RIP Anita Shreve

Dina Davis’s Reviews > The Stars Are Fire”

I am sad to learn of Anita Shreve’s death. I have read every one of her novels and enjoyed them. They are accessible, easy reads with good pace and well-drawn characters. Sadly The Stars are Fire did not come up to the standard of her previous novels. There were some undeveloped characters, and it was hard to feel sympathy for Grace as she displayed the typical subservience of a woman in an abusive marriage. The plot was a little disjointed and difficult to follow. I wanted to know more about Grace’s relationship with the doctor she worked for. On the whole I was disappointed, but still appreciated Shreve’s use of language, and her obvious love of the Maine coastline always shines through. Requiescat in Pace.

Image copyright Washington Post

Excerpt from Anita Shreve’s Obituary, copyright Washington Post

Ms. Shreve was a teacher, journalist and nonfiction author before she began to focus on fiction in her early 40s. She went on to publish 18 novels, which became fixtures of countless book groups and attracted a large and loyal following.

Many of Ms. Shreve’s novels were set in New England and touched on subjects as diverse as airplane crashes, textile mills and World War II. Her books seldom had happy endings, but all of them shared an irresistible page-turning quality, with a strong emotional undercurrent, often colored by death and romance.

The Joys and Perils of the Writing Life

The Joys and Perils of the Writing Life

So here I am, as Abraham said to the Lord when offering up his son for sacrifice. “Here I Am” is the title of a wonderful new book by Jonathan Safran Foer, a monumental work close to 1000 pages, exploring themes of cultural identity, fidelity and betrayal, the ephemeral nature of love, families functional and dysfunctional, and what makes them so.

As for me myself and I, this post is in the nature of an apology to you, my readers, for my untoward absence. SInce I last posted back in April, life has overtaken me. There’s been illness, convalescence, slow recovery, as well as the joys of grandchildrens’ birthdays. and celebrations of their achievements, some sojourns in beautiful Darwin, home of my daughters and grandsons, and the minutiae of everyday life.

On the writing side, I’ve been hard  at work on my new novel, ‘A Difficult Daughter’, and preparing my first novel. ‘Capriccio’, for publication. This entailed a major rewrite, mostly in appeasement to Faber and Faber, publishers of the works of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, and the Hughes Estate. Like Jonathan Bate, I fell foul of the Estate when requesting permission to quote thirteen lines of Hughes’s poetry, fully expecting dispensation for such a small amount of material. The lines I quoted were used to introduce chapters, each of which was given the title of one of the ‘Capriccio’ poems by Hughes. Titles, I know, are not subject to copyright. However, to be on the safe side, I have removed every syllable of Hughes’s poetry, and, in order to comply with the other request by the Estate, changed the name of  every character. The astute reader will no doubt recognise my novel, “Capriccio”, as the tragic story of Assia Gutmann Wevill, the lover of Ted Hughes, who came between Hughes, and his wife, Sylvia Plath.  My novel ends with one of Assia’s poems (quoted with permission of her sister, Celia Chaikin), a final clue to the true identity of my protagonist.

Now for the Joy of the writing life: my company of writers, the Randwick Writers Group, continues to flourish, with all four of us preparing to submit novels or memoirs to publishers. Without my fellow-writers, I would never have achieved the completion of one novel and the development of another. Their constructive feedback, wise insights, consistent encouragement, and friendship, has been the motivating force which keeps me going.

In Darwin, I was lucky to join the talented playwright Sandra Thibodeaux for her weekly writers’ workshop, which helped me develop ideas for ‘A Difficult Daughter’, my novel-in-progress. Then there was the Sydney Writers’ Festival in May, the Jewish Writers’ Festival in August, and only last weekend, the St Aubin’s Writers’ Festival. More on this bucolic festival in my next post!

Ferrante Fever


The Neapolitan Novels: what’s all the fuss about?

I’m into the third of the quadrilogy by this mysterious writer, and finding it repetitive, clichéd, and, to be honest, boring. It seems to me  standard chick-lit dressed up with some social history.  Apart from being set mostly in Naples from the fifties to the present time, these novels differ little from standard soap opera fare. I admit to feeling disappointed with the endless detailed descriptions of Lenu’s and Lila’s every mood, move and thought. The plot moves slowly, ever so slowly, which to me is rarely a problem as long as the novel brings to life characters with whom I can identify and care about. I’m afraid this is not the case here.

I’ve listened to a talk by a Professor of Italian Literature, who praised the book for its scope and honesty. I asked her about the translation: was it true to the text? Yes, she assured me, Ann Goldstein is a consummate narrator, mirroring the author’s original Italian as closely as possible. So one can’t blame the translator for the slow pace, romantic clichés, and unnecessarily complicated cast list.

Ferrante (not his/her real name) writes under  a psoudonym ‘to protect her family’s privacy and ward off her inner censor’. (London Review of Books, 8 January 2015). In one of the author’s rare statements, she/he says that personal publicity would defeat the aim of hr novels, which unlike today’s fraught attempts to market new writing, need only speak for themselves. There is no interest in ‘war and skirmishes for visibility in the marketplace of culture.’

So what is it that has the world of commercial fiction buzzing?  Is it the mystery of anonymity?  A conspiracy of anti-publicity? There’s a certain amount of shock material, not all of it successful (LRB). The sex scenes lack subtlety, and therefore seem less erotic than some modern literary fiction. Some of the writing seems pedestrian, with endless ‘telling’ and explanation. For example ‘she felt embarrassment and a sense of danger.’ (The Story of a New Name, the second in the trilogy).

What are your thoughts on the Ferrante novels? I’d be interested in other opinions.






Words of Wisdom by Writers for Writers

Even successful writers have self-doubts. Here’s their advice on how to overcome them: can you share your own strategies on how you keep going as a writer? 


Helen Garner:

You’ve got two selves I think. One of them is the deep one that can do the work, and the other one is constantly discouraging you and saying: ‘oh come off it, who do you think you are?’Some days when you feel like this you just have to keep on.

Some days I look at what I’m doing and I think: this is pathetic. How can I have thought this was any good? Some days it’s so awful I have to put my pen down and lie on the bed. I feel I’m going to be exposed. Other days you start a paragraph and suddenly out it comes, all these ideas streaming out of you and you can hardly keep up.

Adapted from ‘Making Stories’ by Kate Grenville and Sue Woolfe, Allen & Unwin, 1993

Kate Grenville:In writing ‘Lillian’s Story’ there were endless doubts. The pleasure reigned supreme whenever the writing was just a private thing that I was doing for myself. If you ask yourself what your book’s about you get all twisted up, and if you ask whether or not it works you will always find fault with it. Getting into the reviewer or critic state of mind makes me timid as a writer. I start to play it safe, and the writing gets strangled with sheer caution.

Adapted from ‘Making Stories’ by Kate Greenville and Sue Woolfe, Allen & Unwin, 1993

Kate wrote 30 drafts of he last book, ‘One Life’, which she calls ‘a Story’, neither a novel nor a memoir. Her breakthrough as a writer came when she stopped being a critic, learned to break with convention, and to tap into the Unconscious (in Freud’s sense of the word).



Garner again: whenever I read Christina Stead I get an electric thrill from the way she breaks all the rules. She can string seven adjectives together in a row. She holds the noun up to to the light and uses the adjectives to make it shine this way and that way. I envy that naturalness,–as if she sat down and out it poured.

I don’t plan very much, because if I do, I start to wield the plan against my instincts, and it acts as a clamp. It becomes a duty, or a trap. It prevents me from being flexible or alert to a fresh possibility.

Linda Jaivin on ‘Truth in Fiction’ Write a novel and the first thing you’ll be asked is if it’s a ‘true’ story. In recent years, readers, reviewers and journalists alike have become increasingly fixated on the question of how much fiction is based on fact. It is as though identifying the biographical or autobiographical elements in a novel provides not just a key to it but validation. Perhaps the better question to ask would be how much fact is based on fiction. Truth in literature, novels and biography alike, is never quite as simple an equation as x=y.

Hannah Kent: To be a good writer you must, first and foremost, be a good reader. How else will you learn what to do? Read as much as possible, as often as possible, and if you read something you like, or something that makes you laugh, or something that moves you in a strange, ineffable way, ask why. Re-read it. Read it aloud. Pay attention to the use of words, and the narrative voice, and the comic timing. If you don’t understand words, splurge on a really great dictionary and look those words up. The more words you know, the greater your control over language.

If there is one quality I have consistently drawn upon to get any kind of writing in print, it was not a gift with language. It was diligence. If you want to write, you have to be diciplined. You have to put the hours in, even when you don’t feel like it. You especially have to learn to write when you are uninspired. You have to take your work seriously, and this means setting aside time for it, preferably on a regular basis. This often means making sacrifices.

What do you think is the most important piece of advice? What works for you? I have italicised the words that most resonate with me: keep going, trust the unconscious, be diligent.


Sylvia’s Last Letter


What do you think Sylvia might have written in that last letter?

Sylvia Plath’s last days have been well documented, again and again giving us the same facts in the various non-fiction biographies. We know she wrote a letter just before she died, and asked her downstairs neighbour for stamps.. The letter, if it was found, has never been disclosed. We also know that Assia Wevill, Sylvia’s rival, was shocked to read the vituperative language Sylvia wrote about herself and hr husband David. The journal was subsequently destroyed.

In my fictional recreation of these events, I’ve invented details, dialogue, and writings by the main characters.The following extract excerpt is an imagined version of what she might have written on that last day. The letter contains the things Assia might have read about herself, in the lost journal.

Here’s an extract from my fictional letter:

I cannot bear to write your name; its very sound is a hiss from the tongue of a serpent. You snaked your way into our lives and destroyed all that was once wholesome and fertile, and changed my husband from a god to a devil. Here is the gift you have wished for, freeing him to be yours. But rest assured, he will never love you, or your bastard child, as he’s loved me and our children. With this act I curse you forever. I will always be between you, watching and waiting. The day will come when you and yours will join me in Hell.


What other writers have said about how to create  fiction from fact:

‘When making up detail, you still have a structure to pin it on. The facts are a stimulus to the imagination, so you’re not inventing something in a vacuum. In a way, you’re inventing these things almost like a detective would. You come up with hypothess that would make sense of the facts you’ve got. (e.g. the letter Sylvia wrote just before she died, for which she asked Dr Thomas for a stamp.) There is a wonderful kind of tug between the facts and the fiction.’ ( Emma Donoghue, author of ‘Room’.)

William Nicholson, the British author and screenwriter, wrote, in his reply to my email query re fact/fiction: As you may know I write fiction with real people in it a great deal, and have done since ‘Shadowlands’ dramatised the love life of C.S.Lewis. My own view is that it’s okay to do this so long as: a) you stick to the truth as far as it’s known; and b) where you invent to fill the gaps, you treat the real people generously.

 Hannah Kent, in the author’s note to her brilliant award-winning novel, ‘Burial Rites’ says: ‘Many known & established facts about Agnes’ life have been reproduced in this novel and events have either been drawn directly from the record or are the result of speculation. They are fictional likelihoods.’

 If we substitute ‘Assia’ for ‘Agnes, Kent’s main character, the same might be said about my novel, ‘Capriccio’.



Sylvia’s last letter

The last person who saw Sylvia alive was the neighbour in the flat below hers in Fitzroy Road, Primrose Hill. She asked him for some airmail stamps a few hours before her suicide. If she needed stamps, there must have been a last letter. The story at the party in New York was that it was a suicide note addressed to her mother, Aurelia; that at some point it went astray; and that it named the other man.

Hughes did not kill Plath. Nor did the other man. Mental illness killed her. But biographic closure will not be achieved until we know what was in the last letter. I recently heard of a private collector who is alleged to own “literary jewels such as a signed first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses, Vladimir Nabokov’s personal, annotated copy of Lolita, and a letter written by Plath the day before the American poet killed herself”. He has not replied to my request to take a look at it.

• Jonathan Bate’s Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life is published by Harper Collins.

The emphasis in my novel Capriccio: the Haunting of Sylvia Plath, is on the insidious influence of Sylvia’s suicide on both Ted Hughes and Assia Wevill. I’ve invented all journal entries and letters, and changed the names of any characters still living. This is my imagined letter which Sylvia may have written the day she died, and which has never been found.


To the woman who stole my husband,

I cannot bear to write your name; its very sound is a hiss from the tongue of a serpent. You snaked your way into our lives and destroyed all that was once wholesome and fertile, and changed my husband from a god to a devil. Here is the gift you have wished for, freeing him to be yours. But rest assured, he will never love you, or your bastard child, as he’s loved me and our children. With this act I curse you forever. I will always be between you, watching and waiting. The day will come when you and yours will join me in hell.


          Note to my Readers: This novel is a work of Fiction, based on the true story of Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, and the woman who came between them – Assia Gutmann Wevill.

At the time she was supposed to have penned this letter,  Sylvia was severely disturbed and suffering from the effects of a medication which may have been wrongly prescribed. She had begged for stamps from her neighbour downstairs, who was the last to see her alive. My fictional account of the last letter has her directing all her bitterness towards Assia who she blamed for all her misery. To my knowledge, no one found the last letter Sylvia wrote and of which she needed the stamps. She also left a note for Ted, whose contents were never revealed, and the doctor’s phone number, indicating she may have wanted to be saved.

see also “A Celebration This is: a Website for Sylvia Plath”

Excerpt from my novel

I’m re-writing ‘Capriccio’ under a new title. It seems that most readers have never heard of Ted Hughes’ poetry sequence of the same title, which is hardly surprising, considering they were first published as ‘rare books’ at the cost of 4000 English pounds each. So people may think my book is about music, as ‘Capriccio’ is mostly used as a musical term for a fast, merry piece. Assia’s story is far from merry, although she had some exciting times.

I’m re-writing ‘Capriccio’ under a new title.  It seems that most readers have never heard of Ted Hughes’ poetry sequence of the same title, which is hardly surprising, considering they were first published as ‘rare books’ at the cost of 4000 English pounds each. So people may think my book is about music, as ‘Capriccio’ is mostly used as a musical term for a fast, merry piece. Assia’s story is far from merry, although she had some exciting times.  


Heads turned when Ted and Assia entered the Festival Hall on the opening night of the Festival. She looked strikingly beautiful, resplendent in glittering white satin, her skin glowing golden against the gown. Ted towered next to her, seeming immense against her delicacy, wearing his signature corduroy jacket, his hair unruly, looking every inch the romantic poet.

In keeping with the cosmopolitan theme of this star-studded occasion, Assia’s dark Semitic beauty was the perfect foil to English gentility. There were suppressed oohs and ahs, especially from some of the younger women. Assia moved with a haughty grace, ignoring stares, some of admiration, others mocking. Amongst the luminaries, Ted Hughes and Assia Gutmann reigned as the royal couple. To Assia, this night was a fulfilment of all her fantasies, enhanced by the bridal theme of her gown.

The visiting speakers included Pablo Neruda from Spain, Miroslav Holub from Czechoslovakia, and Allen Ginsberg from New York. For Ted and Assia the most important guest was Yehuda Amichai, from Israel. A leonine presence, Yehuda arrived escorting his young wife, Hannah. Assia had heard that he and Hannah had had a clandestine affair, and that Yehuda had left his wife for Hannah. The knowledge gave her hope that she, too, would one day walk at Ted’s side as his true wife.

Ted had discovered Yehuda’s work when researching for his book of translations. Immediately the two became friends; Ted was full of admiration for the poet’s honesty and courage. Like Assia, Amichai had fled the Nazis in Germany, but unlike her, had made Israel his permanent home.

‘My wife grew up in Israel,’ Ted told Yehuda, by way of recommending Assia as the translator of Amichai’s poems. Assia knew Ted was trying to ingratiate himself with the great poet, who’d become like a touchstone of a genius for him. Still, a small thrill of pleasure went through her, hearing Ted say the words ‘my wife.’ And to think he trusted her, Assia, with the translations.’We’ll work on Yehuda’s poems together,’ Ted had said , although he knew not a word of Hebrew. ‘You’ll do the technical part, finding the roughly equivalent words, while I’ll fashion the language into poetry.’

Assia was affronted; wasn’t she attuned enough to the nuances of the ancient language, to turn Amichai’s words, into the same powerful images in English? Ted didn’t seem to realise that translating was an art in itself, not just a technical exercise. Give me some credit, she thought, but didn’t say.