Being Emily is pure great, but...
Anne Donovan has written two previous books, and baith are written in whit ah’d call a ‘pure nifty version’ of the Glaswegian Dialect. Her first wis a short story collection called Hieroglyphics, and the second wis the novel Buddha Da, which came about when, as she says “I started writing a short story about a lassie with a da who was radio rental, and suddenly he was intae Buddhism”. Buddha Da, which is a crackin slice of Glaswegian life wi well-drawn characters, humour and a rivetin plot which suckers ye in, wis very successful, sellin well and gettin shortlisted fur the Orange and Whitbread Prizes. Donovan’s new book is called Being Emily, and it’s jist as good, if not better.
It’s about a lassie called Fiona O’Connell, who’s at school and growin up fast. Oh, and she’s mad daft about Emily Brontë, but. It follows her an her family, as she comes to see that Victorian novels arenae the only places where life is tragic. Ah asked Anne Donovan how the book compliments the work of the Brontës and she says “I really wanted the book to work on its own so anyone would be able to read it as it is - and I think it’s okay as some folk have already liked it who don’t know or arenae interested in the Brontës. But I did consciously use some aspects of the Brontës’ lives and fiction - some readers will spot them if they have that interest.”
One connection is that the tight-knit Brontë family are well matched by the O’Connells, in that they’re baith full of fascinatin characters. Donovan says that “My characters are all real tae me but they arenae based on specific folk I know or have known in real life. For me the key is always bein inside the character, able to feel things fae their perspective. Sometimes that means lookin at things fae a completely different perspective from mine.” Ah tell her that ma favourite characters were Fiona’s tearaway wee sisters, aka the twins, but she tells me that “In Being Emily I like the da. He’s such a human character - he makes a mess of things but he’s got a big heart.”
The Brontë and O’Connell families are similar in character, but one of the engines of the plot is that they’re no in a similar situation. Being Emily started, Donovan says, “as a short story, really jist trying tae explore the differences between a Glasgow family and the Brontës and look at that idea (or myth?) about writers being visited by their muse while they roam the moors.” She goes on to say that “then you have Fiona trying tae write poetry in the middle of this busy family life. The Brontë family were all writers and played imaginative games thegether and Fiona is trying tae get her mad wee sisters tae write stories when they can barely sit still!”
This story, as ye may have guessed, is written with that same brilliant renderin of the Glasgow dialect that was so impressive in the author’s earlier books. It’s mair difficult tae dae than it looks (believe me) so I asked Anne Donovan whit her method is. She says “It’s the character that drives me when ah get intae his or her heid ah hear the voice” …which isnae any use tae me here, but she continues “Ah like tae write the first draft as fast as ah can, fulla mistakes and rubbish, no stoppin tae go back and correct anythin just tryin tae maintain a momentum” which is music tae ma ears, wi that ‘mistakes and rubbish’ bit. But there’s mair tae it (and oor Edinburgh readers will need tae keep sharp here) because “then the hard bit - ah read it out loud over and over again and work out where ah need tae make changes in the spellin and vocabulary” – which sounds like a lot of work, but “there’s nae standardised spellin which gies you freedom. Ah spell some words in the same way each time but others vary dependin on the rhythm and the other words already in the sentence or paragraph.” Remember, Glaswegians go through something akin to this complex process whenever they speak. Bet you never knew we were so smart.
Jokin aside, the point is that the use of dialect makes the settings and characters more real, which in turn makes the novel more vivid. Donovan explains that “Ah want tae get a balance between soundin right, so the reader can hear the voice, and readability, so there isnae a barrier to understandin.” She’s struck the right balance in Being Emily, a readable novel which can surprise you in places wi the sheer complexity of the issues and character interactions in it. This book is the kind of read which many claim to have written, but few do – a great read which makes you think. And (you might have guessed I’d say this), I thought it was pure dead brilliant.