Friday, 15 December 2017

A Story About the Importance of Stories

It is no accident that most of the world’s belief systems are based on narrative. Whether a novel, film, oral folktales, a news story or specifically religious writing, stories help us make sense of our lives. I didn’t set out to develop that theme in The Tides Between. The concept of the novel started with a character. In this instance, a young girl called Bridie who had lost her father in tragic circumstances. I had this idea that a creative young couple would help her to come to terms with her loss during the long sea voyage to Australia. Through a serendipitous process involving my mother’s Welsh heritage and my childhood emigration to Australia, my creative young couple became Welsh storytellers.

I’d like to say that the themes of my novel emerged along with that decision. I read the Mabinogion and a host of other Welsh fairy tales and found myself entranced. These were my stories, part of my heritage, and I hadn’t even known they existed. Despite this, I didn’t quite know what to do with the wealth I had uncovered. In my early drafts of The Tides Between, I simply use the stories to establish Rhys and Sian as storytellers and to forge a connection between them and Bridie. The individual tales were quite incidental to the plot. However, during my re-drafting, I realised that the stories had to work harder if they were to earn their place in the narrative. Rather than being brief and incidental, they had to become central to the novel. In the end, I decided each story had to work on three levels.

1. As a compelling story in itself

2. In revealing something of the characters’ inner journeys

3. Acting as a metaphor for what was happening on the ship

As I re-worked the stories in The Tides Between according to the above criteria, my novel’s themes began to emerge. Here is a section of the novel in which Bridie reacts to Rhys’s telling of the traditional Welsh story of Llyn y Fan Fach.

the-tides-between, elizabeth-jane-corbett, book

Bridie didn’t know how long she sat there after the story finished. An age it seemed - with her chest heaving and her hanky sodden, thinking of babies called home before their time, her dad’s long and bitter illness, his strange, turbulent moods, Ma’s even-now bitterness. She became aware of Siân’s soft humming, Rhys’s dark, considered gaze, the knot of onlookers drifting away. She sniffed, dabbing at her eyes. 
‘Sorry. I won’t cry every time.’ 
‘No need to apologise, Bridie Stewart. There is no greater compliment to a storyteller.’ 
‘But…Rhys? Do you think she wanted to leave?’

‘I don’t know, bach. The story doesn’t tell us. Only that the maiden loved Ianto enough to thrust her sandaled foot forward and that she bore him three fine sons.’ 
‘But, laughing at a funeral, sobbing at a wedding? She wouldn’t have done those things if she’d loved him.’ 
‘We don’t know why the Fairy Woman laughed at the funeral, bach. Or indeed, why she sobbed at a wedding. Maybe she mourned for the bride, seeing problems others could not perceive. Maybe she grieved for her first life, the ones she’d left behind. But that doesn’t mean she didn’t love Ianto. Or that she wanted to leave him.’ 
‘I think it does. I think she hated him.’ 
‘Indeed, that is why you feel the story so deeply. You are not alone in that, Bridie bach. No doubt, Ianto asked himself the same questions. For they are the questions of the ages - how we tell a true story from one fashioned merely for entertainment. For in the plight of each character, we confront our heart’s reasons. Do not fear those reasons, bach, be they ever so painful. Only promise you’ll write about them in your own version of the story.’

Strangely, like its embedded fairy tales, The Tides Between also works on three levels. On the surface, it is a simple coming-of-age story. A girl becomes a woman. But like Bridie, Rhys and his wife Sian, have also been let down by their fathers. So, on another level, The Tides Between tackles issues of failed marriage, blended families, abuse, and mental health breakdown. However, running like a thread beneath these themes is the importance of stories. I didn’t set out to develop those themes. They grew out of the relationship between my characters. However, in keeping with Rhys’ definition of a ‘true story’, they reveal something of my own journey. For example, when Rhys says: ‘Painful, it is, when the words that once brought comfort lose their voice. It’s not the stories that are at fault. Or that we were foolish to believe. Only that we must learn to see with different eyes,’ I am expressing something of my own, evolving relationship with a group of ancient writings commonly known as the Bible. Similarly, when another character reflects: ‘There were no easy answers only love and people who were complex,’ I am speaking out of my own growth in understanding – an understanding that life is not black and white, that some of the easy answers I once accepted are no longer satisfying – and that is okay because love and life and even faith are beyond simple understanding.

To tell a story from the three viewpoints and to break it up with embedded Welsh fairy tales was a risky project for a debut novelist and it may well have fallen flat on its face. Fortunately, I found a publisher who was willing to take the risk and people are engaging strongly with the stories. I will leave you with the beginning of a segment from Llyn y Fan Fach. Though you’ll have to read the novel to see how it applies to Rhys and Bridie’s lives. Indeed, how it works as a metaphor for what is happening on the ship.

Siân began to hum. Arms on his knees, Rhys fixed his gaze on the deck. Bridie saw the nervous swallow of his throat, his too-tight fists, heard the sudden sharp intake of his breath.

‘High up in a hollow of the Black Mountains is a tiny, mysterious sheet of water pressed into the surrounding crests like a giant’s thumbprint. Lyn a Fan Fach, people call it, the lake of the small peak. Once-upon-a-time a widow lived in the shadow of those dark peaks. A poor widow who, having lost her husband to the sword, vowed her son, Ianto, would not earn his bread by soldiering. 
‘Being a gentle, sensitive young man, Ianto had no lust for battle. He liked nothing more than to graze his cattle on the shores of Llyn y Fan Fach. The light was different there, he told Mam, the air thinner. Sometimes, as he sat in the shadow of those dark peaks, he fancied he heard the Fair Folk singing.

‘It happened one day, as Ianto wandered the shores of the lake, that he saw a sight to make him tremble. There, perched on top of the water was a maiden - a most comely maiden, combing her long dark tresses. 
‘Now Ianto might have been a dreamer but he was no fool. Closing his eyes, he counted to ten, certain, this was nothing but a trick of the light on him. Imagine his wonder, therefore, when he opened them, to find the maiden still present. Indeed, if he was not mistaken, she was even lovelier than he imagined.

‘Ianto fumbled in his pack for the hunk of barley bread Mam had baked for him that morning. Burned black along one edge, it was hardly an inducement for one so comely. But Ianto knew better than to approach the Fair Ones empty-handed.

‘The maiden’s scarlet sandals barely rippled the water surface as she floated towards him. She stopped, wrinkling her nose at the sight of his meagre offering.’ 
‘Oh, handsome youth standing so truly,
‘With hard baked bread, you will not persuade me.’

elizabeth-jane-corbett, author

When Elizabeth Jane Corbett isn’t writing, she works as a librarian, teaches Welsh at the Melbourne Welsh Church, contributes articles to the Historical Novel Review and blogs. Elizabeth lives with her husband in a renovated timber cottage in Melbourne's inner-north. She likes red shoes, dark chocolate, commuter cycling, and reading quirky, character-driven novels set once-upon-a-time in lands far away. The Tides Between is available to buy now. For more about Elizabeth and her work, you can visit her website or find her on Facebook and Twitter.

Why do you think stories are important? Share your thoughts in the comments below!