In 1950s England, six-year-old Gracie Scott lives with her Mam and next door to her best friend Billy; she has never known her Da. When her Uncle Joe moves in, his physical abuse of Gracie’s mother starts almost immediately. But when his attentions wander to Gracie, an even more sinister pattern of behaviour begins.
As Gracie grows older, she finds solace and liberation in books, poetry and her enduring friendship with Billy. Together they escape into the poetic fairy-tale worlds of their imaginations.
But will fairy tales be enough to save Gracie from Uncle Joe's psychopathic behaviour - and how far will it go?
Today I welcome Kerensa Jennings to my blog with a guest post. Thank you so much Kerensa for coming along and for sharing a post all about your book of a lifetime!
A Book of a Lifetime by Kerensa Jennings
I've often thought about what my Desert Island Books would be... the ones that characterise who I am and what I love. The ones which in some way help me escape my life - or help me understand it. I tend to write to process feelings, thoughts, instincts and consequences; I tend to read to seek solace or to make sense of things.
Katherine asked me about books that have provided some comfort, escapism or insight for me – so I have chosen one book in particular to share here which has done each of those things. It also provided the inspiration for an important aspect of my psychological thriller.
For those who have read the reviews of SEAS OF SNOW – you will know it is a very dark story with some very upsetting themes. It was originally inspired by my time leading the BBC News coverage of the Soham investigation. I worked closely with Cambridgeshire Police and got to know the evidence of the case in intimate detail. SEAS OF SNOW goes to some very challenging and heart wrenching places, and writing it was my way of seeking catharsis. What happened at Soham broke the heart of a nation, destroyed the lives of two families and their friends, and profoundly affected so many people, including me. SEAS OF SNOW explores whether evil is born or made, and examines the mind and motives of a psychopath.
As a counterpoint to that, I wanted to find a way of offering light to offset the dark. Re-reading the work I talk about here today gave me my way of doing just that.
The book I have recommended to others the most is Rainer Maria Rilke's 'Letters to a Young Poet'. This is a very slim volume of correspondence, written by a somewhat obscure Austro-Bohemian poet many people will never have heard of. Rilke wrote in German, and the letters were penned over several years when he was still of very tender age himself, but cast in the role of counsel and elder.
Rilke (1875-1926) was one of the most extraordinary poets that has ever lived, known for his lyricism and inspirational philosophies about life. The Letters are beautifully written words of hope, enlightenment and succour. They hold you by the hand, catch you when you fall, and lull you into self-belief where none existed before.
There are only ten letters in this small book, so you can just read one before bed time, or with a cuppa in between chores, or in your lunchbreak.
Rilke wrote them over a period of five years to a young man called Franz Kappus who was just nineteen years old and about to enter the German military. Kappus wrote to Rilke, who was then only 27 years old, shyly sharing some of his poetry and seeking guidance in life and asking Rilke to critique his literary work.
The Letters are written in prose but with a lilting lyricism that dances the words off the page in melodies and word pictures. They are so beautifully crafted I would categorise them as prose poems. Their power whisks you away, makes you think, and helps you calm.
Some people accuse Rilke of being overly sentimental, and maybe the fact I love him so much says something about me…. but I just swim in his soothing tones and feel my pain and trouble slowly ebb away.
One critic has described the Letters as “a virtual owner's manual on what it is (and what is required) to be an artist and a person.” I would say they provide a guiding light when times feel bleak and particularly those occasions when you feel you don’t know where to turn.
The protagonist in SEAS OF SNOW - the psychological thriller I am talking about at the Bibliomaniac book event in July - is called Gracie Scott. We meet her when she is just five years old, and learn how uncle Joe appears in her life, changing it forever. Through the book, she discovers a passion for both playtime and poetry as a means to escape her traumas and torments. She delights in the words and sounds of poetry and stories to liberate her – even for a moment – from the darkness of her life.
A kindly English teacher introduces Gracie to poetry so she gets to dip her toes into its delights slowly and carefully… and we get to experience poetry through the eyes of a child, making it less intimidating and difficult.
Mr Hall tells Gracie:
‘Poetry is the most marvellous Secret Key to escaping real life and disappearing into a world of your own. It’s your very own Castle of Make-Believe.’
‘I’m not sure I understand, sir . . .’
‘Well, Gracie, the clever thing about poetry is that each and every person will read a poem in their own way, bringing with them their own experiences and perceptions and opinions and prejudices. Each and every person will see different things in different ways. An interpretation of understanding here, a shade of emotion there. And the layers! You would be amazed all the hidden layers there are in poetry – but unlike in maths, there’s no “right” or “wrong” answer. All that matters is how it makes you feel, and what it makes you think.
‘There are word patterns and sounds; clever loops and references and what we call sonic echoes, where the sounds words and syllables make reflect each other and echo each other. Some people will spot some things, other people will spot others. Some people will hear things, some people won’t. That’s the beauty of it, Gracie.’
There follows a passage where they talk about a poem he introduces her to. By the end of that chapter, Mr Hall concludes:
'Poetry, if you let it, will help you make sense of the world. It can be your solace and your friend, even in the loneliest of times. Your escape. Your Secret Key.’
And with that, Gracie becomes hooked.
A poetic passage from Rilke's Letters becomes the talisman of her life. It's a prose poem that offers comfort, kindness and safety. All the things Gracie craves and yearns for.
How should we be able to forget those ancient myths
That are at the beginning of all peoples.
The myths about dragons
That at the last moment turn into princesses.
Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses
Who are only wanting to see us
Once beautiful and brave.
Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being
Something helpless, that wants help from us.
So you must not be frightened
If a sadness rises up before you
Larger than any you have ever seen.
If a restiveness like light and cloud shadows
Passes over your hands and over all you do
You must think that something is happening with you,
That life has not forgotten you.
That it holds you in its hand.
It will not let you fall.
I first discovered the works of Rilke as a student. I absolutely loved his choice of words, the music and melody of his cadences. I have later read some exquisite translations of his work. Even in English you can sense the purity and the beauty of the writing.
I have come back to Rilke time and time again throughout my life. I find his words give me that little lift I need sometimes, when navigating challenges and heartache. One way of describing it is to say I use Rilke as self-help. It really works! I'd recommend 'Letters to a Young Poet' to anyone going through troubled times or feeling anxiety, a lack of self-belief, or fear of the unknown. From matters of the heart to family and career... Rilke has some inspirational words to lift and inspire you.
In the foreword of SEAS OF SNOW, I have chosen an extract from the Letters to dedicate to my god daughter, two nieces and nephew.
For Ella, Anya, Rahul and Scarlett
Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a vey foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
Rainer Maria Rilke
It’s true we don’t always have the answers. Life throws untold challenges and difficulties at us, and it can be hard to cope sometimes, especially when you feel bereft and alone. I like the quiet optimism of Rilke’s Letters, the way their soft, gentle encouragement help steer you. You might be navigating stormy waters, but Rilke makes you feel you will, in time, reach the break in the clouds. The sea will settle into tranquillity, the sun will warm your face and lift your heart. Tomorrow is another day, and Rilke’s ‘Letters to a Young Poet’ will hold you by the hand as you get there.
Thank you so much Kerensa, this is a truly fascinating post and I'm so looking forward to meeting you in July and hearing more about your novel and writing process.
If you would like to come along and meet Kerensa then click on the link below to buy a ticket!
Tickets are £10 and include a free drink, a goody bag, entry into a raffle and the chance to mingle with the three authors after hearing them chat about their novels!
To book a ticket for this event where you can hear more from Kerensa, please click on the link below:
To listen to an extract from the opening of Seas of Snow and a little bit more about Kerensa Jennings you can listen to her on this podcast, BackListed. Kerensa's interview is at about 23:54 - the whole recording is an hour long and Kerensa's bit is only about 6 minutes long - and is really interesting. As well as finding out a bit about Kerensa and her motivation for writing this novel, there is also an extract to listen to which is a great way of getting a sneak peak at Seas of Snow! Click on the link below to hear the podcast.
You can follow Kerensa on Twitter or via her website:
Kerensa Jennings is a storyteller, strategist, writer, producer and professor.
Kerensa's TV work took her all over the world, covering everything from geo-politics to palaeontology, and her time as Programme Editor of Breakfast with Frost coincided with the life-changing events of 9/11.
The knowledge and experience she gained in psychology by qualifying and practicing as an Executive Coach has only deepened her fascination with exploring the interplay between nature and nurture, and with investigating whether evil is born or made - the question at the heart of Seas of Snow.
As a scholar at Oxford, her lifelong passion for poetry took flight. Kerensa lives in West London and over the last few years has developed a career in digital enterprise.
Seas of Snow is her first novel and was published by Unbound in March 2017.
For more recommendations and reviews follow me on Twitter @KatherineSunde3 or via my website bibliomaniacuk.co.uk