The second session at the IWLF I attended was with Jill Dawson whose latest novel “The Language Of Birds” I very much enjoyed this summer. I’m particularly glad I saw her (not only because at work when we tweeted what we were reading whilst I was half-way through it led very quickly to Jill following us at Sandown Library) but because she was able to clear up certain aspects which had not lain easily with me.
In my review, obviously, not knowing at the time that I would be seeing the author and in a way giving her a right to reply I picked up on the imagery that was going on in the title and within the text where there are references to bird communications, occasionally in human voices. I said “the relevance of this and the title of the novel has passed me by. It is not what I will remember this book for..” and then I went on to say what I would remember it for (read the review!) so I am delighted that Jill dealt with this very early on.
I might just have been trying to read too much into the character Rosemary hearing birds speaking to her. It’s being used here as a symptom of schizophrenia. I’m more annoyed at myself at not picking up on the title. I suppose it shows what a well-adjusted twenty-first century man I am, forgetting that this novel is set in the 1970’s. “Birds” here is also being used in its context of the day referring to young girls and the “language of birds” the chat and perceptions of the two main female characters which was actually one of the aspects of the books which I had highlighted as really liking; “Mandy and Rosemary feel like two young girls new to the London of 1974.”
This novel is a fictionalised account based upon the murder of nanny Sandra Rivett by Lord Lucan (with names changed). Although never formally charged because of his disappearance apparently we can legally say that he was the murderer as an inquest, in an unusual situation, deemed him to be so.
Jill Dawson, a patron of a charity supporting those suffering from domestic violence wanted in this novel to bring the focus back to the victim. Of the many reams of newspaper accounts on the absconding toff the woman he killed got short shrift. The statistics on domestic violence are still chilling. They work out that in 2017 a woman was killed by a partner or ex-partner every four days. Mandy was never a partner of the killer (nor was Sandra Rivett) it was a case of them being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The intended victim was Lardy Morven (or Lady Lucan in the real life case) who had endured domestic violence.
In the extract she chose to read aloud Jill Dawson focused on the class divide of the time where Mandy with no actual experience of being a nanny attends an interview and gets the job because it was assumed that young working-class women would just be able to do a job like that. Lady Morven herself couldn’t, she was falling apart at the seams. I must admit I’m not great at listening to extracts I tune in and out if they are out of context (I don’t read extracts at all) even if I am familiar where it comes in the plot, unless perhaps it’s the opening of a novel but I did like the extract the author chose because given the grimness of the case and the motives behind the book it did give a feel for those who had not read it of its lightness of touch, its real feel of the period and the vivacity of the main character which had all appealed to me.
There was an interesting discussion as to whether Jill Dawson felt things would improve in the future. She saw men’s greater participation in fatherhood as a plus (Dickie in the novel obviously feels strongly towards his children but they are viewed as possessions and the children are distant because that was what their relationship was- as indeed were many of our relationships with our fathers in the 70’s). What concerns here is an attempt to shift the culture towards women doing horrible acts, an example of which is “Killing Eve” and many recent novels and films which have posited women as assassins, which is not based on anything but may eventually lead to an acceptance by girls of violence as a solution just as boys can accept violence from their choice of playthings from early years. Jill said of the 99,000 people in UK prisons, 4,000 were women and only a minority of these have been convicted of violent crime. Our media and popular culture would suggest otherwise.
I spent a couple of fascinating hours at the IWLF this year. It was the fact that I had already read and enjoyed the books featured that led me just the few miles to the venue, but I like to think I’d be back again next year as it seems to be going from strength to strength, probably once again avoiding the big names and focusing on the gems behind the headliners.