Fictional parenting is not parenting that does not happen, although that can sometimes be the case, but parenting as a theme of fiction. Every novel is shot through with theme. It shapes the meaning of the book. It is what drives writers to write and, if well done, it leaves the reader thinking, gives them something to take away when the last page is turned. It may not be what the book is ‘about’, strictly speaking, but it is what the book explores through the mechanism of plot. And every writer has their own pet themes, many of which they return to time and again, to scratch an itch that never seems to go away.
Jane Austen wrote about the morals and conventions of her day in different novels and through different characters; often they were women who needed to find a way through the maze of convention and social expectation of their day — survive tea in the pump room and Lady Catherine de Bourgh in the back garden. Dickens wrote about the new urban England that was growing up around him, and how it terrified him. Jodi Picoult writes extensively about family relationships. Hilary Mantel’s work is often dominated by religious themes, whether it is the ghost of Cardinal Wolsey at Thomas Cromwell’s back, or characters like Thomas More who are pushed to breaking point by their own religious convictions.
As a theme, family relationships are pretty popular, inexhaustible by the endless possibilities and facets they present. The parent child relationship theme comes up frequently because it is so important to us. It lies at the core of our biological make-up, and shapes our future, both as individuals and as a society. Goethe said there are two things we should give our children, one is roots and the other is wings. This is not as easy as it sounds, and enough to furnish the subject matter for an entire novel. As a writer, I have to confess that fictional parenting is a favourite theme of mine. It has already reared its head in both Gioconda and the new novel I have recently finished (more on that later in future blog posts!). Will I stop exploring it? I can’t really say. Will there come a time when the itch no longer needs to be scratched? Perhaps. I’ll keep you posted…
That as it may be, the fact is that we worry about our kids. Will they get through childhood without a scratch? Absolutely not. Will they get over adolescence without taking something other than aspirin? Probably not. Will they ever get a job? Hopefully, although that is a tricky one.
It’s hard to be a parent. A friend of mine recently searched for her son using his mobile phone tracker signal only to find he appeared to be located in a river. The app apparently didn’t show a bridge. We worry for nothing half of the time, while during the other half, potential disasters slip mercifully beneath the range of our parental antenna. The threads that hold parent and child together are made of strange stuff. They can be healthy or flawed, strong or weak, and they can be stretched to the limit on both sides when things get difficult. But they are rarely severed.
When I was writing Gioconda, the matter of Leonardo’s relationship to his father became, inevitably, significant. How had Leonardo felt when he was removed from his mother’s home as a young child and made to live with a father who did not seem to understand him? Then, in later life, what sort of father would suggest to his obviously prodigiously gifted son that he ought to start pushing out a line of mass-produced statuettes because they will sell much better than that other fancy work he seems to want to do? The answers to these questions are not as simple as you might think, and the same is true in life. Only time and context change around them. Although our lives are not shaped solely by our parental relationships, we are deeply affected by them. Parents are often referred to as the anchors of their children, but an anchor can also hold you back instead of grounding you. In the case of Leonardo it was his need to break anchor that made him what he was. His relationship with his parents might have been fraught with pain and complication, but the current that took him from them knew exactly where it was going.
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