Melissa Bailey Myths and Legends Guest Blog


Myths and Legends

Why is my face so dark, so dark?
So dark, oho! So dark, ohee!
Out in all weathers I wander alone
In the mire, in the cold, ah me!

(Wonder tales from Scottish Myth and Legend by Donald Alexander Mackenzie)

According to legend, Dark Beira, the subject of this refrain, is the mother of all the gods and goddesses of Scotland. The Queen of Winter, she is ancient, angry and terrifying, her complexion dark blue, her teeth rust red, her hair as white as frost. She roams the wilds of the north, growing ever older, but never dies. Because always, at the end of winter, she drinks the magic waters of the Well of Youth, which bubbles up in the Green Island of the West, and grows young again. Then the whole pattern repeats in an endless cycle.

‘I don’t believe it,’ says Sam, Freya’s son in Beyond the Sea. ’Beira couldn’t grow old that quickly and then become young again. I think it’s really just a story about the seasons.’ Indeed. But nonetheless I love it.

I’m a huge fan of myths and legends – tales which, as Freya says, ‘might not be fact, that can’t be proved, but still might be something we choose to believe in.’ They are narratives which explain ancient cultures, their customs and history, their anthropomorphic approach to nature and the landscape around them. What is Beira, after all, but the creation of a people concerned by nature’s long, hard winters and relieved by the almost miraculous arrival of spring? Beira, like the harsh weather itself, rouses the dangerous whirlpool of the Corryvreckan (by washing her shawl within its waters), brings the snow (by laying her clean white shawl upon the mountains) and creates torrents that cause lochs to form (by forgetting to cover over a bubbling well).

In the western islands of Scotland, there are also many myths of the sea. They find their origins perhaps in the restlessness of the ocean currents, but are then transformed into stories of the Blue Men, who seek to sink ships in the perilous waters of the Minch, or the Maid of the Waves, who, like the tides, protect and curse in equal, fickle measure. The stories are rich and colourful, demonstrating the ancient acceptance of the supernatural in the everyday – mermaids, sea fairies and seal-folk, the magical Green Island hidden in the west, where the spirit of spring resides. As a lover of both history and myth, it is the exploration of the crossover, one into the other, that I find particularly fascinating and love to explore in my own writing – the blurred line between fiction and fact in storytelling, between what is ‘real’ and what is imagined. And that in some cases fact is indeed stranger than fiction.

As old blind Torin, a storyteller in Beyond the Sea, says, ‘Just because a strange thing happens, it doesn’t mean it cannot be true. Strange things happen every day, peculiar things, odd coincidences, events that come to pass that perhaps we have dreamt about. We have more difficulty accepting these things as real. But it does not mean they are not so…’

Melissa Bailey’s second novel, Beyond the Sea, came out earlier this month. This is the book that will linger in your mind as you enjoy your beach holiday. Thought-provoking and compelling, I have reviewed Beyond the Sea and Melissa’s first novel, The Medici Mirror. Look out for my interview with Melissa coming soon to Authors QH.


Launching Authors HQ with Heidi James

Having read and reviewed books for nearly two years now I wanted to go in a new direction, taking some of my comments direct to authors. So Authors QH was born.

Authors QH is a space for me to interview authors. Firstly asking questions of my own, but hopefully in time asking your questions as well.

Have a look at the page and my interview with award-winning author, Heidi James, and let me know what you think.

The Death House by Sarah Pinborough

I enjoy and admire Sarah Pinborough’s writing and looked forward to reading The Death House. Set at some distance from today, in the stable aftermath of wide-spread disease in which those with defective genes turned into something monstrous – what is never made clear, but it’s implied to be something like a zombie – most of the population are healthy. Most.

Everyone is tested and some, like Toby, are found to have the defective gene that leads them to the Death House. As all those above 18 are safe, all the tested are young. They are taken from their families and locked up in a kind of boarding school in which nurses, particularly Matron, watch for any sign of sickness.

Toby is the novel’s protagonist. As one of the older boys, he has taken charge of Dorm 4. He does his best not to engage with others, not to form bonds, but just to pass the time until he’s taken to the sanatorium. He sleeps in the day and wanders the house alone at night, having refused to take his ‘vitamin’.

Then new inmates arrive and everything changes. Clara, both beautiful and rebellious, brings a new spirit to the house. Toby is forced to question his disdain, his distance and his night-time domain.

I raced through the book waiting to discover more about the disease, more about its role in society, whether even it was a disease at all or just a method of population control and, whilst I enjoyed all of these uncertainties and found them compelling, the book ended before I’d really had my fill. I wanted the ideas to have deeper foundations. I wanted the novel to stretch beyond the children’s sphere, using confrontations, overheard adult conversations, or evidential discoveries to lend greater insights into the wider world of the novel. But this didn’t happen in quite the way I wanted and left the novel feeling that more could have been invested in it.

I think readers who like exploring human nature in isolation and under the pressure of immanent death will still enjoy the book – the writing is as fluid as ever – but I feel Sarah Pinborough could have pushed these ideas further. The Language of Dying, which if you haven’t read you should, remains my favourite of her books as it isn’t afraid to stretch out beyond the confines of the novel’s setting. I’m sure some might say that The Death House would be a great novel for young adults, but my reservations would remain. Children and adults are all deserving of fully realised ideas and even though The Death House is a fun and thought provoking read, I think it could have been more.

Next week: I’m reading The Emperor Waltz by Philip Hensher; I’m very excited to be hosting a guest blog by Melissa Bailey; and my new venture, Authors QH, launches today with the wonderful Heidi James. Watch out for another blog post later this morning.

The Remains of Love by Zeruya Shalev

It is a real joy to pick up a book by an author I have so far admired and feel that admiration deepen. The Remains of Love is the second novel I’ve read by Zeruya Shalev, and though Love Life has a very different tone Shalev’s talent for transcribing the jumps and spirals of thought and emotion is eloquent and intense, as if you really are stepping into someone else’s mind. I find her writing intoxicating, such that it’s hard to tear myself from the page.

The Remains of Love follows the last year of Hemda’s life through her own and her children’s voices and, despite the lack of marked labelling, each voice is so distinct there is no confusion over who is speaking.

This last year of Hemda’s life is full of the emotional turmoil that terminal illness brings. Hemda and her children, Avner and Dina, re-evaluate their lives in the face of death: Hemda revisits her childhood and her decision to leave the kibbutz with her family; Avner confronts the difficulties of his marriage; Dina faces the menopause and a teenage daughter with a longing for intimacy.

It is easy to describe these plotlines in such a way as to make them banal. Even when you add in the problems of inter-familial relationships that exist in abundance between the three characters one could still approach this topic with a sentimental touch, but The Remains of Love is so much more. Longing and desire are not just about a need to love and be loved, to create bonds stronger than law, they stretch out into the politics of identity of the self as well as the state. The writing is sharp and bursting with all the vivid turns of consciousness.

I want to write more about what happens to Hemda and Avner and Dina. I want to share the beauty of Shalev’s family myth in which death and life spring from each other, and the brilliance in which nature and nurture are compared at all levels from leaves in the breeze, empty fishing nets and drained lakes, to children and adults locked in the chains of their upbringing by both parents and state. Were I to do this the unravelling of the plot would be spoiled so I merely promise you an engrossing and intelligent read.

For people who love writing to transport them into the minds of others, who want their experience challenged and expanded, who want to live through others’ eyes, this is your kind of book.

As I read The Remains of Love I felt myself returned to my adolescent self, reading the classics for the first time, indulging in an intensity of shared experience that left me with a kind of ecstatic mania. There are few writers capable of this combination of intellect and raw emotion that creates works whose beautiful shape and form carries emotional and philosophical punch. If I were part of the Nobel Prize literary team, I’d put Zeruya Shalev’s name on my list.

Next week I’m reading The Death House by Sarah Pinborough followed by Gospel Prism by Gerald Weaver. My Authors QH starts this week too. Watch out for updates.

Beyond the Sea by Melissa Bailey

Freya has returned to her lighthouse keeper’s home a year after the disappearance of her husband and son out at sea. Her hair white with shock, her mind full of dreams, legends and loss, she seeks the keys to unlock the mystery of her family’s demise. These keys are both metal and metaphysical.

When she discovers a box of secrets in her son’s room, the keys that unlock the door into the lighthouse bring her closer than ever to understanding how he and her husband died.

This is a novel to read on a beach where the sound of the waves would add an ominous backdrop to the real mystery at the heart of this novel, the unfathomable depths of the ocean itself. The mix of mourning, Hebridean legend – about the Green Island, mermaids and the inner eye – and our innate fear of the ocean is enticing. Myth works well with heady human emotion, especially when it’s accompanied by a journey both emotional and physical.

There are some aspects of the novel that work less well for me. I’m not sure why Freya takes so long over the reading of some lost sailor’s letters. Nor do I entirely believe the voice of her ten-year-old son’s diary. These are minor quibbles though because the story and its writing, particularly of Freya, are enough to carry me through.

Beyond the Sea lightly shines a warning beacon upon intense emotions experienced in isolation. I can see Melissa Bailey’s writing growing more accomplished and I’m eager to discover what she will write next.

Beyond the Sea is out on the 16th July and Melissa Bailey will be interviewed by me not long after as part of a new section of my website ‘Authors Questioned Here’ in which I will interview authors about their work. I’ll keep you updated on the launch of this venture. My first interview is with the wonderful Heidi James whose novella The Mesmerists’ Daughter won the Saboteur Award for Best Novella 2015.

Next week I’m reading The Remains of Love by Zerula Shalev.