July 23rd, 2020
In the time of The Virus
Dear Ms Paver
I hope you never go near the Goodreads website, for there you will find readers reviewing the Daughters of Eden trilogy thus:
‘characters weren’t too deep,’ ‘an easy read,’ ‘rambling boring tale,’ ‘good for a quick holiday read,’ ‘I’m not a fan of romantic fiction.’
‘An easy read?’ I imagine that writing three of the best books I’ve read in ages was not an equally ‘easy’ process. What a damning verdict on the tremendous amount of research and intelligence required to write your novels. But you did biochemistry at Oxford (you know that) and then became a lawyer, so the work ethic and intelligence are a given. And if the Eden trilogy qualifies as ‘just’ romantic fiction, then you need to ask your publishing house to change their marketing strategy, so that more people find and read these books.
I first came across your work about nine years ago, on an expedition to Waterstones to find a good contemporary ghost story (there are so few to be found.) In the Horror section (for Waterstones don’t appear to ‘do’ a ghostly section) I scanned past the usual paranormal literary suspects – M R James; various ghost story anthologies; Bram Stoker; H P Lovecraft – all Victorian writers, some edging into the Edwardian era, with a smattering of Stephen Kings and Susan Hills. My heart sank and then I caught the words ‘Dark Matter A Ghost Story Michelle Paver’ on a fairly thin spine. Looks interesting, thought I, maybe something to do with ghostly goings-on in outer space and, the big plus point, it must be a recent book as I don’t recall the title or the author. I bought it and read it the same day. Not scary, as so many ghost stories are not. But haunting, yes. It’s something to do with your oh so deceptively simple and direct writing style (what Goodreads reviewers mistakenly called an ‘easy read.’) No proliferation of words that I don’t understand, so no skipping over them because I can’t be bothered to look them up. No long-winded sentences. I finished Dark Matter (set in the Arctic and not in space, but you know that) and thought it was finished with me, until I found myself longing to return to it (like you might long for a lost love) a few months later. So I re-read it, a thing I rarely do. What got to me was the tone of the book. And your vividly simple descriptions of time and place. And the fact that your story was set in the 1930s but written in such a way that it didn’t feel as though the setting was a bygone era.
What I didn’t know, when I picked up that book, was that you are what is termed ‘a writer of historical fiction.’ I had thought Dark Matter was a one-off. An author choosing to set her ghost story in the not so distant past, but distant enough to lend a proper fear factor, since your main character ends up alone in a remote, uninhabited bay without means of communication. Nine years ago I’d wondered if you’d written other ghostly offerings but either couldn’t find them, or forgot to look, until the Covid-19 lockdown.
I got myself a Kindle three weeks ago. I’ve always been a reader who likes the feel and even the smell of an actual book. I like to turn pages. I like to feel I’m diving into a sea of words. I thought I wouldn’t get on with the Kindle. It’s very small and I have to press on it to ‘turn’ the page. But then I discovered that I could download books from Amazon for as little as 99p. This was a sort of revelation to the behind-the-times me. I also now had an entire book shop at my fingertips. I typed ghost stories into the Amazon search bar and your name came up, about half-way down the list. I recognise that name, thought I, and clicked to find Dark Matter and then Wakenhyrst alongside it. Oh Joy, I’d inwardly exclaimed, this has got to be another haunting, probably period tale, when she’s spelling hurst with a y. I paid just £2 for the gothic Wakenhyrst, which, unbeknownst to me, was published last year. It was brilliant, both the price and the book. You used the same technique of setting your story in the past (of course you know that) but wrote it in such a way that the past felt like the present; I mean that the past was real. I was hooked. I went madly searching Amazon again and found Thin Air, another of your ghost stories, set in the early 1900s, concerning an expedition to climb Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world (but of course you know that.) Who knew? I mean I’m not remotely interested in early 20th century mountaineering but, yet again, the book is brilliant, and I was drawn in. I was half way up that mountain.
The doubly good thing about your books is that I learn so much along the way. Your books should be part of the History syllabus. Better by far than the dry, utterly boring texts on offer during my 1970s school days. Your stories expertly weave character diary entries (written in the style of each period) in with chapters often given over entirely to allowing each character (even the deplorable ones) the chance to tell us how they feel and what motivates them. It’s the kind of psychological analysis that the best Victorian writers went in for, and it’s utterly captivating. You know that nothing is ever as it seems, nor is any situation simply ‘black or white.’
I’ve since found your website, where you upload videos about how you write your novels. All that historical research, which informs your plots, and then the wonderful characterisations which bring those plots so fully alive. Please ignore the misguided Goodreads comment that your characters ‘weren’t too deep.’ In places your Victorian novels are on a par with Dickens (and I include characterisation here) only you tell us the things he left out, often in graphic detail. Itself so telling of the awful hypocrisies that went on during that time.
After devouring Wakenhyrst and Thin Air, I found that you’ve written five romantic novels. All published in the early 2000s. I never read romantic fiction, even though an English degree is full of it; can’t get more Mills & Boon’ish (in a literary upmarket way) than the Bronte sisters. I now can’t believe that I hesitated to click on first ‘Without Charity’ and then ‘A Place in the Hills.’ Both books set in the past (as usual), both switching between events taking place in the distant past (ancient Rome even) and the 20th century. I got both books for a snip – you (or whoever takes care of you business-wise) really should charge more, for you’re a sort of genius (and I hope you know that.) And please, get whoever designs your book covers to go with something classier than your bog-standard dark-haired bloke leering at an innocent young maiden. It very nearly put me off.
After racing through both books, I just downloaded your romantic trilogy, The Daughters of Eden, set in a Victorian Jamaica and Britain. I didn’t hesitate this time. Your books should be up there with the classics. I’ve raced through the first two books in the trilogy. My only problem is that I find it difficult to drag myself back to the ‘real’ world. And in these Covid times, I don’t really want to. I’m soon to be bereft, for I’ll be starting the last book of the trilogy and that’s an end to your adult fiction. What to do, what to do, I inwardly moaned. I can’t start reading them all again. But hope is around the corner, for I’ve discovered that you’ve written two series of children’s books; Chronicles of Darkness and Gods and Warriors (but you know that.) They are advertised for ages 9-14, but I shall purchase them none the less and look forward to learning about ancient Greece and the stone age, but in your oh so magical, haunting, and entertaining manner.
This letter, which you will never read, is just to thank you for enlivening and enlightening the last three weeks of a now easing lockdown. I’m glad I found you again, nine years later, and I just wanted you to know that.
A grateful reader