In a Welsh village where it rains every day in August, fourteen-year-old Cadi Hopkins begins to ask questions about her dead father and sister and why she’s not allowed to go to the lake.
The story she had grown up with was straightforward. Her sister drowned in a tragic accident and her mother couldn’t bear to talk about it. Then her father died too, and talking about that freaked her mother out so much it was frightening. She was already pregnant with me when he died. No wonder she hates me.
Cadi lives with her mother, Violet, with whom she’s locked in an intensified teenage daughter/mother battle. Cadi’s aunt/Violet’s sister-in-law, Lili, lives next door and acts as a surrogate mother to Cadi. Lili also has a contentious relationship with Violet.
From early in the book, magic makes its presence felt: the ghost of Dora, Cadi’s sister ‘sits at the base of the tree overlooking the lake’ and, as the novel progresses, grows in strength, coming to Cadi’s consciousness, haunting her outside and inside her house. Lili is a witch.
Lili’s particular talent was for glamours which, rather than having the drama of invisibility, rendered her unimportant. Her mother told her anyone could do it, if only they had the patience to apply themselves. If Lili chose to, she could pass virtually unseen.
Gwenllian taught Lili that nature resisted arrogance and most spells were cast by the ill-advised. Magic, she said, was as much about common sense and intention as it was about spells. ‘I have recipes and cures; blessings and healings. Don’t ask me for spells, cariad; spells are for fools. If people need you, they’ll find you. And always be wary of showing your hand. When a certain type of person believes you have a gift, they’ll do anything to get you to use it.’
As Cadi becomes aware of her own gift, the family’s past begins to unravel.
Lovekin considers whether family secrets can be kept and – perhaps more interestingly – who has a right to those secrets and whether collaboration in keeping them can be demanded. She examines that most contentious of relationships between mother and daughter, accurately portraying the antagonism that can occur between this pairing and how it often plays out. This is also shown through Cadi and Lili whose relationship – while much stronger than that of Cadi and Violet – is not unproblematic.
The use of magic realism through the presence of Dora’s ghost is well done. Plausible through its roots in nature and Cadi’s awakening of both her own gift and the reality of her father’s and sister’s deaths. Nature becomes a character in its own right through the village, the lake and the rain. Lovekin’s adept at setting and atmosphere; not only could I picture the village, I could feel and smell the rain and the natural world after it’d ended too.
Ghostbird is an engaging, female-centred narrative that, in terms of atmosphere, reminded me of Kate Atkinson’s Human Croquet. A debut well worth a few hours of your time.
I’m delighted to welcome the author of Ghostbird Carol Lovekin to the blog to discuss the novel.
At the core of Ghostbird is the relationship between a mother, a teenage daughter and a daughter who died when she was very young. Why did you decide to make that particular relationship central to the novel?
Telling and re-claiming women’s stories has been important to me for as long as I can recall. Probably since I discovered feminism – when I was seventeen and decided it made more sense than any other form of political activism. I’ve listened to women all my life – not least as a rape crisis counsellor and a Samaritan volunteer. Everything of lasting and authentic value to me has been gifted by women.
My fascination with the nature of loss and survival, and how women in particular deal with it is deeply personal and informs the way I’ve chosen to become a storyteller. Fiction is the ideal vehicle to tell women’s collective and individual stories. It’s emotional and involving. The writer can create nuances in situations that may touch her reader on a profoundly affecting level.
Violet’s grief plays a huge part in Ghostbird. In the early stages of writing the book I confess her misery felt relentless. Eventually I recognised that was why I needed to find a way to get underneath her skin, empathise with her and love her.
One way or another, each of the central characters in the novel is a potential victim. They are Teilo’s victims in the same way Blodeuwedd was a victim of Math and Gwydion in the legendary and patriarchal past of The Mabinogion – in particular, Violet, Cadi and Dora. But also Lili, whose life is equally touched by her brother’s disposition and decisions.
The myth of Blodeuwedd seemed the perfect backdrop for a contemporary story about women surviving the consequences of a modern day man’s egotism and machinations. It was never my intention to demonise Teilo – I have some sympathy for him and I trust my reader to see that. The fact remains, he bears a great deal of responsibility for what happened to all the women in his life.
A sense of magic runs throughout the book: Lili identifies as a witch and writes fairytales for a living; Dora’s presence threads throughout, and Cadi’s own awareness that she has a talent grows. How did you go about making this plausible for the reader?
Lili’s insistence that the magic must be respected is part of my own ethos. I’m an eco-feminist and believe that women aren’t part of nature – we are nature. We are the birds and the ebb of the ocean; we are weeds and moths and lionesses. Even though Lili refuses to cast spells, I wanted her wisdom to attach to Cadi and for there to be a sense of a heritage being passed on. I’m asking my reader to consider that when women embrace authentic magic, the kind that is part of their psyche and autonomy, their voices will be heard. Even at the tender age of fourteen, Cadi can tentatively begin to alter consciousness, heal wounds and sing her truth. Dora – the innocent catalyst – is a baby ghost who has no idea what she is doing. In spite of this, eventually and joyously her song is heard too.
The novel’s set in Wales, uses a Welsh myth and has Welsh words scattered throughout. How important to you was it that it was rooted in Wales?
West Wales has been my home for a long time. The landscape illuminates my writing and even if I hadn’t decided to base the novel – however loosely – around the myth, I would have set any story I conjured in Wales. I love the cadences of the language; it felt important to use it. Blodeuwedd would have been a Welsh speaker anyway so it made sense for the ghost to occasionally speak it. Although my own grasp of Welsh remains rudimentary, I understand a fair bit. Welsh isn’t Lili’s or Cadi’s first language either, but they too know enough for it to be scattered throughout their conversation.
Nature plays an important role in the story, not least the rain! Indeed, it feels like a character in its own right. How do you view its place in the book?
I appreciate that, Naomi – it was my intention to make the rain a character. (And incidentally, there’s a name for a lover of rain: a pluviophile.)
Living in Wales, a relationship with rain is inevitable. You either exist in a state of perpetual frustration or learn to accept and even love it. As I walk a good deal and the places I choose are often by rebellious rivers, along wild beaches or through boggy woodland, I decided on the latter and invested in a long raincoat.
Once I moved to where I live now I acquired a small study. There was only one place for my desk – next to a window, overlooking the hills. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve compared the windowpane to a Jackson Pollock painting (grey period.) I became increasingly intrigued by how rain shaped the landscape. In the book, I’ve tried to make it a visual language, an accompaniment to the story. It’s also a metaphor for tears, in Violet’s case, unshed for too long. And tears, as Clarissa Pinkola Estés says in Women Who Run With The Wolves, ‘are a river that takes you somewhere.’
My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite female writers?
What a lush question! My favourite writer is Virginia Woolf. I became mesmerised by her vision in my early twenties and remain fascinated by her writing. Although I adore her novels, it’s her letters and diaries I still find most intriguing and inspiring. A Writer’s Diary never leaves my bedside.
As a teenager I fell in love with Charlotte Brontë. I read Jane Eyre every year and couldn’t resist making it the book Cadi reads. Other writers for whom I have a huge admiration include A S Byatt, Edna O’Brien, Margaret Atwood and Susan Hill. Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle is one of my best loved books. I admire Island book. (I shall never be persuaded to read, Go Set a Watchman!)
Some of the women writers who shaped my politics as a young woman are Doris Lessing, Germaine Greer, Mary Daly, Kate Millet and the inestimable Simone du Beauvoir.
I’m an admirer of numberless contemporary British women writers, including Maggie O’Farrell, Kate Atkinson, Carys Bray, Geraldine Brooks, Joanne Harris, Judith Kinghorn and Sarah Winman. I recently discovered Louise Beech, Rebecca Mascull and Sarah Louise Jasmon. And Sarah Hilary blew my socks off! She reconnected me to the pleasure of a great crime thriller, this time with a fantastic female central character. I’ve learned a lot from many of these more recently published women writers, about how to ‘be’ as a newly published author myself.
Ending with my tongue in my cheek (because no one likes a crawler), I adore the wit of Dorothy Parker. I hope I haven’t gone on too much. As Ms Parker herself said, ‘Brevity is the soul of lingerie.’
A huge thank you to Carol for such a great insight into the ideas contained within the novel and to Honno for the review copy.