Friday 4 November 2022

Emma Claire Sweeney, "Owl Song at Dawn"


Emma Claire Sweeney is Director of the Ruppin Agency Writers’ Studio – a nationwide literary mentorship scheme, and she is a lecturer in Creative Writing at the Open University. 
Emma was named as both an Amazon Rising Star and a Hive Rising Writer for her debut novel, Owl Song at Dawn (Legend, 2016). Inspired by Emma's sister who has cerebral palsy and autism, it went on to win Nudge Literary Book of the Year. 
Stemming from Something Rhymed, the website on female literary friendship that Emma ran with her own friend Emily Midorikawa, Emma and Emily co-wrote their debut non-fiction book, A Secret Sisterhood: The Hidden Friendships of Austen, Brontë, Eliot and Woolf (Aurum, 2017). In her foreword, Margaret Atwood described the work as a great 'service to literary history' and The Financial Times called it 'an exceptional act of literary espionage.'

Emma has won Society of Authors, Arts Council and Royal Literary Fund awards, and has written for the likes of The Paris Review, TIME, and The Washington Post.

Emma’s Twitter handle is @emmacsweeney and she has a Facebook page here.

About Owl Song at Dawn

Inspired by Emma’s sister, who has autism and cerebral palsy, Owl Song at Dawn is a novel about a fierce octogenarian who spends a lifetime in Morecambe Bay, trying to unlock the secrets of her exuberant yet inexplicable twin.

Maeve Maloney is a force to be reckoned with. Despite her advancing years, she keeps Sea View Lodge just as her parents did during Morecambe’s 1950s heyday. But now only her employees and regular guests recognise the tenderness and heartbreak hidden beneath her spikiness. Until, that is, Vincent shows up.

Vincent is the last person Maeve wants to see. He is the only man alive to have known her twin sister, Edie. The nightingale to Maeve’s crow, the dawn to Maeve’s dusk, Edie would have set her sights on the stage – all things being equal. But, from birth, things never were.

If only Maeve could confront the secret past she shares with Vincent, she might finally see what it means to love and be loved: a lesson that her exuberant yet inexplicable twin may have been trying to teach her all along.

In the excerpt below, Maeve is looking back on the night of their 21st birthday ...

From Owl Song at Dawn, By Emma Claire Sweeney

I see you, Edie, standing bare, your hands clasping my wrists, your face and breasts and hips in line with mine. You let me take your weight as you lift one leg over the rim of the tub and then you stumble slightly, and I move my hand to your armpit to steady you. 

‘Nothing to worry about,’ you say. 

You watch as I sprinkle baking soda into the water to soothe your nappy rash, as I work up a lather, as I rub a soapy cloth from your ears to your toes. 

Your body has changed during my years at college: your breasts rounder, your legs stronger, your tummy – which you never did learn to pull in – a little plumper, perhaps. It’s hard to imagine that as a child you’d been matchstick thin. I take more notice of your body on this particular night, it being our 21st birthday. Later, I will run my new Max Factor lipstick across your fulsome lips. With your lovely bust and bright blue eyes, you would have been a real bombshell – all things being equal.

I still don’t know what caused your marionette limbs and wonky teeth and scarcity of words. Perhaps the town gossips were right and there was a deficiency in our genes; or perhaps it was down to Mum’s age; or our slightly premature birth; or perhaps the doctors didn’t notice that you lacked oxygen during our delivery; or perhaps I deprived you of nutrients or damaged you in the womb. 

Even now, I see your eyelids crinkle shut as I massage your head with shampoo, as the water darkens your coppery hair, as it streams down your spine. I see you straining with concentration as I place the flannel in your palm. 

Although I’ve asked you to scrub your armpits, you touch your elbow. ‘Up, up,’ I instruct, guiding your hand. ‘You can do it, I can help you.’

‘On my own!’ you call out, delight spreading across your face as the flannel touches your armpit, so I clap and cheer and call out, ‘Edith Mary Maloney is the cleverest girl in the seven seas!’

You keep repeating it over and over: ‘The cleverest girl in the seven seas!’ you exclaim, splashing foam high into the air. ‘The cleverest girl in the seven seas!’ A bubble lands on your nose, and you turn cross-eyed from staring at it so long. 

But I also see the tufts of hair in your armpits, and I know that I should shave them: they will look unsightly with your new cap sleeve blouse. But I do not pick up the razor; I do not take the time to remove that hair.  

I see you wriggling in the bathtub, water spraying across the room as you scissor kick your stiff legs just like Frank has shown you. I love to see Frank’s broad back bent low as he teaches you to dance. I love the way his large hands cup your tiny palms, lifting them up and down like an expert puppeteer. 

I resume my bathing instructions (Where are your armpits? Where’s your front bottom? Where are your knees? Where are your feet?), but my mind is still on Frank. I imagine him watching me as I head down the staircase in my ocean-blue dress. I imagine the gimlets we’ll drink in the Rotunda Bar at the Midland Hotel, the jazz band that’ll play as we teach you to jive. You’ll quickly get exhausted and will want to sit on Dad’s knee. Then Frank will move me slowly round the dance floor, his legs pressed up against mine. 

Little do I know that I will never again dance with a man; that you will never wear lipstick; that your legs and armpits will never be smooth. Little do I know that I will soon lose Mum and Dad and Frank and you. But I cannot lose the images of what happened that night. 

No comments:

Post a Comment