It is 1941. Hope’s father, Jenner, builds Liverpool Cathedral while the Luftwaffe’s bombs fall. It is 2014, and Hope cares for her husband Robert as Alzheimer’s destroys his personality.
Hope’s husband Robert is a retired civic sculptor. As Alzheimer’s unravels his mind, a secret he has kept for her threatens to emerge, breaking the fragile peace she has made with her parents’ memory: the truth of what happened to her mother during the Liverpool Blitz.
Hope brings in Louise to be home-carer. A young mother, the last resident of the Blackbird Estate, harassed by her ex-partner. But now they are together, can they find a way the past can’t hurt them?
I’m absolutely delighted to be a part of ‘The Blackbird’ Blog Tour for @HenninghamPress with thanks to David for the invitation. I’m also delighted to be adding a conversation between Claire Allen and Dr. Sophie Oliver.
Firstly, and importantly, I loved reading this book. It’s also a joy to look at and there are lovely little illustrations dotted throughout the pages.
The story is constructed via two narrative timelines, there’s a mix of character perspectives, and the reader moves between 1941 and 2014. I soon became absorbed in the unfolding stories, albeit initially contrasting in nature. From the war threatened city of Liverpool and those connected to the challenging building of its imposing, dominating Cathedral, and to London’s Blackbird Estate, which is dilapidated, and the tenants are slowly being evicted.
Forgive my oxymoronic phrasing, but there’s both simplicity and complexities in its syntax, expression and figurative style. It’s both minimal and detailed; there’s a deep control to the writing, and I loved it. For more than one reason, the book also resonated with me. Last year I visited Liverpool and spent time at the Cathedral with my daughter. It’s a stunning building, and whilst I was there, an organist was rehearsing; the music seemed to dominate every space and people were absorbing the atmosphere, and reflecting in their own ways. It was an almost sublime and cathartic experience – reading about its challenging construction brought back these memories.
Our family is also dealing with dementia at the moment, and it’s a very hard journey, so the story of Hope and Robert was very emotional for me. There’s loss, heart-break, turmoil, grief wrapped in its pages, but it’s also a story of how the past remains within us, construction of the physical and the spiritual, and how relationships form and break. I loved this historical character led novel and would highly recommend it.
Please keep reading for a discussion of this novel between the author and Dr. Sophie Oliver, lecturer in Modernism at the University of Liverpool.
Claire Allen and Dr Sophie Oliver discuss ‘The Blackbird’.
The Blackbird is preoccupied with construction, with building things, but also with things being destroyed. The book itself is carefully built around several storylines in different places and different times. How did you construct the novel? What was your process of building? Tell us about the components.
I began with characters and small, specific things about them. For example, with the older character, Hope, my starting point was when I noticed a small block of nineteen-thirties flats built in a gap between rather grander, older houses in one of the roads that leads up to Telegraph Hill, near where I live, and I imagined an elderly woman living there. Her character and elements of her story grew from that. And I had, for a long time, wanted to write a novel about the building of Liverpool Cathedral. I’d originally thought of a kind of multi-generational saga but, in the end, I found the old lady living on Telegraph Hill kind of wove herself into things and I decided she belonged in the novel about Liverpool.
With the construction/destruction theme, I did try to knit everything together with underpinning threads which run through the whole novel, and they all tended towards oppositions: as well as construction/destruction, I was also thinking about memory/truth, control/independence and the idea of random chance versus things being connected.
How do you teach your students how to ‘knit everything together’?
I tend to deal with structure on a micro level, rather than on the bigger scale. Partly because of the kind of creative writing courses I teach, which are made up of very short, free-standing sessions, generating new ideas each week, so we don’t work on shaping a single piece over a longer period of time.
One thing I do focus on with students is how a good piece of writing can be a kind of choreographed plate-spinning exercise, in which the various separate elements that might be teased apart in creative writing classes are all working together. The trick is to keep all the plates spinning at the right speed and keep the joins seamless. So, for example, we will do an exercise on dialogue, but we also keep the ‘setting’ plate spinning and have the characters interacting with their environment while they’re speaking. And we keep the ‘character’ plate spinning by incorporating the characters’ movements, gestures, habitual actions, etc into the section of dialogue.
It’s funny because in The Blackbird, I felt that the threads you mention are actually visible. I think you can see the seams as a central part of the book. Not in a clunky way at all, not in the way you might want to iron them out – their visibility is poetic because the construction is also thematic. Perhaps it’s not always desirable to make the joins seamless?
That’s fantastic to hear! I’m really pleased that those thematic threads are visible because it’s always so difficult to know, when you’re writing something, how it’s going to work for the reader. And because the construction of the book is as much thematic as it is narrative I always imagine the themes, rather than the plot, as the skeleton that holds it all together and I absolutely do want that to be visible. So you’re right – it isn’t always desirable to have seamless joins. I suppose what I was talking about with the seamlessness was more the nuts and bolts stuff of how to put a passage of prose together so that it is fluid and as potent as it can be. And to avoid that thing where people will sometimes skip bits that describe the setting when they’re reading. If that descriptive passage also incorporates character development, for example, because it’s showing a character experiencing the setting, rather than just describing it from a more distanced, authorial point of view, then it feels more likely the reader won’t be tempted to skip it, and chances are it’ll be a richer, more effective few paragraphs into the bargain!
I’m new to Liverpool, having been in London for the best part of 20 years. You can see the cathedral in Liverpool from so many places in the city, and when I lived in south London I would pass the Heygate estate – which for me was brought to mind by the Blackbird estate – every day on the bus, until it was demolished. That symmetry pleased me, a sense of connection between the two cities that otherwise are only connected in my mind because I decided to move recently. How are the two cities connected for you? Is connection important in a wider sense?
Yes, my experience of watching the Heygate Estate gradually disappear as I passed it on the bus every day was very similar to yours and, in fact, The Blackbird Estate is very much based on the Heygate, (with a nod to other estates with bird names, eg The Nightingale Estate in Clapton, the Woodpecker Estate in New Cross, and an estate in Oxford called Blackbird Leys, which was at one time notorious for joyriding.)
The two cities are very connected for me in a personal sense, because they are the two main places I have lived. I grew up in Liverpool and lived there until I left to go to university, and I’ve now lived in London for well over 20 years. There was a time a few years ago when I became very aware of the fact that I was approaching the point where I would have lived in London for as long as I’d lived in Liverpool, and the question of where I belonged, where I was ‘from’, started to nag at me. I’ve now passed that pivot point and have lived in London for far longer than I ever lived in Liverpool, so I guess I’m now undeniably a Londoner, but I still find the idea of ‘belonging’ really interesting.
And yes, connection is something I find very important in a wider sense. I love reading novels where there are echoes and parallels between characters’ experiences or between different times and different stories and I’ve enjoyed creating my own echoes and connections in The Blackbird.
Are there any specific novels that influenced you?
William Golding’s The Spire was the most obvious influence, in the sense that the 1941 sections of The Blackbird have lots of narrative parallels with Golding’s novel. I also enjoyed playing around with the way I echoed the earlier text, so, for example, in my opening chapter I kept the beginning of The Spire very much in mind, but, instead of using sunlight to create a sense of joy and divine chosen-ness, which is how Golding begins The Spire, I tried to create a sense of discomfort.
I’m not sure there are any other similarly direct influences, but the idea of connection– the ability of some to see or seek connection and others to deny its existence or importance, and to what extent it is possible to bridge the divide between the two – was something I always had at the back of my mind as I was writing and creating relationships between characters.
I have a feeling that you think of ‘connection’ in a gendered way – the women in the novel are the ones building relationships, taking care of others. Is there something in that?
That’s a really good point! I’d never really thought about it as being gendered, and it’s not something I did consciously in The Blackbird, but you’re absolutely right – it is the female characters who do more of the connecting and the relationship-building. Hmmm. It’s interesting, because in the novel I’ve been working on since The Blackbird, I have been developing two characters who are shaping up to be slightly Forsterian older women who just sense stuff. And my narrative point of view has, so far, been deliberately female-only, so I think there is definitely something in what you’re saying!
‘Sensing stuff’ suggests a way of knowing that isn’t about facts, but more about intuition, and it might even be faulty. There seems to be something similar happening with your approach to the past, for example, in The Blackbird. It’s partly a historical novel, half set in the 1940s, but apart from the war you quite deliberately avoid giving too much historical detail in terms of time and place. Can you say a bit more about your approach to the past generally?
Yes, I think that ‘sensing stuff’ is about intuition, and it can, as you suggest, sometimes be wrong. I think the character of Mary is maybe a good example of that: her tendency to see connections everywhere is certainly seen by her husband and her friend Thomas as something based too much on feeling and sensitivity. And I think I, too, thought rather as they did and felt that she tended to read too much into things. But it’s ambiguous, because in the end she is right about the need to accept one’s own responsibility and culpability and it’s Thomas’s inability to do that which makes her so disappointed in him.
The idea of ambiguity was really important to me, and I used the instability of memory, and offered alternative versions of what might have happened in the past, as ways of exploring this. I enjoyed not giving answers and exploiting the tension between that need to know ‘what really happened’ on the night Mary Jenner died, and the genuine possibilities that are offered by not knowing.
With the point you make about avoiding giving too much historical detail, I think maybe that’s to do with being so close-up to the characters rather than stepping a bit further back and taking a wider view that incorporates more of the surrounding time and place. It’s not necessarily another influence from The Spire, but that is a novel that does something similar, I think, although to a more extreme degree, in the sense that the whole book is from such an incredibly close-up, blinkered point of view that it is difficult to see anything outside the point of view of the main character, so you don’t really get a sense of a wider historical context. I think, in general, I tend to zoom in on characters, so perhaps the effect that has on historical period is that it gives only a partial view.
Claire Allen spent her childhood in Liverpool and lives in London. She teaches English literature and creative writing at City Lit. Her first two novels, The Mountains of Light (2004) and Protection (2006) were published by Headline Review. Her books have been translated into French and Greek.
Henningham Family Press
Henningham Family Press is the collaborative art and writing of David and Ping Henningham. We are both Artists and Authors, and we are curious about every aspect of writing, printing and publishing. We complete and represent our writing through fine art printmaking, bookbinding and performance.
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HFP have teamed up with G.F Smith, paper merchant to Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press, to celebrate small presses. All editions of the book will be covered with Gmund Urban, which uses “genuine pulverized cement” to recreate concrete’s subtle texture and sparkle. The Römerturm paper mill has created “tradition and dynamic modernism in one material.” Especially apt for a book that is set in a post-war housing estate: The Blackbird. It is a sculptural material, perfect for HFP’s hand-bindery.
WIN A COPY OF CLAIRE ALLEN’S ‘THE BLACKBIRD’
For a chance to win a copy of this book, please comment on this post, and I’ll add you into the prize draw. Winner chosen on Friday 14th August, 2020. The winner will be contacted shortly after. Huge thanks to David, at Henningham Family Press for the generous offer of the gifted book for this giveaway. The giveaway also runs across Twitter and Instagram.