Storytelling and Compassion

One of the many wonderful things about books is that they give us a safe space in which to encounter difficult and frightening thoughts. The structure of a book, with its perceptive narrative voice and its promise of an ending, guarantees us at least one of the four great anti-anxieties: meaning, wisdom, truth and resolution. Whatever darkness the story brings, these four are the light.

How much darkness we can take, how much light we need is, I think, a very personal ratio. When I was younger, I had a lot more capacity for difficult and demanding novels. I had more stamina for reading about suffering. These days I can endure a great deal less. I’m sure this is in part because I am increasingly interested in what it means to be compassionate in the world. I’ve been reading a book lately that defines compassion as a two-part process. The first part is to look squarely at the pain, but the second, and equally important, is to think how suffering can be eased. This is not to say that bad events and the pain that accompanies them can be avoided. Alas, no. But what it does mean is that whatever pain we – or others – endure, the important part is to seek to minimize the extra and sometimes unnecessary suffering that clusters around it. The news, for instance, only thrusts the pain of the world in front of us – it has nothing to say about what can be done about it – and so it is essentially unkind. But literature is quite different. A well-told story is constantly helping the reader to stay clear-sighted and engaged while conflict takes place, so that we can think about it without being overwhelmed.

These thoughts have been running around my mind lately, after listening to two quite dark tales. The first, Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, was very rapidly dubbed the ‘harrowing book’. Set in World War Two, it follows the fortunes of three young friends – Mary, who skies down to her finishing school the moment she hears war declared and packs her bags, hoping for adventure; Tom, who is in charge of education in a capital soon to be deserted by evacuation; and Alastair, Tom’s friend who has been working at the Tate as an art restorer, but who signs up immediately.

Mary is set to work as a teacher – not at all the sort of adventure she was longing for – and finds it surprisingly fulfilling. In particular, she forms a bond with Zachary, a dyslexic child (though no one understands this in 1939) whose father works in the Black-and-White Minstrels show in the West End. When Zachary returns from the country, having learned that rural prejudice is more dangerous than German bombing, Mary ends up in charge of a class of rejects. Children with learning difficulties or behavioural difficulties for whom the beauty pageant of evacuation has been a disaster. She also begins a love affair with Tom, who cannot help but admire her daring, courageous intentions, even while deploring the trouble she causes by them. People tend to have this mixed reaction to Mary – her well-born, well-bred mother, and her best friend, Hilda, being other examples. There is a long-held tradition of Mary pinching Hilda’s men, and so when the friends go for a double date during Alastair’s leave, the tradition raises its head in especially dangerous ways.

So far, I’ve made this book sound quite appealing, I hope, and mostly about love and friendship. But the majority of the narrative is concerned with the experiences of these characters during the Blitz and – in Alastair’s case – in Malta during its lengthy siege. And oh my lord, Cleave does not hold back with the horror of wartime. In fact, it is fair to say that the characters now undergo a series of traumas that will leave them broken and spent. I found long sections of this book very hard to listen to, and quite often I put my fingers in my ears and sang la la la la a lot. I only listened to a certain amount of it each night, so as to get to sleep. And then, when the horror never abated but seemed to be piled on and on, relentlessly, I found myself starting to laugh because I just couldn’t stay in that engaged place. Sometimes more is just too much.

Why did I stick with it? Well, essentially because of the quality of Chris Cleave’s prose. Here I owe the man an apology, because I seem to have contracted a prejudice about him. I thought he wrote just sensational stuff, all about making an audacious impact. And whilst this is sort of true, he can really, really write. He also keeps the characters’ interactions light. I’m not sure that everyone in wartime was this witty, but it’s nice to think so. There’s a real British spirit operating here (Brits really do whine during good times and then discover a sense of humour in awful crises), with the characters quipping away at one another, refusing to show they are rattled by means of deadpan humour. When a group of men are clinging to a too-small life raft off the coast of Gibraltar, the talk is all of the fish and chips they’ll have when they reach Brighton. The dialogue is very good, sharp and smart and pithy. Does it make up for all the characters go through? No, not really. It’s a bit like glitzy nail varnish on a corpse. But the ending is very gently hopeful, and the story is apparently based on the experiences of Cleave’s grandparents during the war (this bit was missed out of the audio book – shame!) and so you do believe there was the possibility of a happy ending eventually.

The second book I listened to was Salley Vickers’ Cousins. This was a very different beast – still beautifully written, but in a more straightforward way, less consciously literary. It was also very much informed by Vickers’ previous job as a psychotherapist, something that always thrills me in novels as I love a properly astute psychological framework in a story.

This novel begins with teenage Hetta being woken in the night by her parents. They have just received a phone call that changes everything: Hetta’s older brother, Wil, was climbing the tower of King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, where he is a student, when he fell. The family make a stricken dash through the night from Northumberland to Cambridge, fearing that Wil may die before they arrive. In fact, what happens to him is worse than that.

What happens next in the story is, essentially, the slow, gradual retelling of a long family saga. We have to understand Wil’s fall as the culmination of all sorts of family tensions and secrets which Hetta is determined to uncover. In the immediate present, the fall seems to be linked to a forbidden relationship between Wil and his cousin, Cele, a young woman who has been much neglected by her mother, and who has sought refuge while growing up in Hetta’s family. Brought up almost as brother and sister, Wil and Cele have been a great deal more to one another than that. And this turns out to be a repetition of an earlier family root. Hetta’s grandparents were also first cousins, but they managed to marry – though not without an indiscretion of Hetta’s grandfather which produces a child, Nat. Nat’s mother is killed during the Blitz, and so Hetta’s grandmother brings him up as if he were her own. In fact, she feels closer to Nat, more loving of him than she does of her other children – Belle, Cele’s selfish mother, and Beetle, Hetta’s timid and sensitive father. Then tragedy strikes Nat, and a long string of family consequences ensue.

This is a novel of two parts. The majority of the narrative is concerned with retelling family history, and it switches between the hands of Hetta, her grandmother, and Belle. But the latter stages are quite different, a courtroom drama of sorts, and I found the change of pace and direction a little disorientating. However, there is much emotional resonance in these events, as it feels as if the unpunished, unseen ‘crimes’ of family life finally reach a sort of fruition in an actual court of law. And what happens here, how the crisis is dealt with by the family, is an outright attempt to make amends for all that has gone before.

Cousins is not a smooth book. The start is rather slow, the end is rather surprising, but I enjoyed it very much. Salley Vickers has a gentle hand with tragedy, allowing the narrative to touch it and then move away. Funnily enough, this was the book that brought me to tears on a couple of occasions, which goes to show that you do not have to put the reader’s heart through the wringer to be assured of creating an effect. In fact, I often think it is kindness and simplicity that are really tear-inducing. And maybe that’s because we weep when we encounter compassion, since we are so sorely in need of it.



21 thoughts on “Storytelling and Compassion

  1. I love what you say here and the distinction you make: ‘The news, for instance, only thrusts the pain of the world in front of us – it has nothing to say about what can be done about it – and so it is essentially unkind. But literature is quite different.’
    I too have found my capacity for suffering much diminished since my youth, when I almost relished the torment that the main characters were forced to endure.

    • Thank you! (The news annoys me on so many levels..) I’m very interested to hear that it’s also changed for you as you got older – I wasn’t sure if it was just me. I also think that having children can open up a whole new set of vulnerabilities, as they are such hostages to fortune. But maybe it’s just more experience of suffering that does it!

      • Yes, I certainly started crying more at books and films since I had children. And to think I used to make fun of my mother for doing precisely that…

      • Don’t! My mother was always in pieces by the end of The Railway Children, and we did use to tease her about that! These days I’ll cry at anything: car adverts, Countdown… I don’t have a leg to stand on!

  2. I’ve definitely found that as I get older I can take less horror in a book. I used to be able to read anything, but I think young people have a kind of toughness that goes with age, when you realise you (and everybody else) is not immune and you do develop more compassion. It’s something the world needs a lot more of…

    • Ha, yes. I was just replying to Marina and wondering if it was experience that made the difference. I think you’re right – youth does believe in immortality in a way, and the older you get, the more you know for sure that bad things happen and being good doesn’t prevent them. Oh yes indeed. SO much more compassion is required. And the books that have it really seem to shine for me these days (I’m thinking of the Elizabeth Strout novels that have come out recently. She is very good at it).

  3. I love Salley Vickers and didn’t know about this one, so thank you for telling us about it (however unsmooth). And yes wholeheartedly to this: ‘And maybe … we weep when we encounter compassion, since we are so sorely in need of it.’

    • I was going to drop you a note about the Salley Vickers because… well, I’ll drop you a note! And I am sure you would appreciate it. She is reliably wonderful in her storytelling and I think your books are very similar in a number of ways.

      • What a delicious compliment for a Thursday afternoon (or for any afternoon). Thank you. And thank you again for the Salley Vickers new-book notice. (Or at least new to me.)

  4. H and I were talking recently about how much more likely we are to be brought to tears these days than we were when we were younger. This was after seeing the heart-wrenchingly beautiful Frantz at the cinema through which we both quietly sniveled. I’d echo your thoughts about the difference between the news which so often leaves us with images of suffering that we are powerless to do anything about, usually without the context to try and understand it.

    • You know, Mr Litlove is much more likely to be caught with damp eyes these days than he ever was – so I am sure there would be snivelling from both of us at such a film! Beauty can be an awful provocation to tears as well. And yes, this is where so much journalism fails us: not enough context, not enough nuance, not enough understanding. We could all face it more courageously if we were given those things.

    • Oh Lord, yes. And I’ve also been thinking of my son, who is 22 and really quite judgemental, since he has spent the past 18 years being judged and tested, day in day out, through the school process. So I think when you’re younger, you have a firmer belief that things not only ought to change but they can change, and that people not only ought to behave better but they can behave better. That’s the system they’ve been dominated by for most of their lives. When you get to my age… well, you’ve made all sorts of mistakes despite best intentions and that’s a salutory lesson in itself. We need the fierceness of the young, but we also need the tempering compassion of maturity.

  5. Another agreement that tastes in books change as one gets older although I’ve always cried at any emotional scene – from seeing the death of Bambi’s mother at a tender age! I walked out of The Departed (film) a few years ago because I seemed to be dealing with violence on a daily basis and didn’t want to witness more in my leisure time. One change in my habits: until I was in my twenties I didn’t really want to read anything written any later than 1900. Pleased to say that this is no longer the case, and I don’t always enjoy the 19th century novels as much when I do return – although was amazed by how much Hugo had to say in Les Miserables (a long recent read) that is relevant today.

  6. I’ve read Vickers a long time ago and your post gave me a nudge to return to her. Regarding “everyone brave…” I wonder if you would not be less emotional if you read it on paper than in audiobook. My own experience is that hearing the book aloud make things a lot more emotional to me (also you can’t skip a difficult moment). I have heard so much about this book that it is on my TBR list, but I will wait for a quieter moment to tackle it.

    • I completely agree that not being able to skip anything makes for a much tougher reading experience. I would ALWAYS skip gruesome and gory bits when reading a paper book. But so far, it hasn’t in itself made listening a more emotional experience, probably because few of the narrators’ voices really move me. But listening is very different to reading and a really tough test of a novel. The writing is amazing in this book, so you’ll like that. I also used to find that reading in French really helped me get a bit of distance, so maybe the same will work for you? Would love to know what you think of it!

  7. Thank you,
    ‘The news, for instance, only thrusts the pain of the world in front of us – it has nothing to say about what can be done about it – and so it is essentially unkind.’
    This perfectly defined my reasoning for paying as little attention to the news as possible in recent months. Just this week I was trying to explain to my partner the difference between being ignorant to worldwide events through stupidity and choosing to avoid the news for my own well-being, though some may perceive this as selfish. Of course I do stay up-to-date with current events, but I find a basic awareness is sufficient for me.

    • A basic awareness is just fine. The BBC news site tends to stick to the most basic facts, after all. I remember reading about anxiety, and how it’s based in the lizard brain, which spends all its time actively tracking down causes of anxiety and overreacting to them. The news is merciless in the way it appeals to that lizard brain. And it makes us look. But it’s a low way to get readers, I think, and it results in a huge amount of anxiety that’s got to be dealt with, if you are a news hound and read a lot of it regularly. I get very annoyed about that!

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