit like Christmas Day, that looks lovely and sounds sweet and offers joyful abundance. For some. And for those for whom it is a happy day, good on you, enjoy the warmth and love of your family – either being appreciated or appreciating. Fortunately, I will be appreciated as I’ve managed to be quite a reasonable mum for the last 25+ years (I hope and I like to think!).

me & the babies

But as a child it’s not the same. And I know for some of my friends out there that Sunday is not going to be a good day. Instead it will be a sharp pointy reminder of what is now gone, or what never was. Being a mother, along with generally just being a woman, has been a highly fraught role through history and literature.

So, today, instead of ranting about the rampant commercialism, that floods the high street and your local supermarket, in an attempt to avoid the hovering clouds of expectation and disappointment, let us have a little trawl through the past to see how Mothers stack up – are we more Mary or Medea??


Gaia – whom we better know as Mother Earth, was the first goddess of Greek mythology. She created herself out of chaos and then brought forth Uranus, the starry sky out of nothingness. No wonder we still consider Mother Earth as powerful woman.

Grendel’s Mother – the she-monster who wreaks havoc on Beowulf and his followers for killing her son. An epic bit of mother love. An epic poem too.

Lady Capulet – who wasn’t really very concerned about Juliet, just wanted her married off to Paris and threatened to disown her if Juliet went against her father. And we know how that all ended!

Mary – of course, the virgin mother, the one who gave us the Saviour. How can we get passed her for goodness and sacrifice?

Medea – who killed her children to punish Jason (of the Golden Fleece) to punish him because he had betrayed her.

Snow White and Cinderella’s step-mothers – evil, scheming, nasty old bags, doing their best to eliminate their rivals. Evil step-mothers are legion in fairy tales but we’ll content ourselves with these two.

3 bewsherswans

Borte – wife of Genghis Khan – who had four sons, and several daughters. She was chosen by the young Genghis – Temujin, supposedly because of her strong legs and flat face. She was immensely powerful and influential and helped keep the great Khan’s empire running.

Catherine De Medici – it took her ten years and she was married to someone in love with another but she become the mother of three French kings, and had a large hand in the running of France in the 16th century

Eleanor of Aquitaine – another mother of kings, and a formidable woman in her own right. She was married to Louis VII of France, and therefore Queen of France but with only bearing daughters her marriage was annulled and she went off to marry Henry II of England and had eight children, five sons, two of whom went onto be kings – Richard the Lion Heart and the more infamous John of Magna Carta ilk.

Ammu – from The God of Small Things, who loves her children more than anything, except perhaps Velutha, who she cannot love at all. Ammu runs away from a violent marriage back to a disapproving home, where her children run ‘wild’ but feel safe and strong in her love. Until she is taken from them and then they are lost too.

Sophie Sophie’s Choice has perhaps the worst experience for any mother in the world. Choose between your children. Oh, how can you choose, how can you possibly do such a thing? The fact that Sophie partly brought the hideous scene on her own shoulders does not excuse the vile callousness of the young German soldier. Choose. You cannot. No wonder she committed suicide, what else can you do as a mother after such a terrible-terrible thing?



There are so many ways to be a mother, to have a mother. The truth is we are all ‘of woman born’ whether ‘untimely ripped from our mother’s womb’ or not and perhaps even if we cannot celebrate the day, we can pause and be grateful for the mother we had, because without her we wouldn’t be here, or more importantly, the people we are today. (Images from Private Collection)

Things That Make You Cry

July 14, 2012

Sometimes it’s good to cry, watch a weepy movie and sob your heart out, feel exactly as the movie makers want you to feel, all that emotion pouring out for characters, unreal people in unreal situations.

But sometimes it’s not so unreal and a good cry can be a release, can let you know your alive, and importantly, not alone. We all feel bad and sad sometimes and we need to be free to cry. We should not be afraid of our emotions, of our empathy or sympathy for other, or our own feelings of loss and helplessness. It is one of the markers of humanity. Remember we cry as much in happiness, and it’s good to remember that as well.

Here’s a small selection of things that can make you cry. I’m sure you have your own list.


Dead Poet’s Society – when Ethan Hawke stands on the desk at the end of the film as Robin Williams is leaving is one of THE emotional moments in movie making history.


Gladiator – sorry, but the end when Russell Crowe is dying and on his way to Elysium having beaten Joaquim Phoenix, with that music is a moment for high emotion and tears. If we’re in a Russell Crowe zone, then A Beautiful Mind is also a massive tear jerker. Russ did deserve his Oscar.


Looking for Alibrandi – an Australian film based on the book by Melina Marchetta – when uber-achieving private school boy John Barton kills himself and you see scenes of Sydney to U2’s With or Without You sung hauntingly by Hamish Cowan you have to cry. The sadness is simply too much.


Eight Below – a true story about a team of snow dogs left behind in the Antarctic during one of the worst storms in history. We see the dogs survival attempts and the owner’s desperation to get back to them. Some do get lost along the way, but the ending will see you sobbing your little heart out. Not sure whether it then is one for dog lovers, or one for dog lovers to avoid.



Sophie’s Choice (and the film too). How can you fail to be moved by Sophie’s story – her struggle with sanity but mostly her inability to deal with her choice – which child to save, asked the Nazi soldier. She chose and they took both anyway. No wonder she killed herself in the end. What else could she do? Every mother knows the impossibility of Sophie’s choice, of the impossibility of going on after such an event.


The God Of Small Things – the cruelty of Baby Kochamma will outrage you as she lies and delights in the misfortune of Ammu and her twins Esther and Rahel. This is a book about death and love – death of a child- Sophie Mol, death of Velutha, the untouchable, who is beaten to death on the say-so of Baby Kochamma, acting out of spite and shame. The saddest part for me, other than Velutha’s death is when Ammu dies, alone and ill and so far away from her children.  Not to mention the damage done to Esther, who becomes silent and is sent away, while Rahel drifts into sorrow unable to find meaning in a world without Ammu and especially Esther. The ending is a triumph of love in the midst of overwhelming sadness. I love this book.



Where Do You Go To My Lovely? Peter Sarstedt’s haunting, beautiful melancholic song, that reminds me so much of the two men I love most in the world – my beloved and my boy – both of whom, interestingly, love this song. So, I hear it and I think of them and how much I love them both.


Guitar Man – Bread. A song of many years ago – there are no connected memories but the haunting sadness of the story of the song and the melody is enough to make me teary when I’m feeling sad.


I’ll Stand By You – Pretenders. This is my song for Grace. It was on the radio at the time and it spoke of love, of endurance, of trying to be there. It always makes me cry.

With or Without You – U2 – actually they have a few heart-touching songs, sort of raw and insistent. You’ve been in love, you feel pain, you know what it’s all about. You listen to this song, think of your own life, know the truth and weep.

Love Turns to Lies – Chris Rea – ‘you were going to leave me anyway’. When love falls away, runs out of speed, dies slowly. Not the song to listen to when you’re in the midst of falling out, or uncertain about love. But Chris Rea is good at heart-rending songs – I’d listen to all of Shamrock Diaries again – you’ll feel nostalgic, old, a bit sad about how life was and now is and there will be a tear, a small streak of salt water down your cheek.



Going home brings out the tears – flying into your home city after a prolonged absence is a time for tears. Look out the window onto your patch of earth and you’ll feel the emotion build.

Weddings and funerals – they just do! All those people, all that feeling, all that intensity. What choice do you have?

Becoming a parent – it is one of the most spectacular events of your life – look upon the creature you have created, feel the love, hold it close – you’ll cry, for love, for the joy of this profound moment. You’ll cry in years to come too, hopefully mostly in joy.

So, the list is endless. Create your own – what makes you cry in sadness, in joy? (Images courtesy Google Images)

Reading Old Favourites – better second time round?

January 29, 2012

I spend a lot of my time reading, both for pleasure, for work and these days, mostly for study. I’ve read a heady mix of titles these last few years, being immured in the world of rock n roll biography – a desperate, exciting and somewhat incredible place to be. You do live in other worlds in books and you can find inspiration and new ideas to make all your own. I just love reading – it is one of life’s greatest pleasures.

I’ve re-read a great deal too – looking at style and writer’s craft as I struggle to shape my own novel, Ophelia, who seems ever the shape-shifter. So I’ve returned to Fay Weldon, John Irving, Fitzgerald, EM Forster, Flaubert, Hardy.

Like travelling, re-reading old books can feel like going home or returning to a foreign country. Many years ago I was compiling opinions about my team’s favourite books for our end of year publication. One of my dearest colleagues sited The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by Henry Handel Richardson (pen name of Ethel Florence Richardson, Australian writer, 1870-1946) as her favourite novel and waxed lyrical about its impact on her as a young woman. When I asked about reading it again, she shook her head. No, she couldn’t go back: it might not stand up today and she didn’t want to be disappointed now and lose the love she had for the book from then.

I’ve generally not been like this. But then I’ve tended to re-read my favourite books at intervals over the years. I return to Fitzgerald often, mostly Gatsby. I re-read God of Small Things and Sophie’s Choice, not just for my current study but for the story and the heart ache. I re-read The English Patient for its utter beauty and sadness. I’ve never been disappointed like my friend Helen feared.

Until recently. I returned to EM Forster, a mainstay of senior school and university literature in my days. I’d read nearly all of his work at some time. My favourite was Howard’s End, and in the move from one side of the world to the other I had brought it with me. Reader, I re-read it. And I should not have. It was slow, ponderous, proselytizing and somewhat pompous. There was no remembered lightness of touch, profound insight into the human heart. It seemed to be the worst of tell it all and show nothing: no respect for the intelligence of the reader to connect anything. Although I read through to the end, I was deeply saddened by this experience.

Madame Bovary too, seems is not as I remember, which contrasts to Death in Venice, both read at the same time. Death in Venice (which I could not but help read when I was in Venice and stood outside Ashenbach’s hotel and paddled in the Adriatic where Tadzio caught the eye of the old man) stood the test of time. As densely written as remembered, as dark and oppressive in 2010 as it was in 1977. But Flaubert has not weathered well. I find Madame Bovary as insufferably self centred as before but the writing is not as taught or as crafted. It’s lost its feeling of despair, now Madame Bovary, herself seems superficial and not worthy of all these words, not worthy of such an epic death.

I wonder what the deal is? Is it in the writing: some books, some writers travel well – stand the test of time for all, for all time. Look to Shakespeare, Dickens, Austen. These writers (and many others) are always with us – on school reading lists, being made into films or mini series, causing the public to rush back to the book keeping it in our hearts and minds.

Is there a difference to re-reading regularly as I do with Weldon, Irving and Fitzgerald and coming back to a novel after many years? Is my friend Helen right – leaving the book alone to be remembered as it was is the right thing to do, honour it that way – not lose its magic in the unkindness of today.

Is a much loved and fondly remembered book like an old lover then – better left in their prime, clear and beautiful in your memory, than re-met in their decline twenty to thirty years later? (Images courtesy Google-images)

Reading while you write – the effect of other people’s fiction on yours

September 17, 2011

Normally I just write, I have my vague roadmap ready, the car is loaded with my characters, their issues, attributes and relationships simmering away there in the back seat and off I go. My destination is known, some of my stopping off points, some scenic areas are pencilled in for a visit. But I’m open to other places to go: happy to take detours if they are of interest and make the journey richer for all involved.

But before I get into the car I’ve read a great deal about where I’m going, the places I want to see, the food and drink I’ll indulge in, the important or interesting things about the journey and the ultimate destination. In this way I’ve prepared for the trip, know a bit about it already, but not all of it and am free to make my own decisions about just how I’ll get to know this place. After all I wouldn’t be going to this place if I hadn’t done some reading, some research in the first place, otherwise I’d have no idea at all about what I was getting myself into and perhaps that’s not such a wise thing to do. Especially when you’re going on a long journey. Perhaps a weekend away doesn’t require any preparation but anything longer than a week does necessitate some preparation to get the most out of the journey and the destination.

My background reading is usually Fay Weldon and John Irving because they were the two who made me really want to write, who made me feel I could write and I could write like them; about ordinary people, the interior life and how lives are lived, how we endure and recover from normal but terrible things. I read and re-read these two, absorbing their style, voice, nuances, being alternatively just a reader and then a writer looking at their specific techniques and seeing how appropriate they are for my work.

When I have written slightly outside my normal genre – contemporary women, I guess – venturing into YA, Romance or Crime, I have read within those genres to get a better feel for the tone and mood, the voice of the genre. I think you need to have a basic understanding of the genre and the readers of particular genres if you are to write engagingly and effectively for your audience. I guess it’s best to write the sort of books you like to read, then you know instinctively what the reader wants as you are the reader too. Thus the caveat, you can’t write if you don’t read. Some genres, such as Romance, do have their rules and for a reason: readers expect, so you need to follow the rules to deliver. Having said that, you can always subvert the genre, but you need to know it first.

A good writer is first and foremost a good reader, an eclectic reader, who picks ups ideas and information in all sorts of places. In creating fictional worlds that are ‘real’ you must ensure the ‘facts’ of your reality are true. Thus an amount of research is needed to authenticate your settings. It may be about the flora and fauna of the area, the style of architecture, the width of lapels of a particular era, when walkmans arrived. These sorts of details are important and you need to check them out. Thank god for the internet, where five minutes can tell you the ingredients of Laksa soup and the year of the first Parap Market (1982).

But who should you read during the writing of your novel? Tis a thorny question with some subscribing to the ‘read no-one’ else they influence you unduly to the read widely and intelligently and take what you need.

Normally I just read what I like when writing a novel, given it takes several months in between working and children, it seems unfair to enforce a no reading zone as well. The truth is though, between family, work and writing there is generally little time left for serious reading. When writing my first YA novel I was reading a great deal of YA fiction, as well as teaching it. It was already a genre I was familiar with. It was partly why I felt I could write one. It also helped working with teenagers and having my own children. Authenticity comes from your own life.

For my paranormal romance I read some romance fiction, absorbed the rules, joined an on-line community and based a lot of the writing on films I’d seen, specifically Underworld Evolution and anything set in New York. It seemed to do the trick as well as basing it in an area of reasonable familiarity, a swimmer and a publishing house – yes, I’d read enough about publishing to use it as part of the background. The alpha male rule was easy to deal with given my own dealings with such beasts!

For my current novel, Ophelia, being completed for PhD studies, I have read more novels and textbooks related to lies, secrets and confession than I care to recall. I have never embarked upon this level of reading while writing before and while it has in many ways made the writing harder I feel from recent reading that it has made my writing better.

What I have found is that there is an enormous amount of writing – stories – with secrets at the heart of the plot and almost needless to say, the revelation and impact of that secret. All too often in literature the secret keeper is punished, often ostracised from their family or society such as in God of Small Things, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time; or in many cases death ensues, Tess, Sophie, Blood Brothers, Great Expectations. The burden of the secret is great but the damage from the revelation of the secret is greater.

I’ll have to ensure that Ophelia remains true to this tradition and that the heroine does fall from grace, and loses more than she ever thought possible: indeed fight against my urge to let her live happily ever after, forgiven and reintegrated into her family and normal life.