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Two women. Two countries. Two wars.
The Repercussions tells the stories of Jo and Elizabeth. Jo is recently returned from Afghanistan where she’s been working as a photographer, shooting aspects of the war. She’s living in her great-aunt Edith’s flat in Brighton which she’s inherited and trying to come to terms with everything that’s happened through writing to her ex-girlfriend, Susie.
All I had to do was put on my coat and walk out of the door, but I couldn’t.
And you know why not? Because I was scared.
I know it doesn’t make sense – Josephine Sinclair, award-winning war photographer, unable to leave the house? I’ve spent the last fifteen years going to the worst places on earth, places where to be afraid is to stay alive, where fear is the only reaction that makes sense. When I’m there, I can take it. I’ve run past snipers, bent double, trying not to get hit. I’ve slept in trenches next to soldiers not knowing if we’ll make it through the night. I’ve walked along roads stuffed with mines, step after cautious step, praying to God or whatever higher power might be out there that I don’t disturb one. Each time I deal with the fear, manage it so I can function. But today – a perfectly lovely day in Brighton – I couldn’t do it.
Slowly, Jo reveals her experiences of Afghanistan. This latest trip was different. For the first time, she went as a freelance photographer, able to choose the photographs she took and the story she told. Enlisting Rashida, the daughter of a friend’s colleague and recent journalism graduate, to take her to places she might not otherwise have access to, Jo begins to explore, looking at what the war means to ordinary people. Soon she has her angle:
While we waited for our food we looked through the photos I’d taken so far.
“I’m pleased with them,” I said. “But have you noticed? Something’s missing.”
Rashida frowned. “I don’t see – “
“There’s no women in them. They’re just not there. I’d like to speak to some ordinary women, the ones we see shopping in the bazaar.”
Rashida isn’t sure that the women will want to speak to Jo or have their photographs taken but they do accompany a midwife on a visit to a compound on the edge of town. There, they meet a group of women – four families, nine wives – who spend their days cooking, cleaning, doing laundry and looking after the children. When Jo asks what the men do, it takes Rashida a while to translate what the women have said:
“They beat us and they fuck us,” Rashida said. “That’s what they were saying. That’s all.”
From then, Jo is determined to tell the hidden stories of these women, which she does through her photography. Jo’s got a hidden story to tell too though.
The other story in the novel, that of Elizabeth, is told through her diary entries. At the end of the first chapter, Jo finds Elizabeth’s diary in an old wooden box, left by her great-aunt. She shares the diary with Susie and, therefore, us.
Elizabeth has taken a position working at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, which has been turned into a military hospital. It is 1914. The soldiers she will be taking care of are Indian men who’ve been fighting for the British. Her fiancé, Robert, is an officer in the Indian Army, so Elizabeth feels this will help her to understand his work. However, she finds that the job’s not as she expected it to be:
The Colonel frowned, and said that it had been decided that no nursing was to be carried out by Englishwomen…He looked at me from under his great white eyebrows and said it would be improper. When I asked why, he harrumphed again and said that in India, Englishwomen never nursed the native population because it wouldn’t do to be do so “intimately involved”, and so the Queen’s Nurses would act in a supervisory capacity only, working with the orderlies to “maintain the highest standards”.
She finds herself working alongside ‘almost a Doctor’, Hari Mitra, from whom she begins to learn about India and its culture, as well as about Hari himself. She’s keen to discover the realities of war too and asks questions about the patients, as well as insisting that Robert not censor things in his letters and on his occasional visits home.
The novel’s told in alternating chapters between the two women. Both women’s stories are told in first person, present tense to another reader, allowing them to be open and honest. Hall explores hidden stories – those of the women in Afghanistan; those of the Indians and Mitra in particular; those of the women who work in war zones.
The Repercussions is a brave and powerful book. I had so many thoughts and questions on finishing it that I asked Catherine Hall if she’d be happy to answer them for me. You can read her brilliant responses below.
For a number of reasons, The Repercussions seems like a very brave book to me, why did you choose to write about the war in Afghanistan and particularly the women and their treatment?
I’ve been interested in that particular war/invasion/occupation – and the choice of word here is important – since I worked at the Refugee Council and came into contact with Afghan refugees. Afghanistan has such a long history of being invaded and occupied, and of resistance. The British alone have been involved in war four times with Afghanistan since 1839, which I find fascinating. And there was a link to the patients at the Brighton Pavilion – a lot of them were from the North-Western Frontier which bordered British India with Afghanistan – army officials tended to recruit men from mountainous regions with a history of conflict. A soldier from that region might very well fight for Britain in the Flanders trenches and then, once discharged from the army, go back to Afghanistan and fight against the British.
I wanted to write about women in Afghanistan because I think they have had, and continue to have, a particularly hard time. Life is incredibly difficult for war widows, who, without a man, don’t really have a way of earning a living, and it’s also difficult for many women who do still have a husband. Levels of domestic violence are extreme, with many women suffering particularly harsh, imaginatively sadistic and vicious treatment. I think that when people are put in a situation of terrible violence and hardship for so long, brutality becomes in some way normalised. I think as well that there are many men who feel absolutely powerless and take it out on their women. I wanted to look at how domestic violence can be just as much a problem as the direct violence of war, and at how the two are linked.
But I didn’t just want to just portray Afghan women as simply submissive and oppressed. Of course, of them are, but there are also women parliamentarians, NGO workers, journalists, all trying to rebuild their country. Rashida is a young Afghan woman who’s just trained as a journalist and is employed as a fixer/translator in Kabul by my main character, Jo. She’s not able to be quite as independent as Jo, but she has many more chances in life than the women that she and Jo take pictures of, who’ve suffered terrible violence at the hands of their husbands and families.
There’s a point towards the end of the novel where Jo comments that the latest of Elizabeth’s diary entries is ‘a bit too close for comfort’; did you always intended there to be parallels between the two stories?
Yes. I wanted the two stories to be separate but to inform each other. Partly I wanted to look at the contrasting experiences of women in war, looking at how things have changed, or not, and what that means. Jo is an independent woman who spends her life travelling from conflict to conflict but she’s paid the price – her girlfriend has left her and she’s full of guilt. Elizabeth, a hundred years before, is doing the only job available to women at that time – nursing – and she isn’t even allowed to do that because of the authorities’ fear of sexual relations between Indians and white women. She’s deeply affected by issues of reputation and her fiancee’s ideas of what’s appropriate. She’s pretty feisty though, and I like to think that if she were living in Jo’s time she’d have been doing something similar. I wanted to look at how circumstances and society shape what is possible and what isn’t.
Both Jo’s letters to her former partner, Susie, and Elizabeth’s diary entries are written in present tense, why did you decide to write both sections in the same tense?
I think that writing in the present tense provides a sense of immediacy, a sense of things unfolding as you read them. I wanted both characters not to know what was going to happen next, for them both to be finding themselves as they went along, if that makes sense. I also wanted them both to have an equal weighting in terms of authenticity, and that meant having them both speak in the first person and in the present tense.
There’s a comment in the acknowledgements of the book about you being steered away from ‘unsuitable titles’. How did you arrive at ‘The Repercussions’?
I never expect my books to have the same title when they’re finished as when I was writing them. All three of them have changed in the editing process. While I was writing this one, it was called The Afghan Bug, but neither my agent nor my publisher liked that and so I had to come up with something different. So then it was a case of sitting down and thinking of what might work, looking at the themes of the book and trying to come up with something that would represent both stories. The steering away from unsuitable titles came from a conversation with a friend. I was a pretty depressed at the time, and suggested ‘In Memoriam’, to which he gently pointed out that a cover with that title and my name would look like my tombstone…
The Repercussions works, I think, because the book is about the effects of war, both on those living through it and those who report on it. What happens when the war is over, or when, as a soldier or a reporter or a medical helper you’ve come home? You might not still be in immediate danger but the impact is there, and can last for a very long time. Jo, whether she’ll admit it or not, is suffering some sort of trauma, the patients in the Pavilion Hospital are suffering from shell-shock, and Robert, Elizabeth’s fiancee, has been deeply affected by his time in the trenches, and is a changed person because of it.
There’s been a focus on diversity in books recently; The Repercussions is diverse both in terms of race and of sexuality, how conscious were you of making choices about the diversity of your characters?
It wasn’t a conscious choice, in that I wasn’t thinking about diversity per se. As a lesbian, I like to write books that feature gay characters, and this book was no different. I didn’t want that to be the main focus of the book – Jo is a lesbian but her sexuality isn’t the main point. I think when gay characters can feature in novels not only in coming out stories, then we’re making progress. In terms of race, well, the story of the Indian soldiers at the Brighton Pavilion was based on fact. I consciously decided not to write from the perspective of an Indian soldier because that felt too far away from who I am, and almost presumptuous, but I did very deliberately decide to explore the issues of race and the complicated history and attitudes between India and Britain via the character of Hari, the medical student who’s been studying at Oxford and has a tendency to rile the authorities because of his refusal to be subservient and toe the line. It was all very well, it seemed, to have Indians as cannon fodder in the trenches but quite another to have an educated Indian doing the work of a doctor. I also wanted to look at the complicated attitude towards Indians and white women that I mentioned before – British nurses weren’t actually allowed to nurse the Indians because of the authorities’ anxiety about sexual relations between them – so they were only allowed to work in a supervisory capacity, and were removed from the Pavilion altogether in June 1915, under mysterious circumstances. I chose Hari’s name as a nod to A Passage to India, which is of course all about that complicated attitude towards interracial relationships.
My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite female writers?
I have so many. The first adult fiction I read was chosen at random from my mother’s bookshelves. Luckily she has great taste. One of the first novels I picked, when I was 13, was Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, with her glorious protagonist Isadora Wing. It introduced me to so many concepts, from psychoanalysis and feminism to the Zipless Fuck. It changed my life. Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook came soon after, introducing me to other complex thinking about race and class and politics. The novels of Jean Rhys, so beautifully written, with their quietly desperate, fragile, but ultimately strong female protagonists led to my fascination with Paris in the 1920s. Her very spare, precise way of writing definitely informed the way I write. Angela Carter and Jeanette Winterson made me think differently about the power of language and imagination and what words could do. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala inspired me to go to India, aged 18. I vastly admire Sarah Waters, partly for putting lesbians into literary, commercial fiction, and partly for her brilliance of her historical fiction, and Rose Tremain, who has an enormous range of subjects and style. I think Ali Smith is an amazing writer, who pushes the boundaries of what the novel is.
Newer writers that I’m loving at the moment are Evie Wyld, with All the Birds, Singing, Kerry Hudson, with Thirst, and Jessie Burton, with The Miniaturist.
Thanks to Catherine for such detailed and interesting responses.
Catherine’s publisher, Alma Books, has kindly sent me three copies of The Repercussions to give away to you lovely lot. All you need to do to enter is leave a comment below. As always, I’m happy to accept worldwide entries. Competition closes at 7pm UK time, Sunday 30th November. The winner will be chosen at random and notified soon after the closing time.
Thanks to Catherine Hall for the interview and to Alma Books for the review copy and the giveway copies.
I’ve allocated everyone a number in order of comments:
1 – Diana McDougall
2 – Eva Holland
3 – Sarah Noakes
4 – Susan Osborne
5 – Marina Sofia
6 – Helen Stanton
7 – Claire Stokes
8 – Rebecca Foster
9 – Poppy Peacockpens
10 – Annecdotist
11 – Erdeaka
12 – Realthog
13 – Martha Gifford
14 – Ruth F Hunt
15 – JacquiWine
16 – Ann Bradley
17 – Sharanya
18 – Lynn Kanter
And the random number generator says:
Congratulations Diana, Jacqui and Ruth. Check your email. Thanks to everyone else for entering.
Jacqui has joined the TBR20 Project (see here if you want to know more) so has asked for her copy to be redrawn. The random number generator says:
Congratulations Eva, check your email.