'But I couldn't get past the first chapter,' I whined.
'Persevere, it's really worth it' publisher Marion Boyars replied.
'Do I have to?'
'Maureen Freely liked it...Catherine O'Flynn loved it'
So never let it be said I chicken out on a challenge and that first chapter about suspect neighbours chopping the heads off er...chickens and doing very unpleasant things to small children.
But it's only fiction, right?
I sat down gritted my teeth, read the first chapter again through half-closed eyes and proceeded to rejoice as I read on, indeed Marion Boyars was quite right. So right that I (wrongly) added Feather Man to my list of Booker predictions.
Can anyone confirm, are there any pure fictional children's voices on the longlist this year?
The setting is Brisbane, Australia, Sookie is the child in question and there is no denying the abuse is terrible but what follows is the story of a young girl who has to piece her life back together, rebuilding it on wobbly, virtually non-existent emotional foundations as she tries to work out the rules of the game where men are concerned.
Rhyll McMaster has created a memorable character in Sookie but also somehow maintained an emotional distance which feels like reader safety. First person narrative defines thought processes with pinpoint accuracy, not only Sookie as a child but as teenager and young woman too. The burden of her past translates into difficulties all along the way and as readers we can always step back and see why; sadly Sookie can't, and we look on helplessly as she falls into every single knowable trap that a childhood of abuse may leave set and ready to snare.
The fragility, the insecurities, the low self-esteem, the self-loathing and the unwitting submission to power and control wherever it may come from.
Feather Man is a simultaneous dissection of Sookie's life and a reconstruction for the reader of just how totally abuse disempowers at every turn, and alongside it a feature anyone who works with survivors of abuse will recognise; the inability to change those deeply ingrained patterns as successive relationships frustratingly seem to follow the same disastrous trajectory.
' I wish to find the mate for my soul. I will settle for someone with a bigger problem than I have. I am ripe for a tormented rebel or a drug-addicted recalcitrant...Anyone practical or easygoing, uncomplicated or friendly does not interest me. Gloom, ambivalence, the unresolved : that's what I want.'
Pattern-Changing Courses run by Women's Aid are now a valuable resource for reversing this trend here in Devon. Overcoming the fear of facing up to the realities, engaging in the hard emotional work involved and then emerging with new insights and radiating renewed confidence and assurance, women are experiencing life-changing possibilities. Sookie instigates a pattern-changing of her own and you keep your fingers crossed for her every single step of the way as bit by bit she strives to claim back her soul.
Does she manage it?
Well Rhyll McMaster will keep you guessing until the very last line and even then leave you wondering. But you will also be left with a deep sense of understanding.
Yet Feather Man never pitches into a depressing read and that's important because I hate reading books about abuse, I really do, probably because I listen to a great deal of it by day, but then I may be mixing up those autobiographical misery memoirs with the fiction, so I'm grateful to Hilary Mantel for shedding some light in The Guardian this weekend,
'A novelist spends a lifetime in the business of presenting what's
life-like, but not like life. It's a sobering thought - life won't
actually do. Verisimilitude and the truth are conjoined twins, one
often flourishing at the expense of the other.'
Yes it is a subtle point
worth remembering, and I may have whipped it right out of Hilary's writerly context to fit my own as a reader, but this is fiction, 'a process of falsification' and Rhyll McMaster has performed that
great sleight of pen, 'the conjuring trick' as Hilary Mantel calls it, the one that allowed me to read Feather Man in a state of trusting belief in the fictional reality whilst emerging unscathed and a good deal wiser from this fine novel.
So now I'm rewarding your tenacity for reading this far and offering that spare copy in a prize draw.
Names in comments and we'll post worldwide as always.