Annotated Excerpt: GREENSMITH by Aliya Whiteley (Unsung Stories)

WhiteleyA-GreensmithHi! Thanks for asking me to annotate part of Greensmith. It’s an interesting business, to revisit the writing later and see what I can remember of the process. To be honest, I don’t know how much of this was a series of conscious decisions at the time. I remember I struggled with some aspects of this book, particularly where it was heavily plot-driven, but all that struggle seems to have been on the inside, and not on the page, if that makes sense. I was relieved to find I enjoyed reading it back and seeing it again.

When it came to choosing part of Greensmith to look back over with a critical eye, I found myself drawn to this key moment in the early chapters. It’s the gateway chapter. It makes the leap from the initial hard work of establishing character and motivation to being free to run with the plot, travelling all over the universe in this case, with the reader along for the ride.

I never plan my books far in advance beyond having a few vivid scenarios strongly in my mind, and the following excerpt was one of them. I was surprised to find it wasn’t just a visual high point to write about, when it came to it, but also a highly emotional moment. The main character, Penelope Greensmith, is leaving Earth behind her in an attempt to save it from a plant-killing virus – but that means also leaving her home, her body, and her daughter Lily behind. The book alternates between first and third person perspectives of Penelope’s experiences (for reasons that become clear towards the end) and this moment needed to be in the first person. We’re inside the head of a woman that doesn’t quite exist any more, at least not in the way she thought she did, as she observes a world that is changing too. There’s no solid ground here, apart from her voice, so it had to be strong, and real, and filled with emotions that would resonate with readers.

*

I haven’t felt so light in years.

So many aches and pains became standard issue as I aged. They were an unremarkable yet cumbersome kit that I strapped to myself every day as soon as I awoke. But these first seconds after being reduced – these moments are free of the tight muscles, the sore neck, the permanent niggle of the lower back. These were not serious complaints; they were simply baggage. The baggage of life.

I’m not alive any more.

The aches weren’t just physical in nature. Worries also made up the weight: responsibilities, duties, a list of things that must be done each day before lying down in bed once more. I didn’t realise that these were part of being human too, somehow a by-product of my own flesh, of my age, of all the experiences that had soaked into my skin.

Now I’m free of them all. How heavy they were. I revel in the sensation of being younger, and unaware of joints and bones and time.

Concentrating on escaping the aches and pains of the ageing body of the protagonist really grounds this initial, small-scale beginning. The reader needs to be centred, still, for the reveal coming up. And this is also a very small love letter to bodies with all their problems, and minds too – the act of being a person. It’s so easy to lose that connection to reality when we read, particularly science fiction. But I always want my books to feel close to the physical experiences of living.

“You okay, Pea?” says Hort. We are in the dark together. His voice is close to my right ear. I feel his touch, gentle, upon my arm.

“Good, actually.”

“Great. Do you think you could…”

“What?”

“Open your eyes, then?”

Hort is the other major character in the opening stages of the novel. He is the centre of Penelope’s experience, a constant reassuring presence: The Horticulturalist, a wise space-traveller who is meant to make both her, and the reader, feel quite comfortable. We know characters like this, and he is being framed in very familiar terms here for all science fiction lovers in particular. He creates an intimate, caring atmosphere very quickly. Short sentences made up of easy words make this a lull, a pause. It’s safe ground before things shift again. It creates a small space into which the reader can breathe.

“Oh. Right.” How ridiculous of me. We’re not in the dark at all. Well, we are. We are floating in a dark space. Perhaps in outer space.

I wait for my eyes to adjust, and feel only calmness until a new awareness tells me that something big is behind me. Something huge. A giant presence upon which I should look, but I don’t want to. To look upon it will change everything, and that terrifies me. It will take all the thoughts I’ve ever had and put them into a tiny, true perspective.

“Turn around,” says Hort. “It’s okay.” His hands are on my back; he twists me around and upside down, and I realise I’m in a foetal position, curled up tight. But as the Earth swims into view and fills my field of vision I spread my limbs wide, unfolding, opening to its stupendous, magnificent majesty. The blue and the green, the colours so vivid, the shining hulk of it, the living ball of it, the thriving encapsulation of creation. The presence.

Yes, I am changed. I am made so much smaller than I ever thought I could be.

There’s something of birth about these paragraphs: the foetal position, the unfocused eyes, but then we move into the main preoccupation of the book as Penelope uncurls, becoming more like a flower, petals opening wide in the light of the sun. Except this isn’t the sun but the Earth, and she’s completely open to its beauty. I wanted this to be vivid. She’s so tiny and vulnerable, and the world is so huge before her.

“Here it comes,” says Hort, in my ear. He is there, I would swear it. I can still feel his hands on me but when I turn my head there is nothing beside me, and when I glance down at my limbs they are not there either. But I can feel them, their sinews stretching, my fingers and toes tingling with youth. “It’s better if you see it, I think.”

“See what?” I say, with my mouth that isn’t there. I have a phantom body. And phantom emotions too, apparently, because I feel such love for the Earth at this moment even though I’m a reduction. But the Earth is my home, my magnet, my intimate friend that could not ever care for a speck such as myself. I am packed full of passion and gratitude for the continents before me – the bellyish curve of Africa that snakes upwards into Europe. The oceans, the visible and tactile juts of the mountain ranges, and the white blonde tresses of the deserts: I want to worship them all.

It’s always a gift when I get to write a few paragraphs where I can be as descriptive and lyrical as I like. I really laid it on thick here – dense language, full of symbolism, about the fecund beauty of the world. It’s really important for what comes next, and it was so much fun to write. (It’s not often sustainable for more than a couple of paragraphs or I find it can lose the reader.)

But my Earth is not my god. It is living, and it can suffer.

The green. The dense, ugly green that destroyed my roses is blobbing into existence in so many places, spreading at an incredible rate, joining up to make a dense, interlocking mat that covers the world. The deserts, the forests, the oceans: gone to the uniform green. The cities begin to wink out, the fairy lights and cobweb patterns of humanity gone.

Lots of threes here. Three repetitions of green, reinforcing the blanket attack upon the Earth, the uniformity of it. And ‘the deserts, the forests, the oceans’ – these come together to make this a solid paragraph, tied down compared to the free-roaming language of the previous paragraphs.

I can’t comprehend it.

I think of Lily. Whatever she is experiencing right now cannot be rationalised or borne, and so I must try to find another level on which to process this loss.

I think of a flower.

The Lilium longiflorum is dying. Tall, over three feet high, with its creamy-white trumpeting blooms, facing up and out to the sun with those pure dots of pollen, strong yellow dust with a scent so sweet on display, open and brazen for bees and insects. Liliium longiflorum, native to the Ryukyu Islands of Japan which are dying too, toxic to cats which are also dying, once traded in vast numbers from Bermuda to the USA, both dying, and called the Easter Lily – consider the lilies, Jesus said, and the churches filled their vases with those long straight stems. The churches that are dying. Lilium longiflorum and all the things you mean – you cannot die. You are my centre, and all the losses begin with you.

The vivid green that covers the Earth is changing colour. It’s deepening, darkening. It’s turning to a brownish black.

I really wanted to make this change to the Earth personal, affecting Penelope deeply and therefore affecting the reader, as well as tying strongly into the plant theme of the book. This way of viewing loss from the small details, scaling upwards, really helps to establish an emotional perspective on what’s happening, I think – it’s so important to have that as the Earth is about to be left behind for a bit, now, as the narrative moves on. It’s also a good reinforcement of Penelope’s personality, with the facts about the flower, the exact and yet wide-ranging way she keeps and uses knowledge. There’s an important bit of foreshadowing going on here for later, too. And then back to Hort, who will be her world from this point on. She no longer has any choice but to follow:

“I have the Collection and the Vice,” says Hort, behind me now.

I cannot speak.

“Come on,” he says. His voice is receding. “There is so much to do.”

*

Aliya Whiteley’s Greensmith is due to be published by Unsung Stories on October 12th, 2020, in the UK.

Here’s the novel’s synopsis:

Penelope Greensmith is a bio-librarian, responsible for a vast seed bank made possible by the mysterious Vice she inherited from her father.

She lives a small, dedicated life until the day the enigmatic and charming Horticulturalist arrives in her garden, asking to see her collection. He thinks it could hold the key to stopping a terrible plague sweeping the universe.

Soon Penelope is whisked away on an intergalactic adventure by the Horticulturalist, experiencing the vast and bizarre mysteries that lie among the stars.

But as this gentle woman searches for a way to save the universe, her daughter Lily is still on Earth, trying to track her down, and struggling to survive the terrible events unfolding there…

Follow the Author: Website, Goodreads, Twitter

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