Sometimes I get a bit overwhelmed with the world. My friend Danni says I ‘feel all the feels’ and it’s true: I find it hard to switch off, I get anxious and I take on other people’s anxieties. I want to see the best in the world but when awful things happen I find it hard to distance myself. Yet amidst all the difficulties in the world, there is always a glimmer of hope. America may elect a horrifically problematic racist as it’s next president, but it may also elect a woman president for the first time in history. The UK voted to leave Europe on a bigoted anti-immigration platform, but then thousands of people took to the streets in the London Stays protests (chanting ‘refugees in, racists out’). This of course is the broader outside world — amongst my friends in every day life horrible things can of course happen too easily. Beloved people pass away, friends struggle with illness, friends miscarry. Real life can be a total bastard and it’s hard to know what to do and what to say when someone you know and care about is going through this stuff. What do you say to someone who doesn’t know how to tell you what’s going on inside their head? Just as in politics and the media you have to have hope that better times will come, that good exists. In your everyday life you have to have hope that your family and friends will be safe, they will be healthy, they will be able to ask for help when they need it. You have to have hope because otherwise you’ll never sleep. Because otherwise you’ll end up down a rabbit hole and you won’t be safe or healthy or know how to tell people you love that you need help. When I first heard about Anna Spargo-Ryan’s debut novel The Paper House I admit I was a little trepidatious because the world is a hard, difficult place — do I really need to read about the difficult things that are happening to my friends on the page as well? Turns out yes I did. It wasn’t always easy reading, and it was highly emotional, but it left me with a renewed hope that good exists. And when the world feels like it’s being overrun by a lack of empathy for others, we need all the hope we can get.
Heather and Dave have bought a house in the country. A house that will become their family home. A place of adventure, of love, of refuge from the outside world. But then they experience a loss so great that Heather sinks into a pit of grief and loses her place in this new world. As Heather and Dave try to fight their way out of their despair, they are supported by their new neighbours who anchor them to this place. Woven through the new is Heather’s inability to escape the old. Spargo-Ryan has used spectacular empathy in creating her protagonist, and it makes the accuracy she shows in chronicling the inheritance of mental illness, as well as the loss innocence of youth that comes from being surrounded by parents in pain, all the more heartfelt and sympathetic:
The air moved in electric currents around my parents. She wore white dresses with lace keyholes, and he wore shirts with the top three buttons undone, and they always stared right into each other. When she cried, he didn’t tell her it was okay, to be quiet, to get a grip. I wish I could take it away. Half of it. A quarter. Any of it. And then he would kiss every part of her face, his big hands in her hair and on her shoulders, until the shaking stopped. Sometimes she smiled afterwards. Sometimes her eyes were dark. He didn’t mind either way; just held her hand the same as he always did.
Spargo-Ryan’s ability to build and build this novel like a brooding crescendo is extraordinary, but she doesn’t alienate her readers with a slow beginning — it all begins with the stunning first sentence: ‘My heart fell out on a spring morning’. As the story weaves further and further towards it’s conclusion the chapters get shorter and shorter, and the emotions become more and more heightened. The clouds seems to build in the sky, growing darker and darker. The last fifty pages of this book contains some of the most devastating writing I’ve ever come across. It hurt to read, it knocked the breath out of my lungs. And yet: I couldn’t let myself walk away from Heather. I wanted to hold her hand and sit with her and tell her everything would be ok. I wanted to squeeze Dave’s arm and make him a cup of tea and thank him for sticking by her. I felt like this couple were my friends, and I saw my friends in this couple. Although I am often emotionally moved by writers, few have ever made me openly sob into a crying snotty mess like this. And yet: I still left The Paper House feeling hopeful. I say this because I don’t want potential readers to be put off by the darkness in this novel. The Paper House is one of my new favourite Australian novels, and stands out as one of the best books of 2016. It is devastating and fearless but it is also just so viscerally and honestly beautiful that it deserves to be read widely.
When I’m feeling anxious or homesick or sad I find great comfort in cooking. It focuses my attention and helps me feel in control. It calms the distractions, the worries, the stress by forcing me to focus on making something one step at a time. I think this is why cooking becomes such a focus of my weekend — it allows me to let go of the week behind me and allows me to feel in control of the one that’s ahead. When I have food in the fridge I feel prepared. My Sundays are often spent making batches of hummus for my work lunches, pots of soup or stews that I can easily reheat when I come home from work, and treats that let me indulge in having something sweet without inflaming my sensitive body. As I was reading The Paper House the weather here in Melbourne was particularly cold and grey and I was feeling a strong pull towards staying inside and keeping warm. On a Saturday night in I baked this banana bread, and not only did the heat of the oven warm my small apartment but the smell of this homestyle cake filled the space with the comforting scents of vanilla and cinnamon.
Combining a few different online recipes I created this recipe which worked a treat. You could use any kind of flour for this, but I make an oat flour by putting rolled oats into the food processor until they became a powder. This method still leaves a few more meal-like crumbs, but I quite like the more whole-grain texture of this rather than sifting it down to a fine powder. It wouldn’t work in every recipe, but in forgiving baking like this it makes for the cheapest gluten-free flour you’ll find and holds the batter together well. After turning one and a half cups of oats into oat flour, I combined it one teaspoon each of cinnamon, baking powder and baking soda, plus a half-teaspoon of cardamon powder (though this is optional or could be replaced with ground ginger). In another bowl I mashed four small overripe bananas, then mixed in one-third of a cup of melted coconut oil (melted butter would also work), one-third of a cup of honey, one-quarter of a cup of milk, two medium eggs and one teaspoon of vanilla. I folded the wet ingredients into the dry, then poured the mix into a greased loaf tin. I sprinkled the batter with sunflower seeds before baking at 175C for one hour. You could also try topping the loaf with nuts or slices of banana, and I’d like to try adding some chopped dates or frozen blueberries another time too. Maybe you could try adding chocolate chips. It’s a very easy and very forgiving recipe, fun for testing out new combinations according to what’s at hand. It's perfect with a cup of tea as it is, or as it starts to dry out heat it a little and serve with yoghurt and maybe some stewed fruit. It's comforting, it's simple, it's therapeudic to make and to eat.
As I post this here in Australia we await on the results of this weekend’s election. Things feel uncertain, precarious and hostile. I spent most of Saturday feeling constantly on edge about what was to come. I did what I could — I surrounded myself with good people, I drank a lot of herbal tea, I got plenty of fresh air — but I couldn’t shake the fear tumbling throughout my body. On Saturday night I went to a friends place and drowned my sorrows with a collection of lovely people and one very cuddly dog as we watched the election coverage. Although there’s still a lot to be decided in this election and a lot to be worried about, in that room I felt surrounded by people who understood what I was feeling. We didn’t have to talk about all the things we were fearful of, we just knew that everyone else in that room felt the same. On Sunday, hungover and feeling exhausted from the hours spent on-edge the day before, I baked another loaf of this banana bread. I did a load of laundry, I made a batch of hummus and I cleaned my apartment. I can’t control the chaos around me, but I can hold on to this little home of mine and make it a warm and safe place, knowing that good people are here in my neighbourhood or close by when I need them.
When we go through hard times, when we’re grieving, when we’re in despair, we have to remind ourselves how lucky we are to have this safety and warmth. That no matter how difficult things seem, we are loved. Anna Spargo-Ryan’s extraordinary debut The Paper House tackles big obstacles, but neither the writer nor the characters ever succumb to self-pity or wallowing. There is always love. There is always hope. And it reminds us that amidst the chaos and fear and pain there is always beauty.
I really loved this piece by Anna North on Lit Hub about whether you are a baker or a cook both in the kitchen and as a writer. In the kitchen I’m definitely a cook - I don’t have the patience for baking, and I get a thrill from throwing things together and then seeing them work out. I don’t find following the rules relaxing. In my professional life I am the organiser, the one with the attention to detail, the one who thinks ahead. But in my spare time as a writer, I often have no idea what’s happening until I get to the end of a section and read it back and wonder where any of those thoughts and where any of that energy came from. It’s one of the things that I like most about writing — it takes me out of myself and my anxieties, just like playing around with new variations of recipes can too.