For this year’s Magical Realism Blog Hop, organised again by author and reviewer Zoe Brooks, allonymbooks author and magical realist novelist Evie Woolmore discusses the significance of the Six Senses in her writing.
One of the joys of blog-hopping, rather than just surfing, is the structured way in which new insights come to light. Not that I have a problem just rambling through the byways and back lanes of other people’s consciousness, you understand, but it is easy to get lost in the blogosphere if you have no general sense of direction (as I don’t), and a few signposts are always useful. Last year, through one thing and another and all because of Zoe Brooks’ first Magic Realism Blog Hop, I discovered the American magical realist writer Sarah Addison Allen.
“Crumbs!” I hear you cry, “how could you possibly have failed to discover her until then? Call yourself a magical realist writer?”
Well, yes, as it happens I do. But I stray towards the literary end in my own writing and reading and, as readers of Ms Allen’s lovely books will know, her writing falls equally into the category of romance as it does into magical realist. But once discovered, never forgotten, and I gobbled up her books as eagerly as the residents of Bascom gobble up Claire’s extraordinary cooking in Garden Spells. For one of Ms Allen’s great talents as a writer – and indeed the common theme in all her books – is the power of the sensation of taste. Not the enjoyment of eating, but the sheer evocative glory, pleasure and mystery of taste and all the sensory delights that go with it.
Much as a stalwart of the Women’s Institute annual baking competition might envy the crisp crust and succulent juicy filling of cherry pie made by the newcomer to the village, so I wished that I could have written a book like Garden Spells, purely because I don’t imagine anyone else would ever be able to capture that sense with quite the same immersive quality. It is not the joy of eating that Ms Allen celebrates, but the utter power of taste to captivate, motivate, engulf and endure.
And then, quite without warning, like a cherry stone stuck in my tooth, I realised that Ms Allen and I were not quite so far apart as I had first thought.
When I first started writing magical realist fiction some years ago, I did so because it felt like the best ‘home’ for the sort of writing I wanted to do about matters of spirituality and the sixth sense. In fact, in the blog I wrote for last year’s Blog Hop, I observed that I chose magical realism because of that very deliberate juxtaposition of the familiar and the unfamiliar, the believable and the challenging. I wrote that “[t]he magical realist aspects in my novels do not exist in parallel to our world, they are right here in it. They are discoveries like electro-magnetism and radiation in the nineteenth century and the Higgs-Boson particle in the twenty-first, they are part of the fabric of this all-too-real world, visible all along if only you would just tilt your head a little further to one side and set yourself free of some of your pre-conceptions.”
The five senses are a perfect example of that very juxtaposition. Medical science has helped us understand the way those senses function biologically, and yet it is powerless to rationalise why we can feel the presence of others with our eyes shut or why I hear the name of a person just before they phone me. I wanted to explore each of the five senses individually in my novels, but with ever-present reference to the sixth sense, the one that I feel connects the implicit power of those five senses together, the one that ‘makes sense’ of the information they offer that is beyond the merely cognitive, the one that plunges us into the less charted spaces of memory, emotion, insight.
I didn’t want to make an explicit claim for ESP or a certain school of parapscyhology – though I never stop hoping that scientists and sceptics will be more patient and admit that in all science there is still so much we don’t know and understand – but I did want to say that nothing is never as simple as it looks, and to propose a loosening of our intellectual corsets in favour not merely of imagination but possibility. I don’t expect readers to go away from reading my books with a revised view of the world, merely a more heightened awareness of their own world, a greater attention to detail. And what Sarah Addison Allen does so precisely and so perfectly in books like Garden Spells is to focus on every tiny detail of the sensation of taste. That she does so in different ways in her books shows how much there is to express and explore in that one sense alone, how taste does not exist without smell or sight or that sensory awareness that does not yet have a universally accepted label.
In my first three novels, I have chosen to write about three different senses. Equilibrium is about sight, about what we see, what we believe we see and what we want to see, and about how much is invisible to us. Rising Up is about what we hear – not merely the noise of everyday life but what is hidden within it, not merely what people say but how they say it, and how when we have only the sound of someone else’s voice to go on we will do everything we can to fill in what we believe is missing and what we desire to be sure of, of how the past echoes on in endless whispers in all of our presents. The Salt Factory is about touch, not simply the ability of a little girl to heal others by touching them, but how that touch is not merely with the hand but with the mind, with conscience as well as caress, and the broader touch of impact that one person’s actions have on another.
There are unsurprisingly two novels still to come – I am glad I am not Sue Grafton at this point – or perhaps there are three. For while the sixth sense permeates each of my novels, I am still wondering if it deserves a novel of its own. Some years ago, a pseudonym of mine published a short story in which several 1940s film heroines gathered in a bar to shake off their high-heeled shoes for a while and share what they had learned about men over a cocktail or two. Now, I wonder idly from time to time whether my existing characters should gather in the sixth novel to share what they have learned about their senses, about how not one of the five is ever really disconnected from the others, about how the sixth sense – be that psychic or something far more earthly and neurological – threads them all together.
Either way, five novels or six, magical realism is, for me, the perfect place to explore that connection between what we think we know and what we surely don’t. And I, for one, am glad of the joy it brings me as both writer and reader.
To find out more about Evie Woolmore and her novels, visit her page on the allonymbooks website, or tag search her blogs.
MAGIC REALISM BLOGHOP 2014
This post is part of the Magic Realism Blog Hop. Twenty blogs are taking part in the hop. Over three days (6th – 8th August) these blogs will be posting about magic realism. Please take the time to click on the link below to find out about the other posts and remember that links to the new posts will be added over the three days, so do come back to read more.