Review: Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments

Viewers of the Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale might be disappointed to find that Margaret Atwood’s sequel to her 1985 novel, The Testaments, is not a continuation of Offred’s narrative, but a three-handed narrative of Gilead, fifteen years later. The end of both The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments include a transcript from an academic symposium set in 2195 and 2197. Professor Pieixoto presents both Offred’s recorded journal in The Handmaid’s Tale, and the written accounts of Agnes, a young woman raised by a commander and his wife in Gilead and who later becomes an Aunt; Daisy, a young Canadian woman who is sent to Gilead on a mission; and Aunt Lydia, a perpetrator who features in both novels.

Atwood has employed the device of a three handed narrative in earlier works such as Life Before Man (1976) and The Robber Bride (1993). In The Testaments, Professor Pieixoto explains he with his colleague Professor Knotly Wade have taken the three narratives of Agnes, Daisy and Aunt Lydia and have ‘interleaved in an order that made approximate narrative sense to us.’ He jokes that ‘You can take the historian out of the storyteller, but you can’t take the storyteller out of the historian.’ Pieixoto is inclined to believe that the sources are not fakes, much as he was inclined to believe the same of Offred’s account in The Handmaid’s Tale. This neat tidying at the end of the novel provides support to the coincidences throughout Atwood’s text, which sometimes requires the reader to suspend disbelief.

In Atwood’s earlier novel the character of Offred is not an active protagonist because she is fundamentally restrained by her position as a handmaid. The characters in her sequel are much more active agents, particularly Aunt Lydia, who uses knowledge as power to protect, survive and eventually reach out to the resistance movement. Some reviews have been critical of Atwood’s portrayal of Aunt Lydia in The Testaments and have claimed that Atwood attempts to redeem her character as a victim of the totalitarian estate. However, this is not so. It is not Atwood who attempts to redeem Aunt Lydia, but Aunt Lydia herself. Her description of how her rights are removed as a family court judge, and her torture and incarceration are indeed harrowing, but viewing her narrative as a whole, her acceptance as the role of Aunt can perhaps be explained by her canny ability to foresee the situation she is presented with, rather than being broken by the regime.   The reader must question whether she is a reliable narrator, at least in terms of her own self portrayal. She certainly has a misanthropic trope when it comes to the other characters, particularly the Aunts whom she regards with contempt, and in the case of Aunt Vidala, pure hatred born out of an ongoing power struggle. The reader must also question her part in the resistance movement and ask whether she is motivated by revenge, survival or even vanity. She writes ‘I am well aware of how you must be judging me, my reader; if, that is, my reputation has preceded me and you have deciphered who I am, or was.’ This self-awareness leaves it to the reader to decide if Aunt Lydia’s actions negate her complicity in facilitating the subordination and murder of women in both novels.

One of the surprising elements about Atwood’s novel is the use of dry and often dark humour, which doesn’t feature in The Handmaid’s Tale. Aunt Lydia’s voice is enigmatic and conspiratorial; Agnes’s voice, as a second generational Gileadean is naïve, and this is juxtaposed with Daisy’s voice, which as a green haired teenager from a fairly liberal Canada creates much scope for comedy in a clashing of cultures as the two girls meet. The three-handed narrative makes the novel quite episodic: as you read one character’s account you yearn to get back to the other character’s narrative. It is in fact quite a page turner and a quick read. From a literary point of view it might be considered an unnecessary sequel, but considering the zeitgeist of the moment it does seem necessary, particularly in a world where Populism is dominating world politics and in light of the #MeToo movement. Atwood’s Gileadean novels remind us that progress balances on a knife edge, and legal and social rights are removed much more quickly than they are gained. Ultimately, the novel is optimistic rather than pessimistic, because we know that Gilead eventually falls, but we should be aware that progress is never a purely upwards trajectory in any nation’s history. Be aware of bumps and U-turns ahead.

REVIEW: Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes, 38 Seconds in This Strange World


Elif Shafak’s latest novel tells the story and demise of Tequila Leila, a sex worker in Istanbul. Shafak uses a plot device of Leila’s last memories and thoughts as her mind shuts down in the last ten minutes after her death. She has been murdered and dumped in a rubbish bin. From a lesser writer this technique could result in a gimmicky kind of narrative, but the beauty of Shafak’s writing ensures that this isn’t so. Each of Leila’s memories are introduced by a scent or taste from different moments of her life: the smell of lemons and sugar wax, cardamom coffee – all helping to create a real sense of place and time.

Leila’s story is terribly sad. She is brought up to believe that her mother is her aunt and her father’s first wife is her mother. A harrowing account of sexual abuse at the hands of her Uncle leads to a childhood pregnancy and miscarriage. Leila runs away to Istanbul and soon finds herself trapped as a sex worker.

Shafak employs a further plot device throughout the narrative in the first part of the novel. A supporting cast of five marginalised characters are introduced as Leila’s friends. To the marginalised these ties are more important than family. They include a trans-woman called Nalan who is unable to work in the brothels due to laws against trans people. Like Leila, she has escaped a marriage and suffers abuse; Sinan, a weak willed man and a childhood friend, trapped into a loveless marriage: he lives a double life socialising with this marginalised crew; Jameelah, a beautiful Somalian woman who had a Christian mother, but was rejected by her Islamic family for holding onto the traditions of her mother. She suffers from lupus and Leila cares for her; Zaynab122, a dwarf from Lebanon, who still holds on to religion and tradition, but with more humility than the society she is outcast from; and Humeyra, an overweight singer. The device is reminiscent of Mitch Albom’s The Five People You Meet in Heaven, although Shafak’s use of the technique is less of a parable and more of an expose of the lives of the underdogs in a patriarchal Turkey. Shafak describes the Istanbul these characters live in as not the one that ‘the Ministry of Tourism would have wanted foreigners to see.’

Against a backdrop of sectarian politics, communists against fascists, and a growing sense of religious hardening, these outcasts become even more the forgotten victims of the society in which they live. Shafak explores this in the second half of the novel as Leila’s friend exhume her body from the Cemetery of the Companionless (a real place), to give her the burial and honour she deserves. The second half is at times sad, but mostly like an absurd comedy despite the seriousness of the subject. This lightness is something that pervades Shafak’s novel, but in the days since reading it, the thought of Leila and the underclass remains, and in particular the awfulness of the Cemetery of the Companionless really leaves a feeling of something so terribly desolate. In her Note to the Reader, Shafak writes ‘The Cemetery of the Companionless in Kilyos is a real place. It is growing fast. Lately, an increasing number of refugees who drowned in the Aegean Sea while trying to cross to Europe have been buried here. Like all of the other graves, theirs have only numbers, rarely names.’ This note really grounds the subject matter, perhaps more than the novel itself. It calls for the reader to look rather than turn away and to see with compassion the nameless as real people.

Treyarnon Bay, Cornwall – Haiku Sequence

Small mussels in May

Cluster the dark granite rocks

Blue, black: day’s end light.


In pools, seaweed clings ;

Acid green Ostrich Feathers

Hidden by high tide.


Foamy waves crash, shhh!

Rip tides form along the rocks

Swirling and turning.


Tides run out to blue     

Pebbles roll on the beach like    

Fish flounding, gasping.


Sand sinks to the thigh,

A sandal lost in a pool,

A scream and laughter.


Rocks hewn by the sea

Veins, straight lines ascend, marbled,

Drawn by nature’s rule.


Black, grey, brown, orange:

The colour of minerals;

Rocks, richly endowed.

Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables: Adapting a classic

Victor Hugo’s classic Les Miserables, must surely be one of the most difficult texts to adapt for the screen, not least for its length, but also to the depth of contextualisation within its narrative.  For it is more than just a story about grace and law, but a whole history and cultural study of post-Napoleonic France up to the June rebellion of 1832.  Hugo’s digressions take up more than half of the book.  His digressions range from a study of the battle of Waterloo, the architecture and rebuilding of Paris to a history of the networks of sewers beneath the streets of Paris.  The digressions may not seemingly move the plot forward, but that is not to say that they are superfluous.  The digressions act as a context to the story of Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert and the multigenerational tensions between the idealistic and progressive Marius and his friends at the ABC Club and his royalist reactionary grandfather.

For Hugo, Waterloo is seen as a pivotal moment in history, where the old order re-established itself as the ruling class in an anachronistic attempt to do away with the revolutionary spirit and persons that had existed in France since the revolution of 1789.  But as Hugo astutely portrays, the revolutionary spirit existed as an undercurrent in France and was never completely eradicated.  In Hugo’s novel, his study of Waterloo (1815) is presented after his initial introduction of Jean Valjean (1817).  Andrew Davies chose to make the aftermath of Waterloo the opening scene of the 2018 television series.  Davies’ linear approach to the narrative makes sense and enables him to present Jean Valjean’s release from prison and Fantine’s seduction in the same timeframe.  It also allows Thenardier (brilliantly portrayed by Adeel Akhtar) to enter the frame of the narrative right from the start, as he both robs and saves Pontmercy’s life, providing a plot strand that becomes crucial later on.

Despite Davies’ ironing out of the timeline of Hugo’s text, and its relative faithfulness compared to other productions, it does at times feel rushed, despite being six hours long in total. The seduction of Fantine is faithfully presented, yet her final demise into degradation does not do justice to the sheer frustration and distress experienced by the character in the novel as she is forced into debt and shunned by society, and unable to work when Valjean dismisses her.  The events are in Davies’ script, but without the inner consciousness of Hugo’s characterisation, the actions of both Valjean and Fantine seem more plot driven than a study of grace, forgiveness and redemption.  Although Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Cameron Mackintosh’s musical misses much of this plot, the ultimate ruin of Fantine through the song ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ is much more convincing.  In a mere four minutes the audience feels Fantine’s pain in what surely is one of the highlights of the musical, not least because we are shocked to see the usually classically beautiful Anne Hathaway, shorn and toothless during a heart wrenching performance, but because the lyrics portray Fantine’s regret and disappointments in a way that would be too artificial for a television script.

The missing inner consciousness of the characters in the series is the biggest problem with Davies’ production.  It perhaps is an unresolvable issue. It is understandable that the digressions about battles, the history of Paris, the design of the sewers, the history of a cloistered Abbey, and an in depth study of the goodness of a parish priest should be sacrificed to drive the screenplay forward, but Hugo’s lengthy descriptions of the motivations of his characters is also sacrificed, although admittedly perhaps too difficult to portray in a television drama.  Jean Valjean’s realisation of divine grace and Javert’s blinkered ability to accept grace in place of law suffer as a result.  Javert’s suicide in particular seems very hollow without the context of the novel, or without having first viewing the musical.  Comments aside about Russell Crowe’s singing abilities, when Javert sings in the musical ‘but mine is the way of the Lord / Those who follow the path of righteousness / shall have their reward …’ the music reaches such a crescendo that the audience is led to an almost Aristotlean purging of emotions.  The suicide might call for a slight suspension of disbelief, but the orchestration certainly helps the audience achieve this.

There are many good things about the television series: the cast including Dominic West, Olivia Coleman and David Oyelowo to name a few; the settings and costumes and the accessibility of a classic tale that might otherwise go undiscovered by the masses, but neither the series nor the musical really do justice to Hugo’s encyclopaedic text.  It may take approximately seventy hours to read, but it is well worth the commitment.

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo (trans. Norman Denny, Penguin Clothbound Classics)

Les Miserables (2012) (dir. Tom Hooper)

Les Miserables (2018) (adaptation. Andrew Davies, dir. Tom Shankland)

The Evolution of Monsters

T-Rex, that Maastrichtian dinosaur:

He could swallow small prey in just one bite,

Although some say he was a herbivore,

Um, no he was a bone crunching, flesh ripping monster of might

Hunting through the glades of North America’s shore

Abominable creature, causing such fright!

Was it the Ice Age that killed of these beasts?

Or barred from the ark lest Noah’s clan be his feast?


What lurks amongst the dust under the bed?

Spiders and goblins and giants and ghosts.                    

Keep on the light! The dark fills me with dread:

Monsters will catch me and eat me like toast

Daren’t close my eyes lest I wake up dead!

O Lord protect me, O heavenly host!

These monsters flee with the blinkers of age:

The real monsters are found on the world’s stage!


The Thirties was an awfully sad time,

Nationalism and hatred was rife.

Hitler and Stalin were both in their prime.

Today Donald and Kim cause so much strife,

So far rhetoric is their biggest crime:

Words become actions and a threat to life!

Both ages teach us a lesson most clear:

Beware dodgy hair and moustaches my dear!


Most pressing to me is Churchill’s Black Dog,

He pounces and growls when I am most still,

Renders me gloomy, my mind in a bog.

Idleness, doubt and the blues make me ill,

A monster most real, to rid is a slog –

Even the brightest day is grey, I feel.

Focus and Diligence will beat the glum:

The dog flees with a sharp kick up the bum!

Ode to the Road

Step by step I travel on the open road,

Called life, an unravelling episode:

Some days the sun shone; others, the wind blowed,

Some days I could not walk due to my workload,

My in-tray was a shock! it overflowed,

I longed to be out, in the air, on the road.


The path led far and wide: an uncertain road.

Past streams and rivers that fastly flowed,

Eyed only from the riverbank by a speckled toad

Ribbitting a secret language that only he knowed

Sat in his muddy kingdom, his waterlogged abode,

As I travelled along my journey’s road.


This is my path, this is my road,

I could fly, but money would have to be borrowed,

To apply you give your account number and sort code

Put your address down, and then the post code

Debt makes me unsettled, a feeling of forebode

And debt will weigh me down on the long steep road.


The River follows the strait of the road,

Men speed past, a whole boatload

Racing, their oars strike the water as they rowed

And the sweet smell of grass on the bank, freshly mowed

The rowers never stopped, they never slowed

As I walk along my solitary road.


By foot is the best for my amble on the road,

A car can break down and needs to be towed

The engine goes with a hiss and a bang, it explodes,

Car troubles make my heart sink and my spirit implode

And cars rust, in the rain they slowly erode

No, I will wear out my shoes on the stoney road.


I don’t know where I’m going on this road

Many times I have stopped to ponder a cross-road

And ended up lost, send a message by Morse-code!

But does anyone know where they’re going? Truth be told!

But we plough on in summer and huddled over when it snowed

We each forge our own path on the long and undetermined road.

Evocations 1 – Mum

The sweet smell of soap powder,

And the scent of Tabu

And Alberto Balsam Shampoo.

The smoky air of fireworks

And damp leaves

As we walked through the park

On our way home.

The whiff of pine as you opened

The door,

The Christmas trees

Year after year,

You still put up.

Cinnamon and nutmeg,

Christmas cake cooking,

As I eat the scraps of marzipan.

The fruit you fed for months,

Cherry Brandy and Napoleon too,

And the stickiness of glue on my hands

As I stuck sequins onto a picture

Drawn by you.

The smell of furniture polish

And Vacuumed floors

And the roasting chicken

Waiting for us

And you would always

Give me some skin.

Sometimes a vegetable curry

From the Lido Chef,

In all my travels,

I have never tasted it so good.



I showed

At quiche, plum tomatoes

And mashed potatoes:

Makes me sorrowful of every time

I did not appreciate

The efforts, trials

To make me smile.

Such Things As Dreams Are Made On: Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed: A Review

Hag-Seed: Margaret Atwood’s re-imagining of The Tempest hagseed

You don’t have to know Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1610-11) to appreciate Margaret Atwood’s homage to the Bard, but it certainly helps.  Felix is the banished ex-director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival.  For Twelve years he has lived under the pseudonym of Mr Duke, a retired teacher working on a literacy programme at a local prison.  Those who banished Felix have risen into local politics and Felix sees his chance to inflict his revenge on his enemies.

‘The Tempest is a play within a play’ Felix tells his students. But by the time Atwood has worked her magic with it, it becomes a play within a play within a play within a novel!  Atwood isn’t bothered with mundane details like how exactly did Felix manage to open a bank account with a fake name? How did he go undiscovered for so long living in a back-wood hovel?  Instead she retells the story, placing it in a modern context.  The prison becomes the Island, the prisoners become Caliban and Ariel, and Felix’s old foes become Alonso, Antonio and Sebastian.

What Atwood cleverly does is pull Shakespeare’s play apart, as Felix attempts to explain and engage the prisoners with one of Shakespeare’s most Romantic (Capital R) plays.  The prisoners have been used to the blood and gore of Macbeth and the vengeance and evil cunning of Richard III, so it is a bit of a stretch for Felix to convince the prisoners The Tempest is the play for them, but by half-way they are rapping their way through their own take on verse. Felix’s explanation and indeed the prisoner’s own realisation of the play draws the reader closer to Shakespeare’s text. It’s a play about prisons, vengeance, ambition and forgiveness.

Apart from the couple of chapters where Felix inflicts his revenge Atwood keeps a tight rein on the plot.  The revenge chapters seem rushed and not clearly drawn – a bit crazy in fact. However, perhaps this is Atwood’s intention: after all, Prospero’s revenge inflicted by Ariel in the original text is also a bit messy.  The best chapters by far are the prisoner’s thoughts about the afterlife of Shakespeare’s characters.  What an inspired idea.  It is their imagining of Caliban’s after life that really stands out, there is almost an implied subtext about the prisoners asserting their own identity and shaking of their own scales to become new beings.

I think Atwood missed an opportunity with Sycorax, Caliban’s mother, a witch banished many years before on the Island.   As in Shakespeare’s play she is mentioned, but she suffers from a bit of ‘mad-woman in the attic’ syndrome!  Atwood’s version of Miranda, played by a former dancer called Anne-marie is spunky and although she is stepping out into a ‘brave new world’ she is a welcome tonic to the naïve, fay reading of her character.

Hag-Seed is just one of several novels published by The Hogarth Shakespeare project.  Atwood’s novel certainly succeeds in drawing you back to the original for a re-assessment of William Shakespeare’s play.

Short Story – The Songbird

The Songbird


In her homeland Kuimba would sing; sometimes of joy, more often of sorrow.  Under the hot red ancient sun she would sing and the lilies in the field would burst into bloom, as if the rainbow of the first covenant lay shattered on the ground.   The bees would stop their work for a while and rest on the petals and the swallows would dance, forming into kaleidoscopic shapes, diving low, following the heavenly music, hypnotised by the song of this strange ebony bird.  At night when her brothers and sisters lay sleeping she would sing gently and the constellations would burn brighter, twinkling, some would shoot across the sky, burning out and dying in glory.

She is more than four thousand miles from home. She pulls up her knees to her chin and watches the blotchy flabby white man dress.  He is disappointed, disgusted in fact, but she does not care, she has sung her last note.  She has been captive in this house, with its walls the colour of clotted blood for nearly a year.  It’s her birthday, and she has decided that today is a new beginning.  She fondles the small silver cross her Bibi gave her for a safe journey and a kiss on the forehead for prosperity.  The journey was hard, walking across the desert in a caravan of malnourished nomads, and across the sea, hidden amongst cargo. She has not seen a penny since she was locked in this room.  When she first arrived she was given a room on the ground floor, her tasks were cleaning and scrubbing the semen from the sheets. She received a little pay which she sent some home to her family through Western Union, and the rest she saved in an old Rose’s Lime Marmalade jar, which is now lost.

Life was not what she expected it to be.  She hated the cries and sighs of the girls in the house, howling like alley cats against the unsteady rhythm of bed posts banging against the walls.  So she sang to drown out the noise.  That was her mistake, the music that had once been her only joy now became the reason for her incarceration.  When Mrs James first heard her song she wheeled Kuimba round on her heels with her gnarled old hands and stared at her in wonder.

“Do that again, the singing” she crowed holding Kuimba’s chin in her bony fingers.  “What a commodity we have here. What a commodity!” Mrs James calls all her girls “commodities”.

Now the men pay to clamber over Kuimba as she sings to them, never in joy, always in sorrow.  They are ugly men, sweaty men, men with sour breath and odour the smell of rotting onions.  One of the men cries when he comes, and Kuimba sings softly, a lullaby for the cry baby man. But today she has vowed to sing no more.  Her Bibi told her there is power in her song, to use it wisely. She has discovered a different power; the power of withholding.

Outside the room there are raised voices.  You don’t argue with Mrs James, not if you know what’s good for you.

“She’s a mute, she didn’t even make a noise.  I want my money back.”  He sounds whiney, piteous man, thinks Kuimba.

“Did she service you?”

There is no reply.

“Well then, you got what you came for. On your way!”  Mrs James bellows.

“I said I want my money back.”

Mrs James calls for Pete and there is a scuffle and a door slamming. Kuimba sits on the edge of the bed calculating her next move when Mrs James walks in. Her back bowed from the years of counting money on the kitchen table, and she is a caricature of a Victorian madam, all corset and wild hair pinned on top of her wrinkled face.  She lifts Kuimba’s head.

“The men pay you to sing.  You sing.”

“I ain’t gonna sing no more.”

“Look here, Wrights back soon. Don’t make him mad.  I take no pleasure in the roughness he shows you girls.  We’ll let this one go.  No questions asked.  Just make sure you lie back and sing for the next one.”

Kuimba rolls her eyes and looks squarely at the crusty old hag.  “I ain’t gonna sing no more.”

“You’re asking for trouble girly.”

After Mrs James leaves Kuimba throws open the curtains, tidies the bed, puts on her shoes and coat, stuffing her small worn Bible into one of the pockets and waits to face Wright.  It’s an hour or so before she hears the thud of Wrights boots in the hallway.  He is mean and rough, his eyes are dead, like fish eyes, and his gait makes the room and everything in it seem smaller.

“What do you mean, she’s stopped singing.  You’re supposed to keep them in line, you worthless stinking cow.”

Kuimba counts the stairs out loud, he must have taken two at a time because the door springs open crashing against the bed after just six steps. Kuimba jumps.  She yelps in shock as he lifts her from her lapels, slamming her against the wardrobe, the handle catching her back, causing a searing pain in her kidneys.

“Listen you stupid bitch.  You’re an ugly cow, you wreak of piss, and you’re an idiot.  You’ve got one thing going for you, and that’s when you sing, so you better start singing you stupid nigger.”

“I ain’t gonna sing no more.” Kuimba whispers.

“What?” shaking her violently.

“I said I ain’t gonna sing no more.”

She screams and loses her footing as he drags her out of the room by her hair.  She hits her shins and knees against the stairs as he pulls her down the stairs, as one by one the doors of the rooms open, and Mrs James’ commodities assemble on the stairs, some of them naked, others dressed in pretty lingerie, watching in horror at the fate of Kuimba.

His grip on Kuimba’s chin is so hard she feels as if her teeth might cave in.

“You will sing” he says with his face so close to Kuimba’s that she can see his gold fillings.

“I ain’t gonna sing no more.” The words come out distorted, her jaw in Wright’s vice like grip.

He pushes her to the floor and in a few moments he’s back with a knife. He smirks and lifts Kuimba up by her chin.  He pushes his hand into her mouth, which makes her gag and choke, she can taste the bitter nicotine on his large rough fingers. He pulls her tongue and the nicotine is replaced with a salty metallic taste.  Her mouth fills with blood before she feels the pain.  Wright laughs. He spits at Kuimba and throws her severed tongue at the girls on the stairs, pushing past Mrs James, and slamming the door behind him.

Kuimba doesn’t scream or cry.  She stands for what seems like an age with the blood gushing out of her mouth.  One of the girls, Briony, a sweet Irish girl makes a move towards her, but Kuimba raises her hand.  Out of her mouth comes a note, low and guttural.  She can sing no words but she can still sound a melody. The note becomes an arpeggio, soaring higher and higher into scales, the notes vibrate into trills, into baroque ornament. Things begin to change.  The girls begin to bloom out of their pallid complexions, their cheeks become rosy and their hair lustrous, wavy and glossy. Even Mrs James’ eyes shine bright as Kuimba’s melody ascends higher.  The light bulbs flare brighter, and the dark oppressive walls are no longer claret red, but the bright pink of candyfloss.

The sweet notes become shrill, and there is no longer rhythm to the music.  The notes clash and become discordant.  The music is destructive.  The blossoming beauty of Mrs James’ girls begins to fail, and one of the girls looks in horror as the skin sags on her hands and liver spots appear on her hands.  The wall paper begins to curl away from the walls.  Still Kuimba sings on and on with no sign of stopping.  Her notes are destructive and have lost all of their charm. The light bulb brightens further as Mrs James clutches her chest and slumps to the floor, the bulb shattering above her leaving the house in darkness.

Kuimba stops. The last note still rings around the hallway.  She lifts her hands to her face and gently drops to her knees and lays down.  She is not going to sing anymore.

1438 words



I started by creating a cluster around the theme “Pulling the strings” and I thought of puppets which reminded me of The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter (1967).  The novel can be classed in the sub-genre of Magic Realism, and I decided I would attempt to employ this type of writing in my piece.  I have often had a niggling disappointment with my writing; that it is tame and in some sense too realist, too close to home, so I was quite excited at the prospect of challenging my imagination in this genre.  I also thought about control, which led me to consider the concept of slavery.

I did some research on slavery, I had read an article in The Telegraph about modern slavery, (Fox, 2014).  I also looked at the website which had some harrowing accounts of slavery and the sex trade in Britain.  Kuimba’s passage to Britain, and her incarceration are based on several accounts from the website, there seemed to be a common theme of being lured to a better life and ending up forced into prostitution.  Kuimba’s singing is magical, but I wanted to make sure that my writing did not become burlesque, which is why I insisted on a violent end to the story.  Kuimba’s incarceration and her abuse ruins her gift, it becomes a destructive force.  I was partly inspired by the song Experiment IV by Kate Bush (1986), which is about a secret military plan to create “a sound that could kill someone.”  I also was inspired by the film 12 Years A Slave (McQueen, 2013), and the scene where the Solomon Northup and his fellow slaves sing a Spiritual in order to keep strong in the face of cruelty and adversity.  Kuimba sings for herself, not for performance, but she is forced to sing for men, it is symbolic of her overall plight.

I have included some conflict in the story.  Firstly between the man and Mrs James, and also between Mrs James, Wright and Kuimba, but I wanted to ensure that Kuimba does not really argue back.  I wanted to give her a dignified defiance when she says “I ain’t gonna sing no more.”

363 words



Bush, Kate (1986) Experiment IV (song), EMI, London.

Carter, Angela (1967) The Magic Toyshop, Reprinted 1994, Virago Press Ltd, London.

Fox, Geneviève (October 10th 2014) “Sex slaves are on every street in Britain” (article), The Telegraph, London.

Greenwell, Bill (2009) “Chapter 2: Conflict and Contrast” from A Creative Writing Handbook, (ed. Neale, Derek), A.C Black Publishers Limited, London, in association with The Open University Milton Keynes.

Greenwell, Bill (2009) “Chapter 3: Vision and revision” from A Creative Writing Handbook, (ed. Neale, Derek), A.C Black Publishers Limited, London, in association with The Open University Milton Keynes.

McQueen, Steve (dir.) 12 Years a Slave (film), (2013), Fox Searchlight Pictures, USA. (website) 2014.

Neale, Derek (2009) “Chapter 1: Playing with Genre” from A Creative Writing Handbook, (ed. Neale, Derek), A.C Black Publishers Limited, London, in association with The Open University Milton Keynes.