Thursday, November 10, 2011

What makes a novel British? by Catherine Bruton

I'm so pleased and honoured to have the lovely Catherine Bruton guest posting on my blog today. Catherine is the author of the wonderful book, We Can Be Heroes, which was published earlier this year. She lives near Bath and is a mother, journalist, teacher and novelist, phew!

We Can Be Heroes was recently longlisted for the Carnegie! Congrats Catherine!

To find out more about Catherine or about We Can Be Heroes, please do visit the following websites:

I was very excited when an extract of my novel We Can be Heroes was featured on The Guardian website recently but then dismayed to see it described as the story of ‘an American boy whose father had died in 9/11.’ Why? Because my main character is British, not American. It was only a tiny mistake and an easy one to make, so why was I even bothered? The Guardian very kindly changed their intro but not before I’d started wondering about why –or whether - the ‘Britishness’ of my novel actually mattered.

I’ve described We Can be Heroes as a book about growing up in post-9/11 Britain, about the experience of being a British kid dealing with British issues, surrounded by a very British family and faced with a very British set of circumstances. But then again, it’s a novel about grief and families and prejudice and kids with over-active imaginations - and surely the Brits don’t have a monopoly on any of that. So is it a British novel? And is there really any such thing?

After all, what makes me think the British take on world events any different from that of any other nationality? Well, I don’t. Not totally anyway. And the terrible events which happened in Norway earlier this year - and which uncannily echo some of the events in We Can be Heroes - reminded me of that all too clearly. So perhaps I should start at the beginning and try to explain why I think it still think it’s a British novel but why I think readers from all over the world will like it too!

So where did it all begin? Well, We Can be Heroes was inspired by an article I wrote for The Times in 2008 about children who lost a parent in the September 11th terrorist attacks. Article found here.

I included interviews with four American teenagers who had lost a mum or dad on 9/11. They talked about fear of forgetting (‘Some of my memories of Dad are fading and it scares me’); anger at the media (‘They’re showing my dad’s death on TV all the time and it’s just really offensive’); and growing up in the shadow of 9/11 (‘You can’t escape it. It’s just everywhere you go’) The voices of those kids – those American kids – really influenced the novel I went on to write.

But I also interviewed a British boy whose father had been one of the victims of the July 7th London terrorist attacks. I was struck as I spoke to him by how different his experience had been to that of his US counterparts. He had never met another child victim of a terrorist attack and many of the kids he encountered had never even heard of the events which had changed his life.

It seemed to me that his response – and the response he had encountered in those around him - had been characterised by a very British reserve: ‘When my dad was killed it felt like I didn’t have time to grieve,’ he told me. ‘Suddenly I was the man of the house and all the responsibility was foisted upon me so I just had to get on and forget about stuff.’

It was his story that I was particularly intrigued by and I suppose that his voice is at the heart of the story I decided to tell about a 12 year old British boy who lost his father in the 9/11 attacks when he was only 3 years old, and about and the friendship he forms with a crazy madcap little Muslim girl who thinks brother is a suicide bomber.

I guess I wanted to write a novel about the Britain my kids were growing up in: a country shaped by the events of 9/11 which happened before they were even born.

When I started writing We Can be Heroes I’d just re-read To Kill a Mockingbird which I hadn’t read since I was a teenager and this time round I was struck with the parallels to contemporary Britain. No. We don’t live in a racially segregated society – or do we? Islamophobia and racial divisions divide contemporary Britain along racial lines in a way that in many ways is just as invidious as that which Harper Lee portrays in early 20th Century America. You only need to look at the response to the riots in some sections of the media to see that.

It sounds astonishly arrogant to admit that I wanted to write a contemporary British Mockingbird! In fact, I can’t quite admit I just put that down in print!! And I’m not claiming We Can be Heroes even comes close to Lee’s masterpiece (I have no Atticus figure just for starters and that’s only the beginning of where I fall short!) but I did borrow the structure of my novel from Harper Lee: the idea of three kids with over-active imaginations who become convinced of a threat where perhaps none exists (note that ‘perhaps’!), whilst failing to perceive the real danger that lurks on their doorsteps. I also borrowed the central themes of racism and prejudice but I set them in a modern British context.

One agent I sent the novel to rejected it on the grounds that, ‘I can’t believe there is a single child in this country who has not heard of 9/11’. But I recently spoke at an Amnesty conference at the start of which they showed a film of kids from a London school being asked what they knew about 9/11. Their responses ranged from blank ignorance (‘Er – dunno,’ ‘never heard of it,’ and, ‘That’s the day we start school, innit?’); via wild conspiracy theories (“Isn’t it true that America used 9/11 as an excuse to start a war on Islam?” and ‘“If Jews didn’t plan 9/11, then why were 4,000 Jewish workers warned to “stay at home” the day of the attacks?”’); to dangerous misconstructions (“Muslims might not all be terrorists, but they do agree with what happened on 9/11, right?”) Maybe I’m wrong but I don’t think you’d have got the same responses in an American school?

But I suppose I hope that, in the end, We Can be Heroes is not purely a British novel. Because I think the greatest novels of all time focus on universal themes (again – not making any claims to greatness here – but if you are going to aspire to anything then why not reach for the stars!). And most of what I write about is about human nature: families (the good, the bad and the ugly), messy divorces, in-law tensions, sibling rivalry - all that stuff transcends national boundaries. And as for prejudice based on ignorance and misunderstanding – sadly, the British don’t have the copyright on any of that either.

And the events in Norway which occurred just a week before We Can be Heroes was published were a stark reminder to me that the problems I explore – far right extremism, Islamophobia and racism are not isolated to British shores either. In fact it reminded me that the themes of the novel are relevant in a great many other countries besides Britain.

And I’m sure we Brits don’t have a monopoly on Daily Mail reading Grandpas (there must be Daily Mail equivalents in other countries, right?) or racist gangs, bossy big sisters, too-cool-for-school cousins or kids with over-active imaginations either.

So I sound like I’m in danger of talking myself out of my original premise. Damn it, woman – is the novel British or isn’t it? Well, suppose it’s crucially NOT American…at least Ben’s story isn’t… or at least bits of it aren’t… oh, dear! I’m getting my knickers in a twist again. The thing was that ohers have written beautifully about what it means to be an American 9/11 kid (I’m thinking particularly of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) but that was a story I didn’t feel I was able to tell. So I gave my 9/11 boy a British family and a British home and a British outlook on things. But I think the problems that he and his friends faced are ones which sadly are not confined to British shores. And I hope the comedy of mad-cap kids and their crazy inventions is one that will appeal not just to the British sense of humour either.

British novel – is there any such thing? Well, surely the very best British novels transcend their Britishness, achieve a universality whilst also making a comment on their national culture. And that, in the end, what I hope I have done in We Can be Heroes. As for whether I have succeeded – I’ll leave that for you to decide.

I’d love to hear what international readers think of the novel - and from British readers too. British or not? And does it even matter? What do you think?


  1. Oh wow, this is such an interesting post. I think you're absolutely right, whilst a lot of issues are similar across many countries responses and attitudes are quite different - for example the calm and dignified way that Norway responded this summer to its tragedy was very different to how other countries have responded to similar.

    This book was already on my wishlist, you've just strengthened my desire to get and read it!

  2. Amazing post! I really want to read your book now. I was only 3 when the tragedy of 9/11 happened, but we are learning about it in school now and it is interesting but so devestating. Thanks for such a good post :)

  3. Fantastic post! I'd never really thought about what makes a novel British before, but after reading this, I think that for me, British novels just have a certain feel about them that others don't have.

  4. Oh, I absolutely love this post. It's probably my favourite post of the entire month, thank you so much Catherine for writing it and for taking part in this month with me!

    You bring up so many interesting things to think about!

  5. Very interesting post. I think it helps to consider the events in other countries and learn about them. The book sounds really intriguing!


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