BOOK REVIEW / The child caught in a storm: Margaret Forster on the unforeseen direction taken by The Battle for Christabel

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The Independent Culture
IT IS surely a little early to have second thoughts about a novel written only two years ago but I had them as soon as it was finished. Doesn't everyone? None of my intentions were fulfilled, but then these were so vague that it wasn't surprising. If I was the sort of novelist who kept a notebook and in it planned out chapters, sketched in characters and worked out plots, then I might have a clearer idea why this novel turned out so different from the one lurking in my head. But I don't. I plunge in, curious to see where the story will go.

Where it went this time was off at a wild tangent. The novel was meant to be about a woman in her late thirties who passionately wants to have a baby but doesn't want anything to do with its father once conception is over. She was meant to have the child and love it and be transformed by motherhood, so much so that her act would be justified. Then she was to be killed and immediately, because of the circumstances in which her child was left, this justification would be called into question. A story, then, which I thought of as tender and moving, full of moral dilemmas but coming down on no particular side.

And what happened? For reasons I cannot understand I wrote the novel in the first person, as the friend of the mother. This friend storms through the book, taking it over. Moments of tenderness are exceedingly brief - the friend is so full of rage that she squashes them. She swipes at the social workers, at the child's relatives, at the foster mother, and becomes hopelessly involved. This was not my idea at all. This dominant friend was to have had a walk-on part, not hog the stage. Because of her, the novel quickly becomes a battlefield, and what is fought over is not so much the child as the rights and wrongs of women choosing to become mothers and then shutting men out. The opinions of the friend, herself in her late thirties and childless, become more important than the fate of the child.

Maybe I let this friend take over because the subject matter might otherwise have led to sentimentality, and I feared readers would drown in the pathos of the child's plight when I wanted them to concentrate on the issues involved. But all I truly regret is writing the whole novel in this one friend's voice. I should have had at least two, perhaps three, voices.

No good thinking about this now. What the novel lacks in structure I hope it makes up for in zest - which, for me, is what fiction is all about.

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