A few weeks my little Tennessee started to look up. Corners of rooms. The morning sunlight playing on the ceiling. Shadows. The frosted glass at the top of the front door. Her eyes are coming into focus. Although she still sees in black and white, she is beginning to pick up the nuance of shade and light: her world is no longer monochrome. Or that’s what the baby books say. A dear friend, Mariama Ifode, has a different theory.
‘She’s watching the angels,’ Mariama said as she held Tennessee in her arms a week ago. Her tone was matter of fact, as though seeing angels was a the most natural thing in the world. ‘It’s she’s still between worlds,’ she added.
Mariama is a spiritual person in the best sense of the word (expansive, welcoming, tolerant, open-minded, kind). And she is a poet. So, Hugh and I have grown used to these wonderful declarations. It’s why we asked Mariama to marry us and why she’ll be leading Tennessee’s naming ceremony in the autumn.
Her words got my writer’s brain whirring. First, I thought about the paradox that a baby who sees less than we do (a world that is less focused, less three-dimensional, lacking colour), sees deeper – notices the spiritual elements that we miss. A bit like dear Milo who, despite his Retinitis Pigmentosa, sees more than the adults around him and notices that his gran isn’t being looked after properly in her nursing home.
I love the interplay between the real and the magical. When I started teaching English Literature ten years ago, I came across the wonderful Isabel Allende and her use of magic realism. It was a genre I warmed to immediately. I no longer have a particular faith but I do believe that the everyday, the most ordinary of situations and experiences, are fused with the magical. Even the most ardent realist, scientist, pragmatist must acknowledge that there is something beautifully unfathomable about life. A tremor that runs through our encounters, the way we glance at someone across a room, how we feel when we listen to a piece of music or watch the sea. Love is perhaps the best embodiment of this – something achingly physical and yet ephemeral too.
This interplay between the real and the magical lies at the heart of my writing. My novels are about everyday life: they are grounded in the ordinary chaos of family life and human relationships in contemporary Britain. And yet, I always try to lift the corners on the ‘beautifully unfathomable’ – the magic. I achieve this by writing from the point of view of children, who, as Mariama said, are straddling two lives – still clinging to the world they came from before they were born. The same is true of old people who are nearing the end of their lives – they are beginning to see the world they will go to when they leave earth. And then, there are animals. I always include animals in my novels and, in my latest story, Home Again, I wrote chapters from the point of view Louis, a wonderful dog. Think of how a dog suddenly barks at an empty space, how a cat is inexplicably startled out of sleep, how a horse kicks against its stall in the middle of the night – they see angels too, and ghosts, and other things that we adult humans have lost touch with.
And so, once again, my little girl has helped me to see the world a little differently, has prompted me to use my imagination a little more – to see not only a shadow on the ceiling, but maybe an angel too.