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A session on midlife fiction at this year’s Hay Festival explored women’s nuanced experiences of middle age.
Midlife is becoming more prominent in every field, with women in particular leading the conversation. A session at this year’s Hay Festival explored what this means in terms of fiction writing.
The authors Joanne Harris and Fran Littlewood were in conversation with Maxine Mei-Fung Chung about their recent books featuring middle aged female heroines.
Harris’ recent book, Broken Light, tells the story of Bernie Moon, a nearly 50-year-old, menopausal woman who works in a bookshop and whose life has become smaller over the years, a woman who, in Harris’ words, “doesn’t realise how empty her life has become”. When a young woman is murdered in a local park, it triggers a series of childhood memories which open up a huge reservoir of repressed rage in Bernie, which enables her to see inside people’s heads. Written during lockdown and after the rise of the #MeToo movement, Harris, author of Chocolat, describes Bernie as a “menopausal Carrie”. The original Carrie gets her paranormal powers at puberty, but Harris says she asked herself what if she got them at menopause. What would she do with them?
Fran Littlewood’s Amazing Grace Adams features a midlife woman action hero. The book tells the story of Grace’s one-day journey to her daughter’s 16th birthday party, with those 24 hours being an extended metaphor for the menopause and the potential it might bring for renaissance. She says she initially pitched Grace as a perimenopausal woman on the rampage, but the book is more broadly about womanhood, seeking to reflect the nuanced, funny, interesting midlife women she knows.
The two authors spoke about the duality of midlife women being ‘invisible’, for instance, how the visibility of younger women is not always welcome and how invisibility could be used in creative ways. Bernie can eat what she likes – something she has not been able to do since a child – by being inside someone else’s head, for example. The authors also discussed female friendship, empty nests and social media. Harris’ book features a menopause influencer who is relentlessly positive and uses her relationship with Bernie to explore how we present ourselves to others, with Bernie being able to see inside people’s minds and to see the difference between the perception of others and self-perception. Littlewood spoke about the rabbit holes young people are falling down on social media and said that when we look back at this time, we will be horrified at “the wild west of social media that our children have been exposed to”.
Both authors said it is important for women to talk about their lives without feeling constantly judged. Littlewood spoke of the importance of older women being allowed to be transgressive and of how her novel seeks to break the ‘ridiculous taboo’ about the menopause. Harris, who was diagnosed with breast cancer during lockdown, said externalising such experiences makes people feel less alone. Both discussed the case of Nicola Bulley, and the way information about her experience of the menopause was revealed by the police, which Harris said amounted to victim blaming. Similarly, they spoke about the reaction to the Sarah Everard protests and to #MeToo and the dampening down of women’s anger because women are not expected to feel angry due to the social norms they are brought up with.
Both women also agreed that their books are not ‘women’s literature’, but explore universal themes. Harris added that we need to stop giving boys the message that they cannot read books about girls because it teaches them not to listen to women.