Sunday, 11 December 2016

Book East - Brilliant Books by Brilliant Women

In the squatting years of 1980s London, when it was a group activity to slip into an empty building and make it a home; a political and artistic protest against impossible rents and an experiment in communal living, I met two children.  The boy must have been around 3 and the little girl was 5 or 6 –  and they had appeared one night, as if magicked into our squat, on Westbourne Terrace, a disused and faintly sinister hotel, not far from Paddington, in London. I cannot remember the children’s names but I can still see their faces.  Their mother was stopping off on her way to India with her latest boyfriend.  The children would come to our room and paint pictures, play games, and eat! Eating was important.  These were hungry children for food, attention, stimulation, and love.  Their mother was a complete narcissist and I could find nothing to like about her, and maybe because of her lonely journey into her own navel, she appeared to be largely absent from their lives.  What I do remember is how these children roamed through a squalid labyrinth of evacuated rooms, making of it a giant Adventureland. They had no time to keep, and the little nests they snuggled in to sleep were in the basement where a graveyard of cookers and fridges lay as if they had been thrown from the windows in an eerily, apocalyptic inner courtyard.  I also remember how harrowing it was to hear the little boy scream whenever his nappy needed changing, usually by the mother’s partner, because he had terrible nappy rash – and how the little girl was already his mother, and her mother’s mother.  How the mother noticed her children in a sudden swell of jealousy and stopped them from going to a birthday party for the squat with everyone carrying plates of blue food, just as we were all going into the room with the music and how the little girl sank so easily into silence. How they were bundled into a van for their journey East and how we all shuffled about with our shame that we had left that mother largely unchallenged, and how, we prayed.

And so, I fell into Foxlowe and was utterly compelled.  It is the story of a community of artists and hippies (the Family), who live in a crumbling stately home on a moor, somewhere north. Everything in the outside world beyond the Family and a cluster of standing stones is bad, and the bad must be driven out through rituals and pain.  The story is narrated by a child called Green.  I was never quite sure how old she was in the early pages of the book, when we join her on the spike walk, a corridor of rusting nails left behind when the paintings that hung there had been removed. Poor Green is dragging an arm across them until she bleeds, a punishment for a minor infringement by her mother, Freya, one of the Founders. To call Freya a psychotic matriarch would not do justice to Eleanor Wasserberg’s creation. Everyone in the Family is caught up in a bizarre mythology which allows the unthinkable to happen. Green, Toby (October), and a new baby, Blue, do not go to school, or venture into an outside world, they do not read, have friends, go on sleepovers, they have each other in their best of possible worlds, Foxlowe which allows them such freedom and happiness, and the garden, and goats, a house sometimes decked with wildflowers, and happy with music and moonshine. The freedom doesn’t extend very far and Foxlowe has a shadow face, bleak, full of tensions, jealousy, and everyday cruelties which Green, more than any of the others, absorbs, after all, she is a child and had been at the heart of the crisis, and is prone to the bad, until Blue takes her place as the possessed child.

Wasserberg does a brilliant job with the cleft between a child’s narration and what is really going on in the adult world – the voices of the adults lay that out for us.  As the book progresses, those who might have protected the children leave, one by one, and everyone else is too snared in Foxlowe to avert the inevitable.

A deep vein of violence runs through the book and I am not sure about the final ending - whether we need that awful legacy.  But it is a book that demands to be read in a sitting, that is so alive I can almost smell the damp, the rats, the dust from abandoned furniture, the jumble of things…I can feel the dawn cold in an unheated room, sleeping in a pool of sunlight, cold stone, fresh bread, yellow-yoked eggs.  The child characters are vivid, the malevolence is real, and the heartbreak is solemn and deep.  A fascinating debut novel.

Foxlowe, Eleanor Wasserberg, Fourth Estate, London


Review by Belona Greenwood, founder and co-organiser of Words and Women. A former journalist she took an MA in Scriptwriting at the University of East Anglia and writes plays for adults and children, produced and performed both regionally and nationally.  She is co-director of Chalk Circle Theatre Company.  In 2009 she was a winner of the Decibel Penguin Prize for Life Writing, and she has won an Escalator award to write a book of creative non-fiction. She teaches adults and children.  

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