The Magical Power of Fiction

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Penny Batchelor is the author of My Perfect Sister. A book about Annie, a sixteen year old girl whose sister goes missing, this novel looks at familial dynamics, sisterly love and the challenges that can face a young woman growing up. We are so pleased to have a feature from Penny on why reading is such a magical experience for herself.

It has been a very busy month for me. At the time of writing this article I’m in the fourth month of shielding, but have travelled around the Mediterranean alongside Greek Gods (Circe), dashed between Argentina and Uruguay with thieves planning to perform a high-risk heist (Intruders), cruised the Thames on a riverboat with a murder suspect (The Other Passenger), heard the fascinating stories of a group of strong black women (Girl, Woman, Other) and explored the terrifying dystopian state of Panem (The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes). So although I’ve physically remained in my home and garden, my imagination has flown far and beyond – and during that time all present-day worries were banished from my mind.

Fiction has a wondrous, otherworldly power for escapism, which I discovered from the time I learned to read myself. I was born with a rare physical disability called Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI), more commonly known as Brittle Bones. From the age of one I fractured a femur roughly twice a year and then, from the ages 7 to 13, as well as fractures, had lots of operations on my legs and one on my spine. What with the fractures, operations and recovery periods I spent a whole lot of time stuck in bed and my saviour was reading: comics, books, poetry, I didn’t care as long as I could get lost in the words. In hospital I slept with books under my pillow so I could read as soon as I woke up. At A&E the comic annuals they kept there – remember Bunty and Mandy? – became old friends I reacquainted myself with each time I was ambulanced in. Charlotte’s Weband Charlie and the Chocolate Factorykept me company in hospital during the long wait until visiting time. A few years’ later I sunned myself in California with the Sweet Valley Hightwins and zoomed back in time to Yorkshire thanks to my mum’s copy of A Woman of Substance.

In my teens, partly because of the operations, I fractured less and beavered away at GCSE and A Level English Lit, going on to study English and European Literature at university. I moved to London to start a successful media career. In full-time work I didn’t have much spare time for reading but then came another fracture, followed by a couple more in the following eight years. Back at home recovering at my parents’ house I turned straight away to my old comfort of escapism. I galloped through Jilly Coopers’ hilarious Cotswolds-set novels, journeyed to Victorian England with Elizabeth Gaskell and Charles Dickens, devoured my friends’ favourite books that they kindly lent me, chuckled at the trials of Bridget Jones’ dating failures and much, much more.

I firmly believe that a novel has magic powers that go far beyond the ink on paper I physically hold in my hand. The author gives me the cherished gift of stepping into someone else’s shoes, feeling their emotions, experiencing the places they go to, shocking me with a twist or warming my heart with delicate prose. I cry or cheer with the characters, nod when I can relate to their circumstances or widen my eyes when I learn something I’d never thought of or known. Books have introduced me to new cultures, ideas and opinions but their most magical power is that when I’m reading a brilliant one I’m mentally far away living in my imagination and not focussing on the pain in my body or concerns about my situation. I’m never alone when I have a novel to get stuck into.

In my 30s my condition gradually worsened necessitating me to give up my job and stay at home dealing with chronic pain and fatigue. As the cliché goes when life gives you lemons make lemonade, and I decided to use my time to learn to be a writer and complete my own novel, writing the kind of disability-inclusive fiction I wanted to read but couldn’t find on bookshelves. My magician-in-training online course was with Faber Academy and June 2020 saw the publication of my debut novel My Perfect Sister, a domestic noir thriller. This entitled me to wave my mythical magic wand over my readers who I hope are swept away to Yorkshire to root for Annie who resents that her childhood was overshadowed by her 16 year old sister Gemma going missing when she was five. Now aged 30, to move on Annie needs to find out what happened to Gemma, or it is safer for her to leave the past in the past?

My ‘to read’ pile in various genres is turning into the Tower of Babylon and knowing I have so many great stories to engross myself in brings me much joy. I give thanks to all the authors whose words have cast a spell over me over the years and if even just one reader of mine is spirited away mentally for a well-needed break from real life then I’ll be a very happy newbie magician.

Written by Penny Batchelor (sign up for Penny’s author newsletter for a chance to win a signed copy of My Perfect Sister). My Perfect Sister by Penny Batchelor is published by RedDoor Press. It is available from all good booksellers. If you’d like to buy a copy Penny politely suggests that you support an independent bookshop during these difficult economic times. Signed copies are available from Kenilworth Books www.kenilworthbooks.co.ukand Fox Lane Books www.foxlanebooks.co.uk

Note: Despite normally only promoting female authors, this piece includes some books by male authors. Here at Women’s Writes we want to create a supportive and inclusive community, where female readers and authors can talk about their experiences; the books included here are important for this.

Image by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.

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