Tuesday 16 May 2023

Jo Baker, "The Midnight News"

Jo Baker is the author of eight novels, most recently The Midnight News (April 2023). 

Previous books include A Country Road, A Tree (2017) which was shortlisted for the American Library in Paris Award, the James Tait Black Award and Walter Scott Prize, and was a Book of the Year in the Guardian and New Statesman. Longbourn (2013), which tells the story of what’s going on below stairs in the Bennet household in Pride and Prejudice, was an international bestseller and translated into twenty-two languages.  

Jo is an Honorary Fellow of Lancaster University and was a Visiting Fellow at the Queen’s University of Belfast. She is married to the playwright and screenwriter Daragh Carville. They live in Lancaster with their two children. Her website is here

About The Midnight News

September 1940, and Charlotte watches from her attic window as enemy planes crawl across the sky. She’s been doing her best to keep herself out of trouble, holding down a typist job at the Ministry of Information, sharing gin and confidences with her best friend Elena. 

On her way to work she often sees the boy who feeds the birds – a source of joy amongst the chaos and destruction. But as the Blitz continues, bringing with it devastating loss, she begins to sense a presence in the darkness. Someone is stalking the blackout, targeting her friends. And now he’s following her … 

From The Midnight News, by Jo Baker

The chaffinch weighs nothing. Its claws barely pinch his thumb; its head tilts to keep one bright eye trained on him as it jabs at the broken biscuit. The tiny stabbing in his palm makes him smile. It grabs a crumb, then flitters off. On the path, sparrows hop and pick at flakes of pastry that he’s scattered. He has to be discreet, to keep an eye out for police, or for anyone who looks his way too long; there’d be hell to pay if he’s caught feeding the birds. Well, there’d be a fine. But he loves their trust, their greed, their fragile beauty. One must find one’s happiness where one can, and he finds it in the quiet, illicit dispensation of crumbs. 
          Someone is coming down the path towards him. He brushes his palms off and the birds scatter; they tweet their protest from the bushes. He pulls his memoranda book from his pocket. Honest, Officer, just taking a breather, just jotting down a few musings; what birds? Oh those birds! Terrible nuisance aren’t they?  
          He looks up. And it’s her. His heart goes still. The girl. The honey-coloured girl is coming towards him. She moves with that easy loping gait of hers; she wears a bluebell-coloured skirt and cream silk blouse, underneath a leaf-green summer coat. 
          Mustn’t stare. 
          Where’s that pencil? He searches through his pockets. If he can just scribble something in his notebook; just to have something to do. Pencil. Pencil. Pencil. Where is his godforsaken pencil? 
          He has tried all his jacket pockets, and is reaching into his left trouser pocket – though why would anyone keep a pencil there just to get stabbed in the thigh? – when she stops directly in front of him. He slides his hand from his pocket, and lays it over the other, which is resting on the memoranda book. He looks slowly up. 
         Dear God, let her not be one of those people who’ll go out of their way to tell you what you’re doing wrong. That would be so disappointing.
         Her eyes are unusual; a clear light brown, like milkless tea. He has never been close enough to notice before. She has a funny kind of look about her, at once determined and exhausted and concerned. And then she smiles. A huge, guileless smile, full of pleasure. 
         ‘There you are,’ she says. And she sits down beside him.  
         There, undeniably, he is; he has never felt more so. Never felt more wedged into the reality of his body. Never more aware of the distinctness of this bench, this patch of gravel, these chrubs and plane trees. His black clothes. Her.
         ‘I am glad to see you,’ she says. 

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