Wednesday, 9 May 2018

BOOKCLUB: Smash All the Windows by Jane Davis

It has taken conviction to right the wrongs.
It will take courage to learn how to live again.

For the families of the victims of the St Botolph and Old Billingsgate disaster, the undoing of a miscarriage of justice should be a cause for rejoicing. For more than thirteen years, the search for truth has eaten up everything. Marriages, families, health, careers and finances.

Finally, the coroner has ruled that the crowd did not contribute to their own deaths. Finally, now that lies have been unravelled and hypocrisies exposed, they can all get back to their lives.
If only it were that simple. 

Tapping into the issues of the day, Davis delivers a highly charged work of metafiction, a compelling testament to the human condition and the healing power of art.

All the members of Triskele Books have long been fans of Jane Davis's books and there was no doubt we'd read her latest novel. Here, Gillian Hamer, Catriona Troth and Liza Perrat respond to JJ Marsh's questions about Smash all the Windows.

JJ: The first thing that struck me about the book was the structure. The book starts with the coroner's verdict. Then it moves back in time to before the disaster happened and to the aftermath. How did the fact that we know what happened in the end affect your experience of the story?

CT: A chronological telling, with the focus on a sequence of events, would have made the book more like a disaster movie. By telling the story in the way she did, Davis ensured that the focus was on the impact of the events on the lives of the characters.
LP: For me, the coroner's verdict was not the crux of this story; it was rather an exploration of the effects of the disaster on the different people involved. Therefore, my story experience was in no way affected by this beginning.
GH: Yes, I agree with Kat, it changed the tone of the book completely because we already knew the people were without fault and helped us focus on the character's stories rather than the guilty or not guilty issue.

JJ: Davis employs a large cast of characters, and as a result, many different points-of-view. What do you see as the advantages of that?

CT: There are so many different human responses to grief, loss and trauma. The multiple points of view of the families of the dead - all written in that close third person point of view that makes the reader inhabit the characters skin - allow us to explore and understand a huge range of those responses.
LP: Yes, I agree with Kat and as such, each individual reader will certainly be able to identify with at least one of these characters.
GH: I think it gave the book a much more rounded and balanced feel, each character had their own story, their own baggage, their own guilt and their own way of coping with their grief.

JJ: Was there a single character you identified with more than most?

CT: Probably Gina. I have been through the phase of having two embattled teenage kids in the house. It's all two easy to imagine what it would be like to have that life cut short - to have everything frozen in a bad moment that you would otherwise have lived through and grown out of. (I've also been a London commuter through two pregnancies, so I had a lot of empathy for Cassie too.)
LP: I identified with many of the characters, but mostly, I'd say, with Jules. I found it amazing the way he could sift through the physical and literal rubble, and create something beautiful and evocative.
GH: I think I connected most with Maggie. I've walked streets and drove to places just to evoke memories and remember what it was like to be there with a loved one I've lost. And I felt a great deal of empathy both for her loss and what she went through trying to defend her daughter's name.

JJ: I was impressed by the way the author made a completely fictional disaster feel so convincing. What were the elements that contributed to its believability?

CT Again, this has something to do with points of view. By showing it to us through the several pairs of eyes, Davis allows us to see it evolve as in a four dimensional reconstruction. But it is also to do with carefully chosen details that would conjure up the Tube to anyone familiar with travelling on it.
LP: I think it was entirely believable as I could truly envisage this kind of disaster occurring. Coupled with the fact that we have actually experienced just these kind of disasters in real life.
GH: There was something of the tragic events of Hillsborough that echoed through my mind as I read this book, and because we know these awful, life-changing events can happen, and that miscarriages of justice aren't as rare as they should be, it added to the whole believability factor that the author created.

JJ: The novel is full of powerfully affecting moments. Are there any that particularly stood out for you?

CT: Very difficult to pick just one. The opening of Ollie's room, Eric's breakdown, Helene finding her role - they were all deeply moving. But I think the opening of the exhibition stands out for me, for all the reasons I explain below.
LP: For me it would have to be when Ollie's room was finally opened.
GH: Again, Maggie coping with her inner grief stood out for me because it felt so real. Gina's battle with her emotions and coming to terms with her son's death in gradual stages was also very powerful.


JJ: There is a sense of closure for some of those left behind at Jules Roche's exhibition, Objets. Why does an artistic representation of people's pain and grief have such an effect?

CT: Visual art, like poetry, distills emotion down to its essence, so it connects directly with our own emotional centres. The descriptions of art pieces probably shouldn't, in theory, be quite so powerful. But I was blown away by Davis's description of the different pieces in Objets. Envisaging each of those art works was a tour de force in itself. Not to give too much away, but crib was an especially stunning concept. I think Davis may be a visual artist manque!
LP: I think because, as each of us is an individual, each person views, loves, hates and/or appreciates, art in completely entirely ways. Just as it is with each individual's perception of pain and grief.
GH: I felt the exhibition acted as a form of closure because it brought everyone together in a 'beautiful' way - rather than in a courtroom. It's difficult not to give the plot away but the objects themselves had real meaning too that seemed to heal those left to cope with the aftermath.

JJ: Jane Davis recently wrote a guest blog for us on the ghosts of fictional characters. This book is shadowed with the spectres of lost individuals, even those not yet born. Yet it did not make me melancholy, instilling if anything a feeling of reverence. What was your feeling when you finished Smash All The Windows?

CT: I think there was an immense feeling of hope, as if Jules has allowed the bereaved - those with whom we have shared this journey at least - to reconnect with those they have lost. This wasn't an anodyne 'everything's all right now' ending - more that each of the characters could now begin a healing process that had been denied them for years.
LP: It definitely left me with hope too; that the characters had been able to acknowledge their grief and could thus continue their lives on a more hopeful and peaceful, arc.
GH: A feeling of closure, not just in the book but in the journey of the characters. The victims' voices had been loud and clear in the earlier sections and flashbacks, and it was as if they had finally fallen silent. I felt sure that the bereaved would now be taking the first small steps towards the rest of their lives with the acceptance that they could never change what had happened but could finally start to learn how to live with it.

Read Liza's Bookmuse review here