Blink. Bloody Couch

Do you remember the ‘Doctor Who’ episode called ‘Blink’? The one where angels prey upon humans but turn to stone the moment they are looked upon — so the only way to prevent them killing is not to blink. As soon as a person shuts their eyes, the angels move, incredibly quickly — though of course, the person doesn’t see that, because their eyes are shut. And then, when they open their eyes, the angels are closer each time, but completely still, statues. A reverse Medusa.

It’s a very creepy episode. And it occurred to me this morning, it’s a bit that way with couch grass — you know the kind that grows stems out from a central root and each stem puts down roots as well. And, just to be even more rampant, sends down rhizomes underground, creeping and expanding.

We’ve spent hours — hours we’ll never get back — weeding the tendrils of couch from our veggie patch. And all because we looked away. It was more than just a blink, though; it was lots of blinks — weeks, probably months, busy with writing, not noticing the silent weed encroaching.

A friend describes couch as the cockroach of the floral world, and I think he’s right. It has been said that when we’re all gone, destroyed by one or another global catastrophe, it’s the black armoured insects that will survive. As I was pulling out roots and stems from beneath the weed mat this morning, I wondered why couch hasn’t taken over the whole world by now. It doesn’t need lots of water; it puts out pointed tendrils that will burrow through and around all sorts of obstacles, and it keeps on growing from any tiny piece you happen to leave in the ground. What’s to stop world domination, I wonder.

Pondering all this as I was, I decided that couch grass must have been the inspiration for The War of the Worlds: alien life nurturing its attack from beneath the ground, unbeknownst to us, and then, taking over in an endless network of rhizomes that strangle any other kind of life. Very couchlike!

I had hoped that the endless monotony of digging, pulling, sifting, and shaking dirt off roots and tendrils would become a kind of meditation — a chance to mull over the next chapter of the novel, allow some new ideas to arise — but instead I found myself making these wayward comparisons. Tendrils of irrelevance and silliness creeping into my mind.

Like this, the ‘Blink’ cat video, with Dr Who commentary, if you’d like to join me.

I don’t usually read that genre, but…

How much do you read according to genre? I’ve been mulling over this for a while now, and especially recently, when I read Up and In, by Deborah Disney, a novel that’s been on my list for a while. I’d met Deb at a HarperCollins author lunch last year, both of us newbies to the publishing worlds. We found each other by the drinks table — as you do — and hung out together over a glass of white. She was great company, and we shared stories of finally getting a book accepted: excitement, amazement, terror and anticipation.


I really enjoyed Deb’s novel — full of energy, wry humour, and sharp observation. It explores the territory of school mums: in this case, the pressures and striving of parents sending their children to an elite private school. I’ve had some experience of all that, and it’s not something I wanted to revisit. But it was the portrayal of the main character and narrator, Marie, that kept me reading as she plays out so many of her foibles before us, striving to keep up with and stay ‘in’ with the main group, while deep down knowing it’s not worth it. She’s frustrating, willfully blind, but the freshness of her voice had me thinking again about the importance of developing ways to keep the reader engaged with the narrator even as you explore their weaknesses. I think the book would be called ‘chick lit’, and it’s not a genre I usually read, but …

Now that’s a comment I’ve heard so many times in comments about The Anchoress: ‘I don’t usually read historical fiction, but …’, and I realise how much a genre label can influence expectations of a novel. I had never thought of myself writing within a genre, only writing a story about people and places from the past. I know, though, that every genre will come with some expectations, and I tend to do the same thing. But fortunately for me, last year’s reading took me into territory I wouldn’t normally tread, as I prepared for panels shared with other authors at writers’ festivals.

For Perth Writers’ Festival, I read Half a King by Joe Abercrombie — historical fantasy, perhaps — and not a book I’d ordinarily read (there it is again). But … I was surprised, and I enjoyed it so much that I went on to read the sequel, Half the World. Again, it was the nuanced portrayal of character, and the energy of the writing that I especially liked.

I thought again about those comments a couple of weeks ago when I heard the replay of Kazuo Ishiguro talking about his latest novel, The Buried Giant, set in an Arthurian landscape. A real fuss unfolded in response to his concern that readers would pre-judge his work: ‘Will they understand what I’m trying to do, or will they be prejudiced against the surface elements? Are they going to say this is fantasy?’ In the interview, he suggested that genre borders are breaking down, and that’s a good thing: ‘I think genre rules should be porous, if not nonexistent.’ I especially appreciate his comment that the ‘metaphorical landscape’ allows him to make universal points.

I haven’t yet made it to Ishiguro’s book, but I have read Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things, described on his site as ‘genre-defying’. It’s about an evangelical pastor who travels to a newly colonised planet to minister to the native inhabitants and I hesitated ­— but not for long, because I love Faber’s writing. Still …. space travel, alien creatures? Sounds like sci-fi. Really? It is about a strange planet, yes, but that setting is like Ishiguro’s metaphorical landscape, allowing Faber to explore, among other things, what it is to be human, to love, to be separated from a beloved, and the hopes of healing. Quietly, slowly, the alien world brings the reader profoundly home. Its genre? That doesn’t really matter.

So, I’m not suggesting that I’ll begin searching out chick lit novels or historical fantasy, though I’ll definitely read Deborah Disney’s second novel when it appears. But I’ll try not to pre-judge a book by its genre label. What about you? I’d love to know if you’ve been surprised by a book that has played outside your genre expectations.