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Angela Young

I haven't read a clearer exposition of 'Speaking of Love' anywhere Cornflower, thank you.

And I'm looking forward to the discussion: the questions, the comments and the criticism.

Mr Cornflower

From a technical point of view the use of multiple protagonists and time shifts was well done, while at an emotional level I found the characters credible and actually cared about what became of them. Overall a book I rate highly, with only one slight reservation - perhaps in a couple of passages towards the end reflections on the proper treatment of schizophrenia tend to weaken the otherwise strong narrative drive.

Simon Thomas

Well, my thoughts on this wonderful novel might already be known to you! I read it some months ago, and was captured. Each character remains vividly with me, as does the storytelling festival. I still feel as though I were sitting there, waiting for the stories to be told.


I enjoyed the way in which Iris's stories wove through this novel, illuminating the experience of the characters. Towards the end Ruth says that a psychotic state prevents the holding of a narrative line; at the beginning the reader, too, is adrift without a clear line of narrative, fragmented as it is by the various voices, and it is only towards the end that the threads of stories draw together. I liked, too, that the story makes clear the ways in which other people are damaged by the illness of a family member, and also need time to recover – we assume too readily that the restoration of the person we have lost brings instant healing, and fail to appreciate that uncertainties and anxieties may remain. There are echoes of our earlier book, They Came Like Swallows, in the importance of the way children interpret (or fail to interpret) an adult world, as we see first Iris's own response to her mother's death and her incomprehension of her father's refusal to talk about it, and then Vivie and Matthew struggling to deal with Iris's worsening illness. As Karen comments, the rawness of experience of the characters is described with immense sensitivity and clarity. There are details I particularly like too – that Iris makes hats with veils that obscure the sight, that Vivie writes copy for adverts, another form of veiled meanings. I only finished the book this morning, and I want to brood on it some more, and look forward to other people's comments.


I found this book via Simon. I only ordered it much later and didn't realize that the book would be about schizophrenia, so as I was reading it it was all carefully revealed--I thought the multiple narrators was very clever. Sometimes when the story is told through different voices going back and forth in time it can be confusing, but I wasn't at all this time around--it was a bit like piecing together a puzzle. I do have to say it took me most of the novel to figure out who John Dexter was--that he wasn't real. Was there a reason he seemed so similar to Iris's father?--the old fashioned clothes, the pipe? And I'm curious how the scizophrenia was caused--I'm afraid I don't know much about this illness--didn't realize you can only have some episodes and then never again. And I know I should look this up, but what sort of treatment is an ECT? I kept thinking it might be a labotomy since she lost memories, but were they doing this in the 60s and 70s (when I imagined this taking place)? Also, did they actually keep male and female patients together (for sleeping I mean)? Salem sounded horrible. Anyway, I enjoyed this book very much--definitey a hard subject to tackle for a first novel!

 Barbara MacLeod

[1] Expectations: I was looking for (and expecting) to read the book where there was a beginning, a middle and an end. Well, it is simply not that kind of book.

[2] E for Effort: I put it aside, came back and persevered. Conclusion: it is worth reading but you have to read to the very, very, very end to see it come together. I did not google information about the book; i.e. came to it 'cold'. Basically, it was all back-to-front for me. I found it ironic that I, the reader, needed all my powers of concentration to read this story about folk who have problems concentrating!

[3] The Bottom Line: I see now that the book is about "how stories can help make sense of the random nature of life." Lots to think about e.g. what is the role of a story for each individual (in this book it was a 'coping mechanism'), in our families, communities, culture? I have come away from reading the book with a greater awareness of the occasions and reasons we tell/listen to stories.

[4] Life experience: Once I finished the book, I had at look at the "Acknowledgements" (which I wish I had done to start with but it is not my habit...) Good grief! The mists of time parted: RD Laing, 1964! The author states: "Salem, where I set Iris's first breakdown in the 1970s, is based on an amalgamation of information about mental asylums in the bad old days." As part of my (university) student nurse training (1963-67) I spent several months, in 1965, in a mental institution (Western Canada) where I assisted in the administration of ECT and the care of patients both before and after. Largactil? We students were controls in a clinical trial.


I had to at least look it up--I should have known this--ECT is electric shock treatment. Am showing my ignorance here...and I also spelled lobotomy wrong--ack! Sorry about that.


I felt that I was quite a long time reading this book before I could get comfortable with knowledge of the characters and the times. In fact, it was not until Part Two that I began to really feel the impact of this novel. Then I just read on til the end of the book at one sitting. I found the description by Vivie of watching her mother dancing with the doctor unbearably sad. The effect of mental illnesss on a family was portrayed so well, showing the devastation it can cause to family and friends.The gradual realisation about the truth of "John Dexter" was more chilling than many a thriller I have read. The background of the Storytelling Festival was such a contrast to Iris's experiences of Salem. When I finished this book I went back to the start and re read some of the parts again with new understanding as through I wanted to found out more about the characters. A touching experience.

Angela Young

Danielle: Thank you for all your questions; here are my answers.

The reason John Dexter is so similar to Iris's father (old-fashioned clothes, pipe-smoking etc.) is that in my research I discovered that the hallucinating psyche often builds a hallucination from what it knows in reality, or what it fears in reality: the seeds of Iris's breakdown were sown when her father refused to talk about her mother after she died. The trigger for her first breakdown is Kit failing to return, but her childhood experience of father's harsh treatment is the buried cause, and so John Dexter, her 'persecutor', resembles her father.

(If you want to find out more about schizophrenia MIND's site explains it well: )

ECT stands for ElectroConvulsive Therapy: it's the application of electrodes to the temples to send electric shocks through the brain. It is still used in psychiatry, but far far less so than it was in the sixties and seventies, and before.

And yes there still were mixed sleeping wards in the sixties and seventies ... I can't remember now where I discovered that, but as far as I know they don't exist any more.

Geranium Cat: the extraordinary thing about reading what readers find in a book is what those things show the writer that she has done. Your observation about hats with veils and advertising copy being words with veiled meanings is so spot on, but I didn't think about them that way when I wrote or thought about Iris and Vivie. They just seemed to be the right professions. Now you've shown me why, thank you.

Simon: thank you for you continuing championship of 'Speaking of Love'.

Mr Cornflower: I know exactly what you mean about the treatment-of-schizophrenia reflections. In one draft there were (oh dear) many more, until the Professor of Psychiatry I sent it to for checking suggested cuts. I kept what I kept out of a sense of a responsibility to the people who work in mental health. But that, of course, isn't the territory of a novel.


Angela--Thanks very much! I am curious why Iris (or anyone) gets schizophrenia. I do remember now when talked about Kit leaving and that's what started it, but what made her in particular become ill. I need to check out that website you mentioned.

I'm also curious what made you decide to write specifically about schizophrenia? Hopefully that's not too personal a question to ask. And what made you decide to make Iris a storyteller and frame the narratives within (or between) stories? Thanks.

adele geras

I thought this was a very touching and well-written and also a very interesting novel. I read the notes in the back before I got to the end, and it did help to know everything that's in them. I found the Salem bits fascinating and was very interested in the way the book was so skilfully structured. The different viewpoints and the movement backwards and forwards in time did not worry me at all as we were quite clear, I thought, all the way along, WHO was speaking and when they were speaking about, but I can see that it might be a bit muddling at first to those who prefer a linear narrative. I loved the storytelling festival and was always well aware of what things/people looked like....this is is a big plus for me. I enjoy descriptions and my only criticism is: I'd have liked some more details of the MILLINERY process and all the hats!! Can't wait for Angela's next book.

Angela Young

Thank you everyone for your insightful and thoughtful comments.

Barbara MacLeod: I truly appreciate your perseverance ... quite a few people have commented that they've found the beginning difficult to concentrate on or to follow, and have given up but you didn't. Thank you. And I love the irony in your comment that you the reader needed all your 'powers of concentration to read this story about folk who have problems concentrating'. It's true, I know ... .

And your life experience as a student nurse must have stayed with you. I know it would have with me.

The fragmented structure of the book is intended to reflect the chaotic and spasmodic nature of a mind heading towards breakdown. But it was a risk and I knew that not everyone would like reading a book structured that way.

Anne: thank you too for your perseverance until you found that you could read on until the end. And for describing it as a 'touching experience'.

Danielle: thanks for your thanks. And your question about why I wrote about schizophrenia isn't too personal at all ... I'm delighted to answer such questions.

I wrote about schizophrenia because I witnessed a full-blown breakdown and it absolutely terrified me. (It wasn't my own mother, nor was it me, but I have trained myself not to identify the person for obvious reasons of confidentiality.)

I remained terrified of the person for much longer than anyone else who had been affected by it so that, in the end, I had to ask myself why. And so the beginnings of 'Speaking of Love' were born. (It is said that all art is an answer to a question ... the first question that prompted 'Speaking of Love' was 'Why this constant fear of madness?') In the end, I realised what I gave Ruth to tell Vivie at the end of the book: that I thought madness was catching the way a cold is catching and that's why I remained so terrified.

I thought I would go mad if I saw the person who'd broken down and it reminded of my mother's own (much more minor) nervous breakdowns when I was a child ... and fed into my own childhood fears. When I realised those things I began to find ways to face the person (and my own fear). And I began to write the book.

The reason Iris is a storyteller is that listening to oral stories affects me very deeply, far more deeply than reading - despite the fact that reading fiction also affects me very much. And I feel that fiction, particularly oral stories, really can help us in our lives, really can show us ways to live. It seems to me that the reason those ancient tales, myths and legends have survived down the ages (without being written down until recently) is that they contain ancient truths about the way we are and the ways we can be - and that's why we love them and return to them. (The Jungian, Clarissa Pinkola Estes in her wonderful 'Women who Run with the Wolves', shows how these stories can affect us magnificently.) I'm also sure that my love of these stories and belief in them helped me when it came to writing Iris's.

Beulah Candappa, a Burmese storyteller has said: 'The written word goes from the eye to brain but the spoken word goes from the ear to the heart.' I agree. (And so the thing that would round off this book's progress into the world would be oral storytellers picking up Iris's stories and telling them ... .)

In Iris's case stories help her understand what's happened to her, and in writing her own she begins to resolve the conflicts in her life by unearthing her buried feelings at least partly through her stories.

The reason the narrative is set between Iris's traditional stories is that I wanted her stories to reflect on and be subtle metaphors for what was happening in her life and give her clues about how to live her life.

Thank you for your questions ... they remind me why I wrote the book.

Angela Young

Adele: Thank you so much. Feedback from a fellow writer is so very valuable, thank you for your generosity about 'Speaking of Love' and the way it is structured and so much more.

My next novel is partly set in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries - so perhaps there'll be more room for more millinery there!

 Barbara MacLeod

Angela - "All art is an answer to a question..." Now that is something I must go away and think about... wonderful!

To this day, my husband and his relatives (see my last name!) love nothing better than getting together where they tell and re-tell all their stories (life in Wester Ross). And if I recall from hearing something on the radio this week, stories can/do/must change for all sorts of reasons and that is all part of the process.

And finally, someone once told me that Jason and the Golden Fleece was an oral navigational aid for getting (by sea) from ?the Mediterranean to Orkney.


I'd echo much of what has been said already, and on the subject of details yes, the storytelling festival is perfectly realised. Also, Dick and Matthew's "darning" journey - that added another dimension to what in less skilled hands could have been a simple route from A to B.
There are some wonderful lines, too, e.g. Iris is "wrapped in bright, brittle courage" and "Vivie was exhausted by a lifetime of standing guard against an enemy she couldn't even see", and then there's the recurring tree motif and the significance of yellow - so much to talk about!!

Angela Young

I would love to sit down with all of you with cups of tea and Cornflower's crab, watercress and soda bread sandwiches ... we could talk into the night and our conversations would only begin with 'Speaking of Love' ... we'd range far and wide over the books we've read. (Actually one night wouldn't be nearly long enough, would it?)

But, since this is Speaking of Love's page, I wanted to say how illuminating and what a joy it is for me when you tell me what you've noticed, the links you've made, the particular pieces you love (or hate) or that have attracted your attention ... and, as with Barbara's veil links, they're often things I didn't consciously think about writing, but things that my subconscious was busy nudging me into writing because it simply felt right. It takes you to show me what I've done. Thank you.

As a painter friend of mine often says, 'Artists need audiences' - not in the cold way that that might imply, but in the sense of a dialogue. No work of art is complete without the ears and eyes and hearts and minds of those who see or hear or read it and think about it and talk about it.

Barbara: Norman Geras has quoted Salman Rushdie on his blog, in an interview for The Spectator talking about how we need stories and how we 'tell ourselves into being'. Which says it all doesn't it? And would provide another reason for the MacLeod Wester Ross gatherings, although I don't suppose they need one.

And I love the idea of the Golden Fleece being a seafaring map ... I think all stories are maps of a kind.

Cornflower: thank you for the details you have noticed ... yellow, according to some interpreters, is the colour of life (as opposed to the colour of cowardice as others would have it) and I am in love with language (sometimes to the detriment of my writing in that I will write a sentence full of beautiful words that means absoutely nothing and forwards the story not one jot ... but then that's what kindly and wise editors are for - to make me see what I've done and change it).

And the 'darning' came to me in the middle of one night - I clearly saw a picture of Dick's hands moving as he told Matthew how he thought of their journey. (The awful image of the claws on Iris's hand turned up in a dream too.)


Alas, I've come too late again. I was out of work last week and busy doing jobs around the house -- mostly painting. But, I am reading the book and am enjoying it. I had some of the same questions as others, and so this will add to my experience as I finish the novel. Maybe next month I can finish on time! I visit here often and have recently changed my blog's location. Here is my new location.
Booknotes by Lisa (formerly Pfeiffer Booknotes) can be found at


Thanks very much Angela! It's not often that I can read a book and then ask the author questions about it! It must have been a frightening experience to be around someone with schizophrenia when you were young. Even worse for Vivie in the book, since it was her mother and her father was gone. Are the fairy tales yours by the way? Or are they based on other stories?

Angela Young

Danielle: thank you ... it has been a delight to answer your questions.

And yes, all four fairy tales are completely my own invention, but obviously they were informed, at least at a subconscious level, by my love of the ancient tales from the Brothers Grimm and the tales in 'Women who Run with the Wolves' etc., and also from my involvement with and love of listening to storytellers telling the tales they bring back from around the world. All those tales will have subliminally informed my imagination when I came to write my own.

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  • Sidebar book cover thumbnail pictures are affiliate links to Amazon, and the storefront links to Blackwell's and The Book Depository are also affiliated; should you purchase a book directly through those links, I will receive a small commission. Older posts may also contain affiliate links to one of those bookshops. I am not paid to produce content and all opinions are my own.


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