Bringing you top new fiction picks, author interviews, discounts and lots more book chat, the Edition Book Club is a partnership with Cambridge Literary Festival and Heffers
A Perfect Mother by Katri Skala
This month’s book choice explores relationships, love, parenting, violence and legacy, all set against the uncertainty of whether a crime has been committed
Interview by Charlotte Griffiths
First published in September 2018, A Perfect Mother by Katri Skala is a gripping, complex and rewarding existential novel. It explores the universal themes of ageing, people’s relationships with their parents and the stories we choose to tell about our lives – all set against the stunning and richly textured historical backdrop of Trieste. Oh – and there’s even a book club.
The storytelling in A Perfect Mother is so accomplished, the plotting so deft, that it comes as quite a surprise to discover this is Katri’s first novel – but the author has had some time to work on this particular story. “I started way back in 2010, then had a critical mass of the book by 2013,” she says. “I revised a lot over the following years, helped by a few readers and my editor at Hikari, and by an MA in 20th-century literature at UEA. It really honed my skills as a close reader and helped me formulate what it is about good writing that I value.”
Katri (below) finds routine essential when working on a book, with as few interruptions as possible. “I work best in sprints of several days when I do nothing but immerse myself in the writing,” she says. “That’s not to say I’m scribbling away every minute, accumulating word count – on the contrary, often I might be doing household chores, or walking or doodling in a notebook – just that I write best when no other major demand is made of my brain.
“When I’ve got a critical mass, I can do the revisions anytime, anywhere. But the tough stuff of working the imagination and breaking the white page requires, for me, a lot of empty space. I’ve actually just started work on another novel that’s historical fiction – something I thought I’d never write! But I had an idea, several years ago, and the idea has stayed with me and I’ve done quite a bit of research so, we’ll see… It’s an experiment, as writing always is.”
A Perfect Mother is written entirely from the perspective of its main character, Jacob, who visits Trieste in northern Italy to research his great-grandfather, who went missing in the city in 1938. “I had no idea where the novel was going when I first started,” Katri reveals. “I had some characters, a place and a few ideas I wanted to explore. As the characters evolved, through writing and research, the story began to take shape.”
On why the real-life Trieste captured her imagination, Katri says: “It’s at the crossroads of Europe, a place where writers and exiled royals washed up through the centuries – James Joyce lived there for many years – and is a city associated with exile.”
She decided to use this historic location as the setting for a story involving the meeting of strangers. Katri wanted to explore how strangers have a useful habit of telling each other secrets that they don’t normally reveal to those who know them well.
In A Perfect Mother, the reader is only ever told what Jacob knows and experiences, and meets other characters at the same time that he does, which keeps a tight focus on his storyline. In order to plot the book, Katri actually wrote a great deal of first-person narrative from the viewpoint of the other two central characters, Jane and Charlotte. “Most of which was not used in the actual novel,” explains Katri. “So Jacob’s interactions with them, through talking, texts and email (and then of course what he actually feels and thinks about them) is a sifted version.”
The novel asks big questions about parenting, histories and personal identity, and touches on huge universal themes that could easily overwhelm the reader – so having a single narrator keeps the story under tight control. But this required a lot of groundwork during the book’s construction. “I was keen to keep central the idea that we only know each other and love each other through the stories we hear and tell,” Katri says. “So Jacob comes to Trieste because of the stories told to him by his grandfather and he comes to know both women as they tell him stories about themselves – and each other. He is a somewhat passive character, who gains more agency as the events of the novel unfold. I felt I fully had to know all the characters and the events that informed their lives and their pasts before I could more formally ‘plot’ the novel. This only happened after I’d written a draft.”
And the meaning of the title? “I was interested in exploring questions and assumptions about parenting, so the title is an ironic riff on the idea of the perfect mother and the nuclear family inspired by DW Winnicott’s phrase, ‘good enough mother’,” Katri says. “It wasn’t intended to appeal directly to any one particular group over another – other than hoping that the narrative suspense would keep people reading who might otherwise find the material too dark, or too layered in a literary sense. I think it’s up to each reader to have their own experience of the novel. For me, the moment it was published, it became about those who bought and read and talked to each other about it – it’s not about me. I think this is the enormous value of book clubs.”
Cathy Moore, director of Cambridge Literary Festival, on A Perfect Mother
This is a highly accomplished first novel, with a compelling story that explores relationships, love, parenting, violence and legacy, all set against the uncertainty of whether a crime has been committed. It beautifully evokes Trieste, with all its cultural and political complexities, as well as the sense that everything is at a crossroads – much like the history of Trieste itself.
The novel is narrated by Jacob, who visits Trieste to research his long-lost great-grandfather. There, he meets Charlotte and Jane and begins a relationship with one and forms a friendship with the other. For me, the joy of A Perfect Mother is as much to be found in the haunting plot and sense of place as it is about the precise, mature and clear-eyed prose style that would suggest a writer at the peak of their career and not, as is the case, a debut novelist.
Coming soon: Cambridge Literary Festival
A highlight of the local calendar for book lovers, Cambridge Literary Festival returns for its spring outing from 5-7 April. As ever, the line-up offers diversity of speakers – from the hottest novelists to political commentators, activists, thinkers, entertainers and children’s authors.
Names already confirmed include Labour MP Hilary Benn, The Times columnist and former speech writer for Tony Blair, Phil Collins, and a brilliant array of fiction writers that includes John Lanchester, Ali Smith, Madeline Miller and Simon Mayo. Not to mention a constellation of scientists, such as the Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees, Adam Rutherford and Giles Yeo. Booking opens on 5 February.
Up next month: Circe by Madeline Miller
Escape to an ancient land of gods, heroes, magic and monsters with next month’s book club pick: Circe by Madeline Miller. The latest offering from the award-winning author of The Song of Achilles is a powerful story about the goddess Circe.
The novel takes readers to the house of Helios, god of the sun, where a daughter is born – but Circe has neither the look nor the voice of divinity and is scorned and rejected by her kin. Isolated, she turns to mortals for companionship, leading her to discover a power forbidden to the gods: witchcraft. When love drives Circe to cast a dark spell, Zeus banishes her to the remote island of Aiaia, where she learns to harness her occult craft.
There is danger for a solitary woman in this world and Circe’s independence draws the wrath of men and gods alike. To protect what she holds dear, Circe must decide whether she belongs with the deities she was born from, or the mortals she has come to love…
Circe can be purchased for £16.99 in hardback. Read along and tweet us your thoughts @cambsedition, with the hashtag #EditionBookClub for a chance to feature in the next issue.
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