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Darker Fables

Writing and reviews. Adventures, maybe? Exciting, definitely.

Unicorns in August

I’m in Glasgow, holidaying. I’ve done all sorts of exciting things, like climbing The Lighthouse for an aerial view of the city, visiting Kelvingrove Park (I wrote a poem there, like a brooding misery no one should ever aspire to be), and walking Sauchiehall Street from end to end.

It’s been fun, but soon it will be time to go to Paris, and I’m in really quite a terrible state, having spent the past few days holed up in my friend’s flat whilst she works.

I’ve been house-hunting, and my goodness it is an awful, exasperating task.

Having trawled the sites, and sent an obscene number of requests for viewings, the only thing to do this afternoon is see who comes back to me. I feel burnt out, and really not at all ready to start university in less than a month, but if there’s one thing truer than all the rest, it’s that time waits for no one.

Tonight it will be cocktails, a third round of planning the wedding my best friend’s boyfriend has yet to propose, and goodbyes, again.

I think I must be getting quite good at them, by now.

Tomorrow, in the company of my little blue and green suitcase (more stylish than it sounds, I assure you), I’ll be off, back across the Channel, and into my first autumn abroad.

Like, aaah! How is it here already? How is my French still so bad? But there’s no time for theatrics. It’s time for me to grow up, and buckle up, for whatever lies ahead.

I really, really want a distinction for my MA thesis. And I think it’s feasible, but it means I’ve got to get organised. So tomorrow afternoon there’ll be no relaxing after the flight. I’ll be landing in Paris like a storm, and going to get things in order.

Wish me luck! Perhaps I’ll update soon, if this blogging streak continues…?

Once

There are princes and paupers,
poker-faced puppets too.
There are murderers with mercury hearts,
and mordant men, all waiting for you.

Love, my love, is as fine as they say.

All gossamer and filigree,
apples, sour, cast from the tree.
Nothing you have time for, these days.

This bread is so stale. See how it sits,
like a dead bird in your hand!

You cut your teeth and swallowed them,
white beads ground into sand.

© Deanna Scutt, 2017

Profiterole Girls

Hey, sick puppies,
lying, with your
bellies pressed to the floor.

I could kick you,
or I could tell you how
sorry I was, for going away.

There is a world
you don’t know. A universe
that your mother doesn’t like
to acknowledge.

It has no vegetation, and the waters
are wild. In more than one way
you don’t know how to swim.

I am still sick with pity
and cannot help but look back
on ripples that break the dark water
of my past.

There was so much
that I wanted to teach you,
but
but
but
and it’s hard to admit…
it
just wasn’t,
couldn’t be,
my place.

Boats came, and my ticket
was already damp in my hand.

Embarking, remarking
how the steam fluffed my hair,
I could not bear to acknowledge
her ignorance.

© Deanna Scutt, 2017

The Things I Miss

I’ve just left my family and childhood home behind me, and though I’m not quite back in Paris, I’ve been thinking a lot about the stretch of distance, and its effects on me.

I haven’t experienced homesickness in any chronic sense – at least not yet. I seem to miss things most when I have just left them, and then as a pang, rather than a pining. Give me a few days to settle into being away, and I’m invariably fine.

But that doesn’t mean I never think of what lies back across the ocean. Here is a list of the things that I miss most, excluding the obvious ones like friends and family. Any other expats out there, please feel free to add your own in the comments below!

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1. Brambles and country lanes

In Paris, walking is my favourite pastime. Pen and paper in bag, sometimes in the company of a good book, I like to wander, on long walks without destination, in no particular direction. I used to do the same thing when I lived in England, but since my local area was semi-rural, my strolls took place on riversides, or through miles of fields, where I would pick blackberries and sit under old trees watching sheep mill over the grass. I miss the British countryside, with the sound of the wind rustling through the hedges, and the blackbirds with their quick bright eyes.

2. The weather

I came home hoping to experience a downpour, and all the other various extremes of the crazy British weather. Paris has been, in spring and summer, the definition of a holiday destination. It has been lusciously warm and sunny, and I can think of only two occasions during my whole four months there in which things have swayed. In short, the weather in Paris is consistent, predictable, and boring. I miss the unpredictable nature of the British skies, and the way they dictate frantic spontaneity on rare days of good weather.

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3. The sea

This one came as no surprise to me, because the ocean is one of my great loves. I like to write about it, read about it, be in it, on it and beside it, sucking in lungfuls of brine. In Paris I can tell that I’m further from the shore. The air is different, and the wind less wild. I didn’t visit the beach that often when I had easy access to it, and I regret that as an opportunity wasted. One day, when I’m white-haired and my sight is failing, I envisage that I will take a little cottage on the coast, and listen to the waves every night as I fall asleep.

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4. British men

Whaaat? Deanna, you can’t be serious. But for all that I never predicted this, I am. It has taken going away and being surrounded by men from other cultures to make me realise that I value a cultural connection. French humour is not the same, and as diverse the selection of potential lovers in Paris is, it’s not a context in which I enjoy my foreignness. Culture and language create extra walls beyond the many I already struggle to climb when it comes to relationships. Sad, but true, is the admission that I live in the City of Love, but don’t anticipate much romance before I return to the UK.

5. Rubbish food

Sometimes you just want to eat dirt. Not literally, but something of equivalent nutritional value. In Paris, finding something that isn’t beautifully garnished, seasoned and sauced is a challenge. British food is awful, but I do kind of miss that, along with lots of other little things that I didn’t really notice until I’d left them behind.

Review: Zachary Mason’s ‘The Lost Books of the Odyssey’

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This is a beautiful, intelligent book. A collection of forty-four short stories that serve as retellings, gap-fillers and variations of Homer’s works, The Lost Books is lyrical, and reads with the lightness of a whisked sponge.

If I am honest, it is a little bit too intelligent for me. Much as I enjoyed the reading, there were parts that went higher than my mind can climb. At points this text drifts into a semi-surreal half-poem. It makes for a challenge, especially to one who is no scholar when it comes to the Greek myths.

However, this is a short book. At 228 pages, The Lost Books is not guilty of fluff. It simply delivers what it sets out to, and in concise, eloquent prose that is a real pleasure to read.

“With dauntless spirit you continue to struggle. By infinitesimal degrees, the load becomes lighter and your confinement less. At last, you push away a piece of coarse, heavy cloth and, relieved, feel that it was the last one. As it falls away, you realise you have been fighting through years.”

I am ashamed to admit that I went in narrow-minded, with low expectations. I have tried on several occasions, to read versions of The Odyssey and The Iliad, but without success. This book is the first adaption I have encountered which really struck a chord with me, and among its various passages I have several favourite stories, which I will list.

  • The Myrmidon Golem
  • A Night in the Woods
  • Decrement
  • Sirens
  • Death and the King
  • Bright Land
  • No Man’s Wife

The real talent of this book is, I think, the way Mason characterises Odysseus, the ever-changing, ambiguous protagonist who leads in most of the short tales. Mason succeeds in bringing humanity to a lofty ideal of a person who is more myth than substance, but without losing the ethereal fogginess of the source material.

I am not unhappy, despite the cold and monotony. There are many things to love about this place – the susurrus of falling snow, the tracks of deer and hare encircling the house, the black rooks landing heavily on laden branches and sending down white showers. And at night the wolves prowl my doorstep, their fur crusted with snow, hungry winter revenants howling their hopeless laments.

I have even learnt some new words from reading this book, and they are words I might actually want to find a use for – ‘susurrus’ for one. Could there be a more perfect word to describe the sound of snowflakes touching the ground?

All in all, this is a book that makes the cut. It is perhaps a little too clever for its own good, and therefore destined to a certain literary obscurity, but it is among the most well-written I have ever read, and it moved me, in a peculiar, prickling way.

I am confident that I will dip in again, and again. Perhaps, and this is something I rarely do out of wariness for one-hit wonders, I’ll even seek out the author’s other works.

“But I must come back once more when my days are done and then, finally, you will be waiting for me,” he said and reached out to touch her cheek but she slipped away like a fish in a stream.

Lions in July

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I have been summering at home. My stay in England has been idyllic, and something my finances really cannot sustain.

Before arrival I stuffed my schedule full of people, and have spent my two weeks flitting about like a bat trapped in a sheet in a desperate attempt to see everyone, everywhere.

I have been to London, walked three miles in a windstorm down by the coast, and toured the south in search of a sandy beach summer that never occurred. I went to the Ritz for afternoon tea, spent some valuable time with the best South African woman in the world (I’m not modest about the quality of my friends), learned how to put up wallpaper, and after one too many celebratory lunch the weight I lost over the past four months found me again.

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I also caught up on what I missed whilst I was away, like my brother’s spontaneous decision to grow a beard, and invitations to two weddings! One next summer, and one the spring after. I am ludicrously excited on behalf of my friends, and have already planned what to wear and who to bring as my plus one (I may be many things, but unprepared for a formal event is not one of them).

Really, if I’m quite honest, I’m not ready to go back to Paris just yet. I’ve seen most of the people I wanted to, but only once or twice, and it isn’t enough. Much as I love my Parisian life, it’s not a life in which everyone can visit me, and sometimes reunion makes a second parting all the harder.

And for the record, I was so completely right that coming home was going to be weird. The feeling was quite unnerving, because it was a new emotion I had never experienced before. A thousand tiny changes have occurred in my absence, funny, insigificant things which do not matter, but at the same time, mean a great deal.

The closest likeness I can draw is the frustrating feeling of finding a perfect sitting position, then moving and being unable to achieve the same satisfaction.

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But there’s no time to get quite comfortable, because already my time here is coming to an end, and it’s time for me to head north, on to Glasgow for a week of frolicking about and helping my friend move house. As I will be, when I eventually arrive back in Paris.

New families to work with, and uni to attend have necessitated a move across the city, so September is really going to be a new start for me. Paris: mark two.

For now, I have to pack. Maybe I’ll write from Glasgow. Maybe I won’t. Either way, bon été à tous (what’s left of it, anyway). Life goes on, and I must go.

Songbird

Hel is in her hall
with myriad silver ghosts,
and Hades is swimming in the river.

Glass kingdoms, these,
before those eternal realms,
where none but the dead are sleeping.

I have been called eloquent,
beautiful, and brave. But none of it
meant more than the name you gave me.

So afraid of you thinking me weak,
I sucked the ocean inside my stomach,
and held it until I was vomiting ships,
and splinters.

You were so quiet, you see, and I,
naïve, to think someone could be so
free as to move through life like the wind.

I love the secretive weaknesses
you keep. They are so like my own
that your face appears in the mirror.

My love, dear friend,
I can give you nothing,
no poison to sweeten the pain.

I am just here,
where I was, and will be,
and my ear is a conch
holding echoes of your voice.

© Deanna Scutt, 2017

Review: A.S. Byatt’s ‘Ragnarok’

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For a book about the end of everything, this is a lovely piece of literature. And strange. It’s the Norse version of the apocalypse, but it’s also the semi-autobiographical story of a young girl who believes her father will die in the Second World War.

Byatt’s Ragnarok is actually my first encounter with a more descriptive version of the myth than can be found on its Wikipedia page. I knew several aspects of the tale, but this was the first time everything was connected for me, from Yggdrasil to Loki in his chains.

Succinct, clever, and well-written, it’s a good example in how to write about yourself without writing a book just about you. It’s also about as lyrical as a novel can be before it shifts from prose to poetry, and sings with the wisdom of a mature and talented writer.

‘Puss in Boots, Baba Yaga, brownies, pucks and fairies, foolish and dangerous, nymphs, dryads, hydras and the white winged horse, Pegasus, all these offered the pleasure to the mind that the unreal offers when it is briefly more real than the visible world can ever be.’

Often with Norse myth adaptations I find the distinctly non-anglicised names steal attention from the rest of the prose for their unusual pronounciation. Many, like Ginnungagap and Jörmungandr do not ‘fit’ into English (not that anyone should expect them to), and draw attention to the inherent falsity of translation. Byatt’s writing has a wonderful ability to embrace these complex words.

Ragnarok uses an intellectual lexis, delving into old words that are almost, but not quite, forgotten, creating a work that is both foreign and familiar to read. It’s the first time I’ve read a book in which an author has done this without coming off as a walking thesaurus, or imbuing the text with an unpleasant density.

‘Loki wanted to learn from it – not exactly to master fire or water, but to map them. But beyond the curiosity there was delight. Chaos pleased him. He liked things to get more and more furious, more wild, more ungraspable. He was at home in turbulence.’

Like all the oldest tales, Ragnarök is an inherently epic story, and Byatt’s novel is part adaptation, part homage to the original myth. Her respect for the folklore sings through every line, together with her burning desire to do it justice.

I think she succeeds in creating something which has just the right balance of originality and intervention, though since the myth is not from my own culture I’m probably not the best judge. My conviction that this is a good version of the story stems from the fact that I would absolutely love to find the Arthurian legends of my native land written like this.

Really the only thing I can find fault with is the creeping way in which Byatt portrays her own critical, slightly condescending attitude towards Christianity. I’m not religious, and I don’t think this text is offensive to those who are, but I do believe the theme would have benefited from taking more of a back seat.

‘The sisters were spinners, who twisted the threads of fate. They were the gardeners and guardians of the Tree. They watered the tree with the black well-water. They fed it with pure white clay, aurr. So it decayed, or was diminished, from moment to moment. So it was always renewed.’

In short, this novel is a really good introduction to the flesh of Norse mythology, especially if you would like to read something with more subtlety and intelligence than might be found in a children’s novel.

And if you already know the mythos well, it’s just as enjoyable as a beautiful, artistic portrayal of the end of Asgard.

Review: Susanne Winnacker’s ‘The Other Life’

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two-black-star-rating-hi

Well the good news is this book made me laugh. The bad news is I don’t think it was supposed to. I reserve one star reviews for books which are truly irredeemable, but I’m telling you, this one doesn’t miss it by much.

It is the epitome of the generic YA dystopian novel. The logical inconsistencies are not so much plot holes as bottomless chasms. The story is at best unbelievable and badly written. At its worst it is chilling evidence for the case that publishing houses employ some terrible editors. Some really terrible editors.

And then there are the characters, who are among the blandest I have ever encountered. Our red-haired (red-haired – we are told this multiple times) protagonist, Sherry, likes to count and think about boys. I can’t tell you anything else, because she is otherwise devoid of personality. The love interest, Joshua, may be an actual robot. His cringe-inducing dialogue is of a similar level to that of a self-checkout machine. And the descriptions aren’t much better…

‘I liked the sight of our entwined fingers, like honey and milk. Joshua gave me a sideways glance and when he noticed my eyes on him he pulled his hand back, curling his fingers around the steering wheel. I missed his touch.’

There are some other characters, but why mention them? Sherry doesn’t really, and they aren’t relevant to the plot. All this girl is interested in is Joshua. He’s blonde (so blonde – he must be, since we are told this ninety-nine times), and says shit a lot. Like, urgh, who wouldn’t want this dreamboat with a troubled past to sweep in and save their life?

And Sherry needs saving. You think you can get yourself into a difficult situation? Well sit down and let me tell you the story of a master disaster.

Sherry’s dad, prior to the rabid mutant zombie apolcalypse, built a bunker under his house with a push-bike generator that has the convenient power to provide a limitless supply of clean water. Pretty neat, I agree. But then Sherry’s dad, the so-called ‘survival expert’, waits until they are sharing the last can of food between six people (grandpa’s dead body is in the freezer and it’s not causing any pyschological issues, by the way), before waiting a further two days, and only then making the spontaneous decision to emerge. Weak with hunger, accompanied by his teenage daughter, he goes to sniff out some more supplies.

Also, the family ran out of soap three weeks prior. Six people, confined in a small bunker, with no soap. Not that maybe this might cause some problems worth mentioning? I guess Joshua has no sense of smell, or Sherry had more important subtle insights to share.

‘His eyes were glassy and red. He must have been crying.’

Anyway, the undoubtedly gag-inducing stink duo head out, and Sherry’s dad gets kidnapped by some rabid zombies. His two-dimensional character becomes, thereafter, a plot device, and we head into the territory of inane teenage romance.

We stay there. There are a few further attempts at action and drama, but whenever Sherry isn’t oogling Joshua’s biceps and blue-eyed blondeness, she’s thinking about doing so. In short, she’s a vacuous bore who doesn’t care about anything but lover boy’s approval, not that anyone really minds, because young (so instant that there’s no reason to question the authenticity) love, is just so cute, right?

You may be wondering why I didn’t just give this sickening lump of words one star and have done with it. I did consider it, but having powered through to the end, I was rewarded by a plot twist. It’s not worth reading the book for, but it’s a vague suggestion that the sequel might be better. Life is, however, too short, so I won’t be bothering.

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