Now is the age of anxiety — W H Auden
How do you capture the zeitgeist before it turns into cliché? It’s hard when all the good metaphors have been used up. The Age of Anxiety would have been a good title for Zoë Jenny’s sixth novel, The Sky is Changing, but Auden already wrote a long poem with that title. There are, however, some similarities between Zoë’s novel and the poem: each takes place in a major city, each takes place during a time of war, both writers take a special interest in the roles of women in society, each concerns a quest for the nature of identity and each was written by a foreigner. By that I mean that Auden was a prize-winning British poet living in, and writing about, New York; Zoë Jenny is a bestselling Swiss writer, living in and writing about London. The war in Auden’s case was World War II; in Jenny’s it’s the War on Terror. There are other differences, too, apart from the obvious fact that one work is prose and the other fiction: interestingly it is the poem that is considered by many long-winded (Larkin famously couldn’t finish it); the novella (144 pages) is a quick read – I read it in two sittings.
Why do we measure our lives in terms of things we don’t have? Why are we determined to see ourselves as incomplete, unfinished? Claire, the protagonist in this book, has a lot to be grateful for. She has had a successful career as a ballet dancer, she is happily married and she is alive. I’m not being flippant when I include the last item on that list because she not only survived the July 7th 2005 tube station bombings but also being mowed down by a car. On the down side she has not escaped unscathed: the car accident robbed her of her ability to dance, the bombing took away her security.
And this is very much how the author felt when she was in London during the attacks and after:
There was fear in the air and I could feel that. And it really affected me quite deeply. And I think, whether consciously or unconsciously, it did affect a lot of people. It’s different to waking up in a place where there were no attacks. London had quite a claustrophobic feel to me after the bombings.
This is not the world Claire grew up in either. Little by little life has stripped things from her. Like the rest of us she now lives in a post-9/11, post-7/7 society. She watches young hooligans watch her as she rides by on her scooter while CCTV cameras watch them watching her. Is this any kind of world to want to bring a child into? And yet she wants to. Desperately.
With all of this swimming around in her head – she was also looking to get pregnant at this time – Zoë Jenny sat down to write looking to find some kind of catharsis, which she did. She also found that writing in English for the first time was a help:
I think it is a process of emancipation. I always wanted to free myself from the shackles of my mother tongue. Swiss German is a language few understand – I learned High German in school and wrote my first four books in that language, but I never truly felt ‘at home’ in it. The English language suits my writing very well. German is very analytical – an excellent language for philosophy but not necessarily for narrative and telling stories. I feel I can write much more freely in English.
Her character, Claire, is not so fortunate. Her natural mode of expression has been ripped from her. She can’t dance but she needs to work, to be useful. The job she ends up with is as a swimming instructor of all things. But she is a swimming instructor with a difference – she mainly teaches clients on a one-to-one basis. This means she attracts those with a particularly strong aversion to water and/or the well to do.
The book focuses on Claire’s relationship with one particular client with whom she has developed something of a special bond, seven-year-old Nora. While sitting with her husband, Anthony, one night as he enjoys his after-dinner cigarette, Claire tells him about Nora. He seems to understand:
“It’s normal to feel more affection for some children,” he said, puffing smoke through his nostrils. “Just don’t get too involved.”
Claire carried the dishes to the sink. Don’t get too involved. It had sounded like a warning, and she loaded the dishwasher with more noise than necessary.
Anthony is a City Analyst, hence not a stupid man. He is well aware that they’ve been trying to get pregnant for fifteen months now and that this must be affecting his wife. It’s certainly affecting him especially when the subject of IVF is brought up, a real slap in the face to his masculinity. Needless to say he is not at all keen at first:
“I want to reproduce.” Claire smiled afflicted. How technical that sounded. ‘Reproducing’. Like something animals do to sustain the population. “I want to pass on my genes,” Anthony continued, “so something from me lives on, you know. Some people even say this is the meaning of life.”
Anthony followed a clear path: the house, the marriage, a child, then a bigger house... the usual aspirations. And why not? After her accident, Claire knew she could never dance again and have a fabulous career like [her sister] Anne, the award-winning architect with work in magazine. She saw herself ready to settle and have a family. But Anne now had a child... she had it all, and where was Claire?
And just what is the score with Nora’s mum? Is she as oblivious to the fact that her daughter is as much of “a neurotic mess” as she seems? Could she really be unaware that the little girl nearly drowned on holiday? Nora’s fear of the water is extreme and Claire has her work cut out for her:
Claire talked to her in a low voice, almost whispering, “I will carry you,” she said. “Trust me.”
She held Nora’s back with her hands so she could just relax and feel the weightlessness of her body. “See? You’re floating.”
It was a way of familiarising her and making her comfortable in the water. She had to take away her fear of going under and drowning, the fear of losing control. As Nora realised she was safe she sent the signal Claire was waiting for: a tiny smile. Her reward.
“Shall we try now?” They were only two metres apart, Claire standing there like a steadfast rock as Nora swam towards her, frog-like, in hasty awkward movements, her lips pressed together. “Head up,” Claire shouted, “head up,” and then Nora jumped. Claire almost lost balance as she leapt at her, legs and arms clinging around her.
“Don’t let go,” she stammered. “Please, don’t let go.” As her little face burrowed in her neck, Claire could feel the breath on her skin. The hot breath of fear. She stroked the back of her head, a reflex – was there such a thing as a reflex for affection?
Nora’s mother is not that blind. She can see that a bond is developing between her daughter and her instructor and so takes advantage of it asking Claire to extend her time with her, to effectively slip into the role of nanny; Claire does not need to be asked twice. The outcome is pretty much as you would expect. Without Nora, “at home the house felt emptier than usual, the rooms bigger.” At an evening with her friends she finds herself going on about the girl:
Claire didn’t know what came over her, but she suddenly leaned over and started telling them about Nora. That she went to that coffee place, bought her cake and how close she felt when she was holding her hand as if it were her own child. Relieved to be unburdening, she found herself adding, “I even imagined taking her back home with me.”
Claire sensed immediately she had made a mistake. The words sounded wrong, desperate, like a confession. Everyone looked at her taken aback; there was a silence.
After embarrassing herself in front of her (childless) friends you will not be surprised to find that Claire keeps it to herself the next time Mrs Ross asks her again to take care of Nora. This time on a trip in a taxi they pass Nora’s house and she begs Claire to let her show her her room:
“Please please,” Nora begged, rolling her eyes as she sensed Claire’s hesitation.
“Are you sure no one is at home? Your mummy doesn’t want us to go to your house, you know.”
“But she doesn’t know, please please. Only five minutes.”
Here, or perhaps before when she took Nora’s hand or when she admitted in front of her friends (and to herself no doubt for the first time) – somewhere along the way, a line is crossed but certainly for a while in Mrs Ross’s house Claire gets to wander around on the other side and sees that the grass is in some respects greener. Where is this all heading?
People cope the best way they can. Some turn to drink to solve problems other than thirst, some take drugs even though they’re not poorly, some pluck babies from prams to try to fill holes in their lives left by other things.
To find out where Claire is heading we really need to know where she has been and so, as the main thread of the story progresses, we also get flashbacks to key moments in her life and in particular her relationship with her older (fertile) sister, Anne:
Her family was scattered all over Europe. Her parents lived in Berlin, her sister Anne in Hamburg, she had an aunt in Barcelona and an uncle in Toulouse. She kept in touch with all of them, by phone and e-mail, but it was Anne that she missed. Anne before the baby that is.
How much control do we have over our lives? A crash has put an end to her plans for the future. A financial crash is about to do the same to her husband’s plans. Her parents are putting pressure on her to return to Germany. What’s harder, hanging on for dear life or letting go?
This book touches on many contemporary issues but they are most definitely the backdrop to the story and not the meat. Even the 7/7 bombing that Claire was involved in barely gets a couple of pages devoted to it and much the same with 9/11. There is no real attempt to discuss these at length but then I would imagine most ordinary couples simply absorbed these events into their lives, learned a couple of new euphemisms and got on with their daily routines. And despite the fact they’re not poor, Anthony and Claire are a fairly ordinary couple, a bit on the boring side really. A year after the bombing they go and lay a bouquet of roses at King’s Cross and in a couple of paragraphs this scene is described. They then drive home and don’t talk about it. But what really is there to say?
They’re not exactly cardboard cutouts but they’re not very deep either. Since infertility is the central issue there are a number of roles that need to be fulfilled: the sister with a kid, the husband who won’t consider other options, the sympathetic friend, the mother who wants to know when her other grandkid is coming and the kid who gets to play proxy. Reducing the book to a formula is perhaps a little uncharitable but I think the problem with this kind of situation is that people automatically line up to fill clichéd positions. That’s where the clichés came from in the first place.
Talking about The Pollen Room, The Observer calls Jenny’s prose “spare, assured and evocative, the tone matter-of-fact and utterly without self-pity” and the writing is much the same in this book. I didn’t feel that the simple, unpretentious style was anything less than deliberate and not a result of writing in an unfamiliar tongue although she does admit that she found writing in English hard at first. I’m not sure this style necessarily helps this book though. Claire, in my opinion, even when she starts to lose control is very aware that she is losing control. This is something I would expect from a person who has spent years in a strict training regime but I would rather have seen her fall to pieces more and her relationships suffer more. Everything in this book is just a bit too civilised. Don’t quote me but I don’t think Claire actually cries in the book.
I was curious about why Zoë had written Claire that way and so I dropped her an e-mail to which she responded:
I always find it fascinating to see how different people react to the same book – everyone reads their own version and of course sometimes a book and its reader just don't click. I believe the novel speaks for itself and doesn't need additional explanation.
Okay. Fair enough. Perhaps part of my problem is that I can’t relate to Claire. My wife fell pregnant within a few months of us getting married and I’ve never known anyone who’s struggled to conceive other than my own parents and as I was the solution to that particular problem I have an unusual and unique perspective on their struggles.
You’ll be pleased to note, by the way, that, after five years of treatment, Zoë Jenny finally gave birth to her first child, a daughter, Naomi. We never find out what ultimately happens with Claire. We can but hope. And that’s where the novel leaves us, hopeful for the future. Despite everything I think most people are.
Zoë Jenny was born in 1974 in Basel, Switzerland and spent parts of her childhood in Greece and Ticino. Her first novel, The Pollen Room (1997), won her global critical acclaim and is the all-time best-selling debut novel by a Swiss author. Translated into 27 languages, the novel propelled her across the globe for readings and talks in schools and universities as far away as Japan, China and the USA. She lived in New York and Berlin and in 2004 settled in London. In 2008 she married Matthew Homfray, a British veterinary surgeon and pharmaceuticals consultant which whom she now has a daughter.
Zoë has since published several highly acclaimed novels: Der Ruf des Muschelhorns (2000), Ein schnelles Leben (2002), Das Portrait (2007), a children’s book: Mittelpünktchens Reise um die Welt (2001), and various collections of short stories. Surprisingly none of these has made it into an English translation yet although some are available in Italian.
 Andrew Littlejohn, 'Best-selling Swiss author launches English debut', Swiss Info, 2nd June 2010