Rym Kechacha talks with author Siân Hughes about her debut novel, Pearl, the importance of medieval poetry to its themes, motherhood, grief and postpartum depression, and her research and writing process.
A man falls asleep in a garden and dreams; he has visions of a clear running stream and a beautiful maiden who is recently lost to him, a wife perhaps, probably a daughter. He wishes to join her but she tells him he cannot, that he must stay living and trust that this is God’s wish for him. After much calm theological discussion, he desperately wades into the water and wakes. This is the briefest of summaries of the medieval poem Pearl and the inspiration for Siân Hughes’ novel Pearl, published by The Indigo Press.
A frank confession: I’ve not read anything other than the Wikipedia summary of the poem and I am, in general, ignorant of medieval literature and its themes and conventions. Pearl exists in a single manuscript which also contains three other narrative poems, Patience, Cleanliness and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Because of stylistic similarities, they’re thought to be written by the same poet, (probably) a man who lived in the north-west midlands in the late fourteenth century, a contemporary of Chaucer.
But Siân Hughes’ novel is not a retelling and it’s not necessary to know anything about the poem to read and enjoy the story (though a certain kind of reader, which I am, will always enjoy allusive writing which revels in its influences and companions even if – especially if – I have to look things up and haphazardly educate myself in the process).
Instead, she retains certain images from the poem; the stream, the garden, the dead woman who is lamented and mourned, her absence a hollowed out place in her surviving family’s life. Marianne is eight when her mother disappears, leaving behind her daughter, her husband and a baby boy. We follow Marianne as she tries to live first without her mother and then with the slippery sense of self her mother’s disappearance has bequeathed her. To some extent, Hughes’ Pearl is about how you can almost never be un-mothered; even a mother’s absence shapes your life (like a piece of grit in an oyster?) and how you carry that in your very cells, lurking and shaping your every good and bad decision.
Hughes’ writing is beautiful, full of details of space and place that give you the sense of being right by Marianne as she lives and breathes. The novel is written in the kind of first person narration that holds your gaze close to whatever the character experiences rather than tells us the story of their lives, with all its accompanying misdirection and philosophising. Though the poem has otherworldly elements of visions and Christian theology, Pearl the novel is grounded in the messiness of ordinary life: traffic, school, laundry, a damp rental house, all the things that carry on after someone’s death, all the ways life simply will not let you go across the stream.
Over the course of about two weeks, I exchanged emails with Siân about her novel. A privilege really, to get to fire questions at a writer willy-nilly, then get detailed and interesting emails back about a rich and multi-layered book. I’d open the emails and read greedily, relishing my own small reprieve from traffic, laundry and damp.
To jump right in – not with a general question but the thing I kept returning to about your book – can you talk (write) a little about the theme of motherhood in Pearl? I was interested in your take on early motherhood, post-partum depression/psychosis, inherited trauma around childbearing and rearing. There was a tone that I don’t often see in novels, a kind of yearning that didn’t’ sugarcoat the milky, bloody, mind-collapsing days of pregnancy and babyhood but also wrapped it in a kind of special, almost sacred status, while not shying away from absurdity and humour. Perhaps it’s because it speaks to where I am in my life right now (I’m literally typing this as my baby sleeps in her pram and my toddler is at nursery) that I want to know more about this strand of the book. I also want to tell you that I found the line ‘unfortunately, when he came to visit his week-old daughter I was insane. ’so hilarious. The matter-of-factness, the wry shrug… I did not suffer as your narrator does in my post-partum period but still that line hit me right in the (dark) funny bone!
Your question goes right to the heart of the novel. The only answer that the story offers to its narrator about why her mother left her is the connection she feels to her when she experiences post-partum psychosis, and the idea that this might be an experience they shared. So the heart of the mystery is this dangerous ground of motherhood, the fragility of the mind when it is under that kind of stress – sleeplessness, terror, an overwhelming sense of inadequacy alongside physical trauma and pain.
After I had my second baby I did struggle with post-partum psychosis, but I was really lucky that I was also aware that something was off. I believe the medical word for this is ‘insight’ when the patient – me – realises their senses are not giving accurate information. What I saw were black dogs near the ground and I was afraid they would trip me up when I was carrying the baby. There were lots of steps in that house between rooms, the way you have sometimes in old buildings with different parts tacked on, and I was especially afraid the dogs would get under my feet on the steps. But I also knew that the dogs were not there. A lot of people do not have insight, or at least not for a while, and that is not me saying I was anything special or that I did well in any way, I was simply lucky that although I was ill, I was not as ill as I might have been.
I was also lucky that I picked up a leaflet at the baby weighing clinic advertising the services of someone who specialised in helping people suffering from post-natal depression and psychosis. The leaflet explained what those were, and how she could help. I remember the huge relief, when reading the leaflet, that there was a name for it, and I was not to blame, and could get help. The chances of having picked up that piece of paper, of it existing in the first place, are so slim I cannot believe how fortunate I was.
Looking back, though, I didn’t tell anyone in the family that I was ill. Not even my mother, and I was close to her. I didn’t talk to my partner about it. I called the number on the leaflet and went to see the counsellor, but I never said why. Perhaps the deep sense of shame, and secrecy and terror that someone would say I was not a fit parent, was all part of the illness, I don’t know. I can talk about it now, and when I meet someone who has suffered from that illness I am open and honest about it, in the hope that it makes it easier for other people to seek help. But at the time I felt it was totally taboo.
When I describe Marianne’s struggle with post-partum illness, I do draw on my own experience but also those of other women I know who have described what happened to them. What I wanted to convey was not especially one set of symptoms or visions, but rather the absolutely horrible sense of confusion and the scrambled sense of heightened reality you get when you are working overtime to try and make sense of what is and is not real.
When I started to write the book I did not know why Marianne’s mother might leave. I picked the character who would take their own life at random, pointing a pencil at a page of names, and I was horrified by the one I picked. Then I spent years and years writing about that person and trying to work out why she might be in that state of mind. As the novel evolved I grew older and experienced motherhood, and I came to sympathise more with that character. I wanted the narrator to get to a point where she could forgive her mother, and I suppose I wanted to get to a point where I could feel forgiveness towards that character too.
Thank you for your honesty and I’m sorry that happened to you. I suppose the ‘insight’ you speak of has parallels with how we might see the world and our experiences, as writers; how we seek to infuse our writing with a kind of light that makes the reader see something extraordinary. I really felt Pearl was infused with that kind of light. There was a physicality to the writing of places, objects and bodies that I really enjoyed. Can you write a bit about your writing process? I had an idea while reading that you might almost have started with the spaces – the house, the garden – and then moved to the characters? I saw that you worked on this novel during a PhD. Could you tell me about that too?
That is so interesting. I had not seen the connection between that kind of heightened experience, and the process of writing where everything does seem lit with its own sense of self. You are absolutely right that the setting itself was the original spark for the story. I was at secondary school and we had to think of a building we knew and fill it with characters. I chose an old house I cycled past a lot – it was on the way to my boyfriend’s house – and it had lots of different windows so I put a person behind each one. I had never been into the house, nor even gone down the track towards it, and I still have not, but the place became more and more detailed to me as I filled it up with imaginary people. I got totally carried away inventing people, so the family started off with five children and a great aunt and every time I re-wrote the story I cut more and more of them until I ended up with the cast we have now. The very last one to be cut was an older sister who probably resembled me more than any of the others, and I did miss her a bit when she was gone!
I started a PhD in creative writing at Chester and it was based on my research into my great grandfather, who was an Edinburgh foundling who became a music hall star. But you know that perverse trick of the writer’s mind where the only thing you won’t write is the one you have been told to do? One weekend I was walking around my home village and remembering my mother and all her stories, and I spent a few days trying to write Pearl again – this would have been the fourth or fifth time. It was the idea of borrowing my mother’s stories about the village that kick-started it back into life. I sent the new opening to the Mslexia novel competition then forgot all about it, and it was selected to go through to the next round, but I hadn’t finished it and didn’t like any of the previous versions enough to send in, so I had to bow out. I showed it to my tutor at Chester, Ian Seed, the prose poet, and he said, ‘This is much better than that stuff about the music hall. You should swap and do this instead.’ So I did!
Though the story about your great grandfather does sound very interesting! Perhaps you will get around to that one day. It sounds like you’ve been living with this story for a long time, have you also lived with the poem Pearl for a long time? When did you first encounter that work and when did you want the poem to be a theme in this novel? I’ve been reading about the medieval poem’s intricate structure; did you incorporate that into the novel? I am very interested in structure and the architecture of novels in general, so could you talk a little bit about how you approached that aspect of writing?
I cannot remember when I first tried reading the poem Pearl. For as long as I can remember, my idea for this story has been tangled up with my attempt to read the poem, and it was only when I went back to Pearl and translated sections of it for myself that I realised how imperfectly I had read and understood it all along.
At the start of the poem the grieving parent goes to the garden, or grave, and hears beautiful music in the silence there. The herbs and flowers planted there smell sweet, and his mind is filled with music. I always thought the songs he heard at that moment were really important, and in my mind the herb garden and the songs went together. But when I translated that section I found the mention of songs was fleeting – barely a line! The songs at the start of the sections and the references to the folk songs the mother passes on and especially those songs concerning burial rituals, are all in the book because of this tiny part of the poem. In terms of structure I wanted to create sections in the novel that would work something like the sections of the poem, with the songs as the link words, or clips that hold the pearls together in a rosary-like sequence. That is why, in the final section there is a reference to a key song from the opening, so it ties together. Well, I hope it ties together!
I really loved the songs at the beginning of each chapter. I found they were often dark in the way that nursery rhymes are, bouncing along until they end with a punch. That was going to be one of my questions! Finally, can you tell me two kind of ordinary writer interview things that nonetheless I think are very interesting questions! First, who are the writers you adore, the writers making up your personal ‘compost’ that you draw on as you’re writing; and secondly, what are you working on now, what’s next?
Okay, writers I love – well I read a lot of poetry, and I should mention my very favourite translation of Pearl into modern English by the wonderful Jane Draycott. I think my favourite contemporary novelist is Anne Tyler, or has been for a long time. Even teaching her novels did not put me off, and that is saying a lot! I also love Marilynne Robinson and Elizabeth Strout, and Richard Russo. Something they all share is the creation of a vivid fictional universe where new characters can appear in the landscape. It reminds me of playing games as a child where you invent a set of characters for your toys and invent adventures for them.
I get to choose book of the month at my bookshop for the book club, and recently we read Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These, which led me to read anything else by her as well. We sold a record number of this one when it was book of the month because we were all so enthusiastic about it! The previous best-seller was Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi, which my sister chose, and which had people running into the shop looking disheveled saying ‘Don’t tell me what happens – I’ve been up all night!’ I loved that one too. At the moment I am reading Polly Morland’s A Fortunate Woman, and really enjoying a book about a rural community and her relationship with the natural world. It’s our book of the month for April.
I had thought I would write another book in the same setting as Pearl, taking different characters and putting them at the centre, perhaps taking the story further, but I seem to have ended up writing about two sisters who are brought up by a man who trains dogs and cockerels to fight for money. It is partly inspired by another poem in the Pearl manuscript, called Cleanness, or Purity, and has a lot of detail about clothing in it.
Siân Hughes’ novel, Pearl, is published by The Indigo Press and is available to purchase online and in all good bookshops now.
Lucy Writers would like to thank Ram Kechacha, Siân Hughes all at The Indigo Press for making this interview happen. Feature image of author Siân Hughes courtesy of The Indigo Press, with cover artwork by Luke Bird.