Author Tags: Fiction
Shortlisted for the 2004 Giller Prize, Pauline Holdstock's Beyond Measure (2003) is a tale of love and mischief exploring the twin themes of beauty and cruelty in 16th century Italy. When the artist Paolo Pallavicino acquires his patron's discarded slave from North Africa, he finds himself in possession of an extraordinary girl whose skin is black and white. Chiara, as she comes to be known, is a an object of both fascination and fear. Passed from painter to painter she is a silent witness to the dangerous games of the artists and the rivalries that fuel their creations. Beyond Measure received the 2005 Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize.
Set in the province of Honan during the Chinese Boxer Rebellion, The Blackbird's Song (1990) follows three young Canadian missionaries as they flee for their lives, severely testing their faith in the process. The novel was shortlisted for the W.H. Smith/Books In Canada First Novel Award and was published in the United Kingdom. The Burial Ground (1991) explores the 19th century collision of cultures when smallpox was decimating the Indians of West Coast. The novel was also published in Germany. Holdstock's third novel, House (1994) is a darkly comic novel set in a decaying London of the near future. Her collection of short fiction, Swimming from the Flames (1995), was followed by The Turning (1996), a novel set in France in 1870-71, against the backdrop of the Franco-Prussian war. After the wreck of an English ship, a daughter and mother must cope with the arrival of a stranger in their village. Her collection of literary and reflective essays, Mortal Distractions (2004), includes her views of writing historical fiction and the 'conundrum of being Canadian'.
According to publicity materials: "Appearing only fleetingly in the historical record of the Hudson’s Bay Company are the native women who lived at the company’s Prince of Wales Fort and served as “country wives” to the European traders. Into the Heart of the Country tells the story of Molly Norton, mixed-blood daughter of Governor Moses Norton and personal favourite of explorer Samuel Hearne. Molly speaks to the reader from across the centuries, revealing the story of her liaison with Hearne, and exposing both its privilege and its price. When Molly’s small society is torn apart by a French attack, the women of the fort, including Molly, find themselves and their children abandoned by their British masters. In one of history’s cruel ironies, the women must fend for themselves in the harsh country from which their own ancestors sprang."
Born in Gravesend, England in 1948, Holdstock graduated from London University in 1969. She has taught in England, the Bahamas and Canada. Holdstock has won the Federation of B.C. Writers Prize for Fiction, the Matrix/Random House Prize for Fiction and the Prairie Fire Personal Journalism contest. She immigrated via Montreal in 1974, coming first to Vancouver and then settling in Sidney.
The Hunter and the Wild Girl (Goose Lane 2015) was shortlisted for the 2016 Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. Into the Heart of the Country, was longlisted for the 2012 Giller Prize. Her novel, Beyond Measure, was a finalist for the 2004 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, Canada and Caribbean Region. A recent novella, The World of Light Where We Live, was the winner of the Malahat Review 2006 Novella Contest. She was the winner of the Prairie Fire Personal Journalism Prize, 2000.Holdstock has taught at the Victoria School of Writing and at the University of Victoria. She has served on the faculty of the Banff Centre Wired Writing Studio, and the Banff Writing with Style program.
The Hunter and the Wild Girl (Goose Lane 2015) $29.95 9780864928627
Into the Heart of the Country (HarperCollins 2011)
Mortal Distractions (Thistledown, 2004)
Beyond Measure (Cormorant, 2003)
The Turning (New Star, 1996)
Swimming from the Flames (Turnstone, 1995)
House (Beach Holme, 1994)
The Burial Ground (New Star, 1991; Baum Publications, 1992)
The Blackbird's Song (Simon & Pierre, 1987; Peter Halban, 1990; Cormorant, 2005)
[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2016] "Fiction" "Interview"
Beyond Measure, (Cormorant $22.95) 2003 Interview
Pauline Holdstock’s fifth novel, Beyond Measure, (Cormorant $22.95) is a fanciful tale of slavery, art, love and mischief in 16th century Italy. Stolen from her family in Africa and auctioned into servitude, Chiara, as she becomes known, enters the home of artist Paolo Pallavicino. The artist’s wife decides Chiara is cursed. Passed from painter to painter, the piebald slave is convinced she is ugly. She is a silent witness to the dangerous games the artists play and the rivalries that fuel their creations.
BCBW: Here you are in Sidney, writing about a black slave within the world of European painting. What happened to that old maxim, ‘Write about what you know’?
HOLDSTOCK: I’ve never been able to do that. I write to find out what I can know. It’s much more exciting. Ideas erupt. It’s a process that kicks in once you go into the deep dark woods without a map. You find trails you didn’t know existed.
BCBW: Why did you want the slave girl Chiara to have a disfigurement?
HOLDSTOCK: I don’t know. The disfigurement was the starting point. The book was originally to be set in early twentieth-century B.C. But I realized I’d had enough of all this endless dark green and all these endless trees! I wanted sunlight and colour and a different kind of beauty. Once I’d decided to relocate in the imagination to Italy, the Renaissance and the world of art were like a lode star. What would happen to such a soul as Chiara in the context of this ever-present search for beauty?
BCBW: You invented a skin pigmentation defect for her, then discovered such a disorder really exists. What is the name of the disorder? How did you find out about it?
HOLDSTOCK: A family member in England told me the condition really exists when I was about halfway through the book. I didn’t really want to follow it up. I suppose I wanted it to remain as my creation. I thought I was writing pure fiction. But of course there’s no such thing. Then I came upon a reference to a ‘pied black child’ in one of Rikki Ducornet’s essays and even Chiara started to become ‘real.’ I read Rosamond Purcell’s book, ‘Special Cases’, and that took me back to Comte de Buffon’s ‘Histoire Naturelle’ of 1778 in which the case of a slave named Mary Sabina is fully documented. Since then, I’ve been on the internet and found out about a fairly common condition called vitiligo. There are also cases of partial albinism that occur most commonly in Africa.
BCBW: How did knowing there was a ‘real-life’ equivalent for Chiara affect the course of what you were writing?
HOLDSTOCK: It was a fantastic validation of the power of the imagination. I’ll think of it from now on as my license to invent. But it didn’t really alter the course of the book. I learned about the historical child—one Mary Sabina from Cartagena, Colombia—too late. Just as well, or I’d have had to move the whole story to South America.
BCBW: Chiara seems to be as disadvantaged by her self-image as she is by her slavery. She feels she’s “an ugly creature as low as the spotted cow in the barn.” Have you always been intrigued by the concept of beauty and how cruel it can seem?
HOLDSTOCK: I’d say I’ve always been intrigued by the situation of the disadvantaged, the ‘lesser’ in society. Maybe that’s the connection. I have characters such as Tots in my book ‘House’ and Poor-Baby-Thomas in The Burial Ground. In North America, in the 21st century, we’re close to regarding someone as being disadvantaged if they lack beauty. Wasn’t there a president of MENSA who recently said she thought looks were a more important asset than intelligence? On a more profound level, I’m fascinated by the devastation that real beauty can wreak. Think Thomas Mann’s Death In Venice. Think of that ecstasy that is close to complete surrender in the face of real beauty. Think of the cruelty of sunset.
BCBW: Why you were drawn to write about 16th century Italy in the first place?
HOLDSTOCK: Once the book was begun I had to go for the research! [Laughter] How foolish not to! I went to Florence and immersed myself in that world, for too short a time. I’m still studying Italian.
BCBW: In researching slavery for Beyond Measure, were you astonished by how little you knew about the subject?
HOLDSTOCK: Absolutely. I still know so little. It’s a big, complex subject. Most astonishing to me was the fact that slaves were so common in 14th and 15th -century Italy and that the institution of slavery really only came to an end there in the eighteenth-century.
BCBW: The thought arises that people who are racial descendants of slaves have necessarily dealt with the issue of slavery; whereas those of us who are descendants of the slave traders have avoided it almost entirely. Our lack of education about the phenomenon is staggering.
HOLDSTOCK: I agree that it’s our responsibility to look at the past. A certain set of beliefs and assumptions made slavery possible. Similar assumptions, undetected, can enable other forms of oppression to continue today. We have to look at them. But I really don’t want to divide the world into descendents of slaves and descendents of slavetraders. The real division for me is between those with a will to abuse power and achieve their ends by violence and those without that will. I know there are more of us in the latter group and I hope we can stand side by side.
BCBW: Is the painting on your cover the actual image of the pie-bald slave?
HOLDSTOCK: No. The girl on the cover is Chiara as she might want to be, unblemished.
BCBW: In what way is this sixth novel a breakthrough in terms of your fiction?
HOLDSTOCK: I’m so interested that you should ask that because it is for me something of a personal breakthrough. When I began it, I made a conscious decision not to censor my material, my subject matter. And that decision came about through the work of the Saskachewan painter, Elyse St. George. She had brought some of her strange, fantastic and very beautiful paintings to show at the Sidney Reading Series which I was co-hosting with M.A.C. Farrant. To account for their richness, Elyse told me that she had learned at Banff to allow whatever was in the psyche to arise. I wanted that same richness so I went with whatever arose although some of the material was alarming to say the least.
BCBW: There has been an argument that so-called whites mustn’t write fiction about so-called natives. And yet I expect nobody is going to challenge you for imagining the emotional life of a 16th century black slave. Has the concept of literary trespassing ever inhibited you?
HOLDSTOCK: No. The human heart is a constant, across time and across space. There will never be a society on earth where love and hate, joy and grief don’t exist. It’s not an issue. 1-896951-49-X
Born in Gravesend, England, Pauline Holdstock graduated from London University in 1969. She has taught in England, the Bahamas and Canada. She immigrated via Montreal in 1974, coming to Vancouver. Her stories and poems have been widely published in periodicals. Her first novel, The Blackbird’s Song, is set in the Honan province of China during the Boxer Rebellion, when three young Canadian missionaries must flee for their lives, severely testing their faith in the process. The novel was shortlisted for the W.H. Smith/Books In Canada First Novel Award and was published in the United Kingdom. Her follow-up novel, The Burial Ground, was published in Germany. The House is a darkly comic novel set in a decaying London of the near future. Her collection of short fiction, Swimming from the Flames, was followed by The Turning, a novel set in France, in 1870-71, against the backdrop of the Franco-Prussian war. After the wreck of an English ship, a daughter and mother must cope with the arrival of a stranger in their village.
[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2003] "Interview"
The Hunter and the Wild Girl (Goose Lane $29.95)
from Cherie Theissen
Pauline Holdstock’s seventh novel, The Hunter and the Wild Girl is set in a remote, lofty estate near the town of Gougeac in France, during the 19th century.
For thirteen years, Peyre Rouff has been the reclusive steward of Chateau d’Aveyrac, a crumbling old hunting lodge belonging to the de Villiers family.
Tormented by an unspeakable tragedy—a hunting accident that cost him his family—Rouff, also a talented taxidermist, lives alone with his trusty old dog.
Into this isolation creeps a hungry, wild child; a feral girl. Her innocence is anything but angelic and pretty.
Naked, filthy, spitting, defecating, snarling and lapping water on all fours, this creature is no romantic symbol and yet she lifts her arms to the light; she knows joy.
Questions immediately arise for the reader.
Will he domesticate her? Will she heal him?
Is love going to germinate out of need?
If the novel were only about Rouff and his taming of the wild girl, it would still be fascinating, but Holdstock isn’t interested in making a new, coarser version of My Fair Lady.
The countryside in the hunter and the Wild Girl is still full of impenetrable forests and inhospitable wilderness, a place where wild creatures are plentiful.
The steward is anchored in his hideaway by three things: the nearby grave he attends, his ageing canine companion and his passion for taxidermy.
With his sought-after skills as a taxidermist, Rouff has created a veritable forest of Eden with a myriad of life-like birds and stuffed creatures in the orangerie (outbuildings on the grounds of wealthy estates).
Alongside his own dead and unpopulated world, he has created a glade and brought the dead into it, giving them a life he does not have and placing them in a beautiful world of his own creation, perhaps the closest he feels he can get to heaven.
I contacted the author and asked if the feral girl was based upon the story of Victor of Aveyron (1788-1828), a French feral child who was found around age nine. He kept running away until a young physician worked with him for five years.
“The true story of Victor of Aveyron certainly contains elements a fiction writer can use to great effect,” says Holdstock. “His adoption and subsequent abandonment by the scientific community is one.
“I like to think the wild girl is all my own, but the fact is you can never truly create something from nothing. Everything is absorbed. She exists in the context of all known feral children (and perhaps those still to appear).
“What is more interesting to me is the continuing readiness of society as a whole to embrace the concept of a truly wild child.
“What does that readiness mean? A longing for lost innocence?”
Holdstock told me she had been making notes for some time about known cases of feral children with a view to a possible novel.
The idea only took fire after she had visited the Musee de La Chasse et de La Nature in Paris and began to work on an entirely different novel, one about a reclusive and damaged hunter.
“The girl has a very special place in it,” Holdstock says, “but it’s not her story. It’s really his.”
Because this novel was not based on any historical figures and because it was set in Languedoc, where the author now spends about half of her time, Holdstock says the novel was relatively quick to write. By ‘relatively quick’ she means just under five years from the first notes she made.
“I work in a chaotic and ill-advised manner, beginning with an image or a flavour,” she says. “I start writing and do my research on an ad hoc basis as the need arises. Making discoveries keeps it exciting for me and that interest and excitement hopefully permeates the text and is passed on to the reader.”
While the plot mainly explores what it means to be human, Holdstock also touches upon political ambition, the attitudes of 19th century Parisians toward the rest of the country, the different ways in which guilt can be packaged and unwrapped, the germination of love in youth, the ways in which a marriage and a family can unravel and the ways in which life can spring anew.
“I can only look at such complex questions through the medium of fiction,” says Holdstock. “For me it’s the right tool to approach intangibles. What does it mean to be human? To be able to connect with one another? To empathize? To love? And is there a cost? What is it we might lose?”
In Pauline Holdstock’s unwavering grip, The Hunter and the Wild Girl is extremely readable, thought provoking and engaging. It’s for each individual reader to decide why the story resonates as unforgettable fiction.
Pauline Holdstock’s first novel, The Blackbird’s Song, was set in the Chinese province of Honan during the Boxer Rebellion. Her second novel, The Burial Ground, explored the collision of cultures when smallpox was decimating the First Nations on the West Coast of B.C. In 2005, Beyond Measure won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize for exploring the twin themes of beauty and cruelty in 16th century Italy.
Cherie Thiessen has
reviewed fiction on a regular basis for BC BookWorld for the past ten years.