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“So what’s it all about then?”

The polite enquiry from people who haven’t read my novel All Desires Known. A nasty moment when my mind becomes a blank sky, thoughts disappearing like migrating birds. A faltering explanation which gives the wrong impression and might be about a different book altogether. My novel is boring. I am a bore.

Ridiculous to be floored by the question. If you’ve written and published a novel of course you know what it’s about. But it’s about lots of things and you aren’t any good at soundbites.

There’s no excuse. “Sum up your novel’s unique selling point in a single sentence” – anybody who’s attended a creative writing class or read a writers’ magazine will be familiar with that little exercise. Can it really be done?

I only know it needs to be. Here’s what I wanted to say to my questioners.

The contradictory and confused impulses of the human heart; the claustrophobic world of public schools; false allegations of abuse; the devastating nature of teenage mental illness; and over it all, the power of art to reveal and redeem.  Do we have a right to be happy at the expense of other people? How far should sacrifice be taken? It’s a question that the three main protagonists of All Desires Known have to face.

Psychiatrists get a bad press. They’re usually presented as creepy, sinister or plain barking. The hero of All Desires Known, Dr Lewis Auerbach, a Jewish expert on childhood psychosis, reverses the trend. He’s a good man, he’s giving his life to helping children with mental illness, he thinks he can stick to the rules he’s set himself. He’s got his life organised into two tight compartments…

Nor is Martin Darrow, the exemplary chaplain at Wharton public school, any more successful at knowing himself – and to what depths he might sink. There’s a lot of hot air talked about forgiveness, especially by the Church. It’s easy enough to preach. And where is God in the whole homosexual debate?

It’s hardly surprising that the heroine, portrait painter Nell Garwood, is attracted to these two men. Like them, she has made wrong choices in the past, misread herself and other people, not least her indulgently generous husband Alastair.

People are not what they seem, cries Nell, halfway through the novel. No, they aren’t, we’re all getting it wrong about each other most of the time. In All Desires Known, characters comment on each other, but they’re all prejudiced in one way or another, so are they reliable narrators? The reader must work it out, but there must always be uncertainty, because people and life will always be half-finished and messy.

How can this be summed up into a handy soundbite selling sentence? Writing a novel is easy compared with marketing it.

 

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