Book Review: Heloise, by Mandy Hager

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_heloise.jpgThis is a big book. Not big in size at a reasonable 381 pages, but big in scope and ideas. It’s a book that you want to take time and care with, so that you can appreciate it as it deserves.

Lots of people may know the names of Heloise and Abelard, even if like me, they don’t really know the details. Abelard was widely celebrated as one of the greatest thinkers of the 12th century; Heloise was among the most lauded of his students, made more notable because of her gender in a time when women were most definitely meant to be barely seen and certainly not heard.

Mandy Hager tells the story from Heloise’s perspective, filling in the historical gaps with seamless narrative. She starts with Heloise’s childhood, about which next to nothing is known, and traces her life through to her teenage years and adulthood, and her fateful meeting with Peter Abelard. The story is well paced and rich, with excerpts from Abelard and Heloise’s own writing, and many references to other great thinkers including Ovid, Seneca, Aristotle and Socrates. With a lot of the story taking place within a religious setting, Sts Augustine and Jerome also get regular look-ins. The content is quite dense – not in a negative way, but in the way that a lets you know you’re reading a book that’s been really well thought-through, researched and edited.

A reader with modern sensibilities will rage against the unfairness with which Heloise is treated, where even Abelard, who professes to love and respect her, treats her as a chattel without feelings and ambition of her own. Abelard eventually comes across as a fairly unsympathetic character, even though Heloise’s love and forgiveness of his behaviour wins out time and again. I found myself snarling at some of the male characters in the story quite regularly … the perils of being a modern reader of historical fiction, I suppose!

Heloise reminds me of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, dealing in depth as it does with a historical figure who has name recognition, even if the reader doesn’t know much more. It’s substantial in the same way, and immerses you in a world that may be 800 years gone, but still echoes now in the 21st century. It’s not a light holiday read, but perfect for when you have time and space to read something substantial. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Rachel Moore

by Mandy Hager
Published by Penguin NZ
ISBN 9780143770992

Mandy Hager and our very healthy Teen Fiction publishing tradition

A few weeks ago, Mandy Hager pp_mandy_hagerbecame just the second children’s writer (after Tessa Duder) to win the prestigious Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship.

Children’s Bookshop owner John McIntyre says, this decision ‘has been fantastic validation of our great Young Adult writers who generally fly under the radar when it comes to public profile.’

Hager’s achievement, is thanks to her ‘ability to capture the emotion, the angst and the confusion that teenagers feel’ McIntyre says and then ‘find the plot, character and the voice to portray (it) back to them in a story they feel connected to’.

Hager says ‘I’m thrilled on behalf of all children’s/YA writers. We often get treated like the poor cousins of ‘adult’ fiction writers…- this has buoyed us all.’

Speaking on Radio NZ on 15 November, soon after the announcement about the cv_smashedFellowship, John McIntyre carried on to talk about what makes great YA fiction, and how difficult it can be to nail it. Check out the podcast of his interview with Kathryn Ryan here.

YA fiction can often end up appealing to a cross-over market. How does Hager target her audience when she begins writing her stories? Does the reader’s age come hand in hand with the issues she is tackling? Hager has grappled with everything from teen suicide in her most recent Dear Vincent, to post-apocalyptic cults in her Blood of the Lamb trilogy, to the issue of teenage rape in Smashed. Hager says:

‘I generally work on the theory that I’m writing it for anyone from the age of about 13 up. I try to layer several themes through the story, so it can be read on a number of levels, to accommodate different age groups and levels of understanding. My first reader (chapter by chapter) is my 25 year old daughter Rose (who, incidentally, is doing some illustrations for my next book – very exciting!) – and she seems like a good medium age to aim at!’

During the Katherine Mansfield Mention220px-Heloise_World_Noted_Women Fellowship at the Villa Isola Bella, Hager will be researching a project that has been brewing for the past five years, about French nun, scholar and writer, Heloise d’Argenteuil. When she first began researching the story she was going to focus on Heloise and her lover Abelard, but she realised that ‘Heloise’s story stayed with me. Moved me. Called to me’. She contemplated giving it a contemporary twist, perhaps with Destiny Church taking on the role of the medieval Catholic Church, but went back to Heloise’s big questions. Why did she continue to love a man who ultimately spurned her in the favour of a ‘brutal misogynistic medieval God’?

‘I also came to realise that the only way I could do justice to the story was to go back to France and walk down the same corridors, feel the same touchstones, hear the same birds on a long hot French afternoon. This is the gift the Fellowship has given me – the chance to connect with Heloise on her own terms –and to meet and speak with those who can help me to colour her world.’

Mandy Hager is a big fan of Katherine Mansfield’s work, saying ‘she had a great capacity for honest reflection on human thought and behaviour – she really understood it. I like to tease people who are elitist about the place of YA fiction in the hierarchy by saying that she was a ‘cross-over’ writer (given how frequently her work is used in schools!) Always causes a good stir!’

Hager is known for her ability to point out wrongs, and elucidate why something is wrong with insight and eloquence. This was proven recently in her blog post about the ‘roast busters’ case. I mentioned that we would miss her if she had a social media holiday – to this she assured me ‘You’ll definitely hear from me! I will try to blog on a regular basis about what’s been going on over there and I’ll continue to Tweet, as I find the people I follow on Twitter give me a much broader understanding of what’s going on in the world than mainstream media.’

We look forward to seeing what comes of the Heloise project, and in the meantime, here is a run-down of Hager’s books of the past few years. Go to your local bookstore and buy a couple for the teenager in your life. They have a lot of emotional honesty to be imparted.

Dear Vincent (Random House, 2013), described by Johncv_dear_vincent McIntyre. ‘Dear Vincent is her new novel – a story that features 16 year old Tara discovering that her sister Vanessa didn’t die in a car crash as she had been told but had committed suicide aged 16 when she was estranged from her parents. The story is played out against a background of simmering tensions, brutal insults and escalating hatred- and Tara is trying to handle it. Her redemption is found in the art room at school, where she discovers and the work and letters of Vincent Van Gogh.’

The Nature of Ash (Random House, 2012) ‘Ash McCarthy thought he finally had it made: away from home and all its claustrophobic responsibilities, he’s revelling in the freedom of student hostel life. But life is about to take a devastating cv_the_nature_of_ashturn, when two police officers knock on his door. Their life-changing news forces him to return home to his Down Syndrome brother Mikey, and impels him into a shady world of political intrigue, corruption, terrorism and lies . . . so many lies.’

Resurrection (Random House, 2011) ‘Maryam is fighting for her life, freedom and love in this stunning finale to the Blood of the Lamb series.’

Into the Wilderness (Random House, 2010) ‘Maryam, Ruth and Joseph have fled Onewere, reluctantly taking Joseph’s troublesome cousin, Lazarus, as well. They arrive at their destination, Marawa Island, filled with hope for rescue and reprieve. But at first glance the island appears to be solely populated by birds . . . Perhaps the Apostle’s dire warnings about the fall-out of the Tribulation were true after all?’

The Crossing (Random House, 2009) ‘The people of Onewcv_the_crossing_tnere, a small island in the Pacific, know that they are special – chosen to survive the deadly event that consumed the Earth. Now, from the rotting cruise ship Star of the Sea, the elite control the population – manipulating old texts to set themselves up as living ‘gods’. But what the people of Onewere don’t know is this: the leaders will stop at nothing to meet their own blood-thirsty needs… ‘

Smashed (Random House, 2007) ‘Smashed tells the story of three teenage friends, and how their friendship, loyalties and values are thrown into confusion when the main character’s younger sister is raped by one of his best friends. His reaction sets in motion a “ripple effect”, which culminates in a violent act of revenge upon the rapist.’

Article by Sarah Forster, with thanks to Mandy Hager and John McIntyre.