How great to see that fine American writer Jane Yolen is to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at this year’s World Fantasy Awards.
Getting to know and like writers across a wide range of literature, as I do, is a bit like the Genesis … and Isaac begat Jacob; and Jacob begat Judas and his brethren; / And Judas begat Phares and Zara of Thamar; and….
I came across the Award Winning Writer Jane Yolen through the songs of folk singer June Tabor. When I was writing my novel Family Ties, along with other music, I listened to tapes of Tabor’s songs, playing too often the song called the King of Rome, a hauntingly lyrical song about an heroic racing pigeon.
Then, in the album Against The Streams, I came across a song called Beauty and The Beast. This turned out to be a poem by the eminent Jane Yolen, of whom I knew nothing at that point. Inspired by the fairy story The Beauty and The Beast, the poem presents us with this same couple on a late anniversary. Its inspired lines tell of their lives together now, when the Beast ‘… is graying around the muzzle/ and I have silver combs/ to match my hair…’. The poem ends in a dying fall ‘…what sounds children/might have made/ running across the marble halls…’
At the time, listening to June Tabor sing those extraordinary lines filled me with tears about beauty and disguise and time passing, themes which already undercut the narrative of Family Ties.
This story roams backwards and forwards across the intensely experienced life of Rosa, a writer of children’s stories, a teacher, a daughter, a mother and a grandmother. At the core is a very strange phenomenon, described to me many years before, by a man who was telling me tales of his village.
‘Yeah, that was Lilly Sell. You know Lilly Sell?’
‘No. I don’t know Lilly Sell.’
‘Well she was the third twin.’
‘Yeah. Midwife was delivering twins. Then the third twin came, tangled in the afterbirth. That was Lilly. Seventy three and still going strong now …’
Family Ties is not about Lilly Sell, but without her the novel would not exist. And without June Tabor and Jane Yolen, Family Ties would not feel like the same novel.
The story is told in many voices. Here is Rosa’s daughter Bronwen, a mature student in her thirties who loves her learning:
Long ago I used to walk these streets hand in hand with my mother, Rosa. I grew up with that soft murmuring voice in my ear. Just look at the size of those stones, Bron! Think how many years it took for the masons to get it right…Imagine the monks in their hoods walking round the chilly cloisters. And just think of the great nave without the rows of seats and but with dozens of mean campfires keeping those poor Scottish prisoners warm. Just think, Bron!
Always the teacher , my mother.
When I was much older, one afternoon during the Winter of Discontent I was alone in the cathedral at four o’clock in the afternoon when the electricity went off. The nave was plunged into Medieval darkness and I could see the monks standing in the shadows, arms clasped in their sleeves to ward off the coal. I stood there in the dark silence, grateful suddenly to all those strikers and short-time workers for delivering me that eerie vision…
Re-reading this novel again recently I realised how closely and unknowingly I’ve imprinted myself here. Very strange. Even weird. That thing about begetting. I was just checking the album where June Tabor sang Jane Yolen’s poem and I came across information that she’s performing near me in November. I wouldn’t have known this, had I not been writing this post.
It’s on Amazon and available to order in shops if you fancy a read. Cover’s a bit too sweet* for my liking but the inside is suitably dark and complicated.
* Don’t get me started about covers! Maybe I’ll post that one day.