Page 6

DD

isturbing the ead

An historical novelist considers the genre

It’s an overcast autumn morning in a leafy suburb of Oslo, and I am walking up and down well-tended rows of graves, peppered with hyacinths, in Ris Cemetery. Most of the headstones consist of a few words carved on to natural rocks; just the barest details. It seems Norwegians don’t use headstones to express sentimentality. At last I find Lillemor Rachlew’s resting place, a small slab of rock in an overgrown corner, half hidden behind a tenacious climbing plant and covered in moss. There are no flowers planted to mark the presence of Lillemor and her husband, and no sign that anyone has looked after their plot recently. I’m here to ask permission. I want to take the barest outline of Lillemor’s life and work a novelist’s craft upon it. I wonder if she sat here on the spongy grass, propped against a tree as I am now, tending to her husband’s grave. Lillemor lived till she was 81, some 15 years after her husband died. There’s no mention here (or in any records I can find) of children. Lillemor, where are the diaries you kept of your travels to Antarctica? I’ve asked every public institution in the country, but no one has heard of them. Did they go to some niece or nephew, or end up in a fireplace? Ingrid Christensen’s grave in Sandefjord’s churchyard is a different matter. It only takes me a few minutes to find the Christensen family plot under a pleasant tree right up close to the church, as central as this family was to the life of the port town in the middle of last century. Ingrid lies underneath a heavy bronze plate with her and her husband’s names stamped into it in such high relief that it will be centuries before they’re worn away. Blood ties hem in the members of this family. As an author I can’t make free with Ingrid, this

grave is telling me, not the way I can with Lillemor. I want to tell the forgotten stories of these women, but in doing so, I know I can’t speak for them. Perhaps I silence them further by putting my own words into their heads and their mouths. I’m taking liberties with them in the name of fiction. Is it fair? On 1 February 2013 I will bring Ingrid and Lillemor back from the dead. Not literally, but in the pages of my novel Chasing the Light, inspired by the ‘true story’ of their journey to Antarctica in the 1930s. It’s a daunting responsibility. Ingrid only died in 1976 and she still has living grandchildren. I sense her putting on her glasses and peering over my shoulder to read those printed words. I suspect that Lillemor, being a diarist and photographer herself, wouldn’t mind being remembered in print. Untold stories, the ones that have been overlooked and forgotten, or the details that have been left out, fascinate me. I’m not alone – in recent years there has been an extraordinary rise in the number of female writers producing historical fiction based on real stories from the past – think Hilary Mantel, Philippa Gregory, Geraldine Brooks and Kate Grenville, among many others. However, using historical fiction to recover lost history can be controversial. You probably remember the war of words that raged around Kate Grenville’s historical novel The Secret River, inspired by the true story of her ancestor. Historian Inga Clendinnen criticised Grenville for her claim to be writing a new kind of history, and questioned its validity. The heart of the matter is in what we promise to our readers. The phrase ‘based on a true story’ is a bargain that our imag-

6 - northerly magazine | january - february 2013

ined world holds at least a kernel of truth. However, the stories that most cry out to be told are often those with the least evidence. Ingrid kept no diary of her four trips to Antarctica, as far as my research shows. Even more frustratingly, Lillemor did – but her words have been lost. All that remains are some quotes in the book written by Ingrid’s husband about their travels. So I have gone where angels fear to tread, into the dangerous territory of historical fiction based on ‘truth’, armed with my novelist’s imagination and as much research as I can muster. It’s nerve racking, but also the most rewarding genre I’ve worked in. Ingrid and Lillemor, get ready. Your story is about to go public. Jesse Blackadder won the Guy Morrison Prize for Literary Journalism in 2012 for her research into Ingrid Christensen. She was also awarded the 2011-12 Australian Antarctic Arts Fellowship, which enabled her to travel to Antarctica. Chasing the Light is published by Fourth Estate and will be launched on 16 February at the Byron Bay

northerly Jan-Feb 2013  

northerly magazine produced by the Northern Rivers Writers' Centre, Byron Bay, Australia

northerly Jan-Feb 2013  

northerly magazine produced by the Northern Rivers Writers' Centre, Byron Bay, Australia

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