25 books that will stick with you and blow your mind

Tuesday, June 21st, 2016

Apologies for the stupid title. I stole it from this stupid article, so do forgive me.

1. The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikabu
The first novel ever written! Universally recognised as a great masterpiece of Japanese prose narrative, The Tale of Genji is an incredible insight into the moral, social, political and sexual values of its time and place.

2. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
One of those books that changes lives, especially young lives. It teaches the importance of justice and integrity in the face of cruelty, racism, hatred and fear. A classic, by anyone’s standards.

3. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
Widely considered to be the first science fiction novel, Frankenstein endures because of its insightful evocation of character and theme. Apparently, male-book-list writers also consider this a worthy book. Thanks a lot!

4. & 5. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte, and Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys
You can’t read Jane Eyre without reading Wide Sargasso Sea. Bronte’s novel is a fantastically gothic tale of the unloved, the orphaned, the abused and the unwanted, set against the wild Yorkshire moors. Rhys’ novel provides a mind-altering reading/rewriting of Jane Eyre. It’s a powerful story of dislocation, dispossession, sexism, racism, and the ways in which these oppressions can lead to “madness”.

6. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
A dystopia that has proved to be frighteningly prescient. Atwood’s powerful novel is a brilliantly written, witty, and terrifying insight into religious fascism.

7. Human Acts, Han Kang
A novel about the Gwangju massacre of 1980. I don’t know if such horrors have ever been written about with such compassion. A novel that lays ghosts to rest. Han Kang is a genius of the highest order.

8. Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Gabriel Garcia Marquez said, “the worst enemy of politicians is a writer,” and it’s hard not to recall those words when reading this effortlessly brilliant story about the state of Biafra. Like ‘Human Acts’, it lays out the human truth and makes us care.

9. The Bloody Chamber and other stories, Angela Carter
Only read this if you like magic, fairy tales, blood, sex, horror, dreams, talking animals, Jungian archetypes, and beautifully accomplished writing. Classic writing that will endure.

10. Kindred, Octavia Butler
A rich and complex novel that combines slavery memoir with fantasy, and political allegory with time travelling science fiction. An absolutely astonishing feat of literature.

11. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin
A ground breaking work of science fiction, with one of the most compelling settings ever devised. This novel explores sexual politics and colonisation within an adventure story that has you on the edge of your seat.

12. The Blazing World, Siri Hustvedt
Narratively innovative, thematically complex, a brilliant collage of a novel that makes you fall in love and leaves you utterly bereft. The art works in this book deserve whole galleries to themselves.

13. The Neapolitan Quartet, Elena Ferrante
These lucid, original and page-turning novels tell the story of a complicated friendship, and in doing so chart the subtle effects of class, poverty, marriage, and education on individuals and their communities.

14. The Lover, Marguerite Duras
No one writes like Duras, with such vulnerability, sensitivity, and courage. The Lover is a book that is suffused with feeling and contradiction, ardour and terror.

15. White is for Witching, Helen Oyeyemi
One of the best haunted house stories ever written. Oyeyemi is one of those perfect writers who can seemingly do anything at all, create ghosts out of thin air, anything she likes.

16. Netsuke, Rikki Ducornet
This short, terrifying novel takes us inside the mind of a dangerous narcissist as he hurtles towards destruction. Absolutely mastery from Ducornet: careful, precise, and shocking.

17. Magic for Beginners, Kelly Link
The same flavour of surrealist magical realism that Haruki Murakami writes – but Link does it better. These pieces expand the territory of the short story, setting up outposts in contemporary culture and politics, creating and dispelling illusions with masterful sleight of hand.

18. The Knife Drawer, Padrika Tarrant
This is the book I most frequently recommend to other book lovers. Why? Because it is utterly brilliant. Moving, funny, frightening, and very very weird. A Jan Švankmajer film in prose. Like nothing else you’ve read.

19. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler
The less you know about this funny, charming book before reading it, the better. One of the most awesome – and technically accomplished – twists of all time.

20. The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud
“How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.” So begins this brave and magnificently furious book, so angry it could burst into flames at any moment and you wouldn’t be too surprised.

21. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson
An unreliable narrator, possible death-by-mushroom-poisoning, and angry villagers with pitchforks are just a few ingredients in this wonderfully funny and macabre book.

22. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark
Spark’s sparse and precise language here serves to emphasise the brittle brilliance of Miss Jean Brodie – magnetic, charismatic, an inspirational leader — and a fascist. One of the greatest fictional characters of all time.

23. The Hour of the Star, Clarice Lispector
Lispector’s final novel, and her masterpiece. A deceptively simple story with a philosophically intense and ambiguous underlying narrative that echoes and ripples long after the end.

24. We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver
A big, American novel that both responded to and shaped the cultural conversation around motherhood and violent masculinity. Shriver writes with great authority in this deeply serious book.

25. My Name is Leon, Kit de Waal
It’s only just been published, but I predict that this book is going to be huge. HUGE. And deservedly so – it’s utterly heartbreaking, ultimately uplifting, and full of heroes. An instant classic.


* This list was compiled just off the top of my head in response to that seriously ignorant Independent article, and I’ve left out SO MANY wonderful writers – I could have mentioned Rebecca Solnit, Magda Szabo, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, George Eliot, Jane Austen, Nnedi Okorafor, Zadie Smith, Nicola Barker, Lydia Davis, Alice Thompson and so many many many others.

** This list – and my reading – could be more racially and geographically diverse. I’m working on it and welcome suggestions!

how to write a novel in no easy steps

Thursday, April 7th, 2016

1: Start writing. An idea is not necessary at this stage.

2: Keep writing. Pay no attention to mundane matters such as plot, character, setting, structure, or story. Just keep writing words until you have around half a million of them.

3: Now take those half a million words and throw. them. away.

4: Stare into the void. Woah. Stare into your computer instead. Rescue an idea you find limping around in the aftermath of the word-apocalypse.  (This idea has survived purely by virtue of its fiendish ambition. Its most impressive quality is its refusal to die, despite having seemingly nothing to live for.)

5: Write until you figure out some kind of structure that can cage this ugly, tenacious bastard of an idea. Fail horribly, shamefully, and repeatedly. The writing will be enriched and nourished by your desperate tears.

6: Completely lose perspective. Employ diversionary tactics.

7: Keep writing the bits you’ve already written. It is important not to give up on the dream of writing something that makes actual sense.

8: Give up. Any ending will do. Who cares.

9: Finish it out of sheer bloody-mindedness.

10: Send it to whichever person in your life you consider to be the most psychologically stable.

11: MOVE ON.

bookish winter things

Sunday, January 31st, 2016


Winter is cold and depressing (my favourite). I continue to fill my empty existence with reading and writing. My field notes from January:

My Black Static story “White Rabbit” has been well received, and even garnered a very nice mention in the Guardian! It’s good to see Black Static getting some recognition in the mainstream press for its support of new and established writers. And it’s good to see genre writing given serious consideration. And my family and friends are most impressed.

Des Lewis wrote a dreamcatching review of “White Rabbit” which I thought a sensitive and telepathic reading of the story. The whole point of writing is to make that connection with other humans, so this pleases me immensely.

Work continues on the novel. The 5.30am starts don’t get any easier. I may be reaching some sort of ending, if the panic attacks and attempts to run away are anything to go by.

On reading: this is a picture of all the books I read in January, arranged left to right in order of how great I think they are. The blue book on the far left is “A Spell to Conjure Violets” by Kate Mascarenhas, and it is really, truly wonderful. A strange, clever, moving story about parallel universes, paths taken and not taken, and how to account for our mistakes. The reader is drawn in through the completely believable characterisation and setting. Mascarenhas prints and binds the books herself, beautifully, and has paperbacks of this for sale now. You can contact her via twitter – she is @flynnker and she’ll be delighted to take your order

black static, white rabbit

Monday, December 14th, 2015

It turns out that I’m not too modest to mention that White Rabbit, my very first story in Black Static, made the cover. And what a cover! The utterly brilliant artwork is by Vince Haig, who has done another superb illustration for the story inside. One of the most wonderful experiences a writer can have is seeing their work sensitively interpreted and extended by an artist. Without a doubt, Vince Haig’s pictures make White Rabbit a better story.

Small presses are a big part of the thriving culture of literary genre writing, and deserve our attention and support. Volume 50 of Black Static is out in early January, and would make an excellent New Year’s/late Christmas present for the fiction aficionado in your life. (Afictionado, surely?!) And if you like this sort of thing, get a subscription. TTA Press depends on subscriptions to be able to survive and pay their writers and artists (very important!), so there’s no better way to show your love.

domestic magic realism – a manifesto

Saturday, November 14th, 2015
jacek yerka

Polish Kitchen, by Jacek Yerka

1. You have to invent your own genre, what happens if you don’t is that they subsume you into theirs.

(By genre, I mean everything.)

2. You want them to like you, but you know that your magic is not for them.

3. They inveigle you. They distract you from the scratch at the cellar door, from the sound of wings in the attic, from the unraveling of the bed.

4. They sugar the pill.

5. They offer you a beautiful face. The price is your silence, or else you can pay them with your voice.

6. You only saw because the mirror turned at the slightest of angles. You only know because you are at an angle yourself, you were always that way.

But you were only looking in the mirror to see the cumulative iterations of your gaze, and theirs. It’s not your fault you saw it.

7. They say you saw nothing. They never believe you. They tell you up is down.

8. They infiltrate you endemically, intimately, subtle as your own hand; to escape them you need to invent a new grammar.

(By grammar, I mean a knife.)

9. Home is where the hearts are.

10. One day you notice that your husband has a beard so black it’s blue.

bong! the news

Wednesday, October 14th, 2015


A brief update on what’s what and what’s not in my world… I finished the first draft of my novel at the end of the summer holidays, which meant I had three whole days of holiday left before starting back at work. I spent those days in a whirl of shock and delight and terror. It was fun. After that, I put the novel in a drawer to cook, and went to work on a couple of short stories. How exciting to write short stories again after being neck-deep in a novel! You can write them in a weekend! It’s like magic.

The first of these stories, The Art Lovers, is a nasty little tale of crime set in Italy, Greece, and London sometime in the 1970s, with our protagonist living on a Euro rail card, a student grant, and an unhealthy delusion about the nature of women. It’s due to appear in Crimewave 13, from TTA press. This is really exciting for me – I don’t often write crime stories, so to have one published in the best genre magazine in the country is an incredible privilege – and stroke of luck.

White Rabbit is the name of the second story, and I’m pretty sure it’s the best thing I’ve ever written. It’s kind of creepy, a little bit sad, and fairly psychedelic. I’ve always loved Alice in Wonderland, and this is a fairly twisted way down the rabbit hole. It’s set to appear in Black Static 50. Very excited about this one.

I’m back to editing and redrafting the novel now, which explains why I’m finally getting around to writing a blog post. Because when faced with trying to bring sense to the mess of scenes and chapters and terrible sentences and logical black holes and broken timelines, everything else suddenly seems a lot more fun. Writing my blog, cleaning the flat, disembowelling myself with a teaspoon, whatever. And yet, it has to be done. I don’t know why. It just does.

the star of the hour

Thursday, August 27th, 2015

Everyone’s talking about Clarice Lispector. A little synchronicity for me – I picked up The Hour of the Star before the summer, and within weeks, I heard her name spoken everywhere. I’m glad.

I recently attended a book event in Edinburgh. A.L. Kennedy and Janice Galloway read from their novels – respectively, Paradise and The Trick is to Keep Breathing – which have both been reprinted as Vintage Classics. Two extraordinary books, and two funny, clever writers. The chairperson asked the authors questions about their place in the literary firmament. They laughingly declined to answer. They said that as women, they don’t expect their books to last. When women die, their books die with them.

And yet, here is Clarice Lispector, long dead, and suddenly the talk of the town. Her stories, her passions, her language. (Her heroic cheekbones.)

The Hour of the Star is an odd, short novel, which contains within itself another odd, short novel, and its novelist, who appears to be writing himself into and out of the life of his protagonist, a colourless, stupid girl.  Only the novelist sees in her something very touching, something to love. Perhaps it is something he sees in himself. Nothing much happens. It’s not certain who or what the story is about. But Lispector’s writing is hypnotically strange. It’s weightless, then it sinks you with a moment too heavy to bear. Sometimes you have to stop reading and breathe.

Virginia Woolf once asked, “Who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body?” I think one reflection of this question is Clarice Lispector. She is ideological. She is avant garde. Her language is abstract and hums with its own peculiar rhythms. She is, perhaps, a little boring to the modern reader. We don’t want abstract passions and puzzles; we want story. We want the three-act structure and resolutions and we want things to go the way they should. That’s good writing, we say, when it happens.

I don’t know if a woman could write like Lispector now, with such freedom, or if anyone could. I say a woman but maybe I mean anyone. We seem to be so beleaguered at the moment. We seem to be so at odds with the world. We have to be very sure, we have to be rock solid and unshakeable, so we can stand atop our perches and be unmoved by the world’s opinions of us. But how then can a writer  experiment, how can she step out not knowing what’s beneath her? How can she balance with one toe on solid ground while the rest of her stretches out into other worlds, feeling for the force and the upswing, hoping for less gravity? Well, maybe she can, if she is monstrously brave.



fierce attachments

Thursday, June 25th, 2015

buy his paintings

There are some books which I consider to be unequivocally women’s books. Women’s books because they speak of female worlds which are secret and separate from the ‘real’ world, the outer world of action, which is seen to belong to males. These are books which needle out from under the skin the bloodied strings that tie mothers to daughters, where each mother passes to her daughter the exact amount of hate and love that she herself was gifted with. Nothing in these relationships is simple, but there is one story that keeps playing out: how the girl strains to escape the limitations of her society, which the mother has (weakly, stupidly, cravenly – in the daughter’s eyes) capitulated to. And how the mother attempts to hold the girl back, not just out of jealousy, but out of a need to perpetuate the same conditions that have stunted and stifled her own life, a need which she calls ‘protection.’  This is women’s culture, this is how it has been passed down through generations.

These books also have in common an almost supernatural brilliance, an ability to convey feeling and character with deft touches that practically defy analysis. It is done by truth-telling, by honesty without self-justification, without falling back on artificial narrative resolution. Such is the clarity of writing in Vivian Gornick’s memoir, Fierce Attachments, that I was convinced I had been given secret family knowledge, that hidden truths had been revealed. Gornick writes of growing up in an immigrant Jewish family in the Bronx during the depression, but everything about that which is alien and other to me is rendered by her prose as familiar and intimate as if I’d lived it myself. I felt that I lived in her story, in her incredible sentences.

Gornick’s relationship with her mother is at the centre of the book and the centre of her life, and there is really nothing she can do about it, try as she might. There is humour in this, and even love, but most of all there is a kind of tragedy. Every woman in the story is affected by it; some are destroyed. Gornick and her mother fight, often. At one point, Gornick yells at her mother, “Don’t I get any credit for spotting a good idea, Ma? That one should try to live one’s life?” And her mother defends herself, says, “What did I have? I had nothing. Nothing.” But that’s not good enough, how can it be? It’s testament to Gornick’s talent and temperament that the reader never loses empathy with any woman: all are living out this culture, this practice that sets one generation against the next. (Our culture where pregnant women are told, “girls steal your beauty,” where thirteen-year-old girls speak ill of each other enough to kill.)

I had never heard of Vivian Gornick until I read about her in an essay by a wonderful writer, Rikki Ducornet, whose novel Gazelle is another book I would add to the category tales of women’s culture. I would also include Marguerite Duras’ The Lover. Of course these books feature terrible, desperate mothers, but they are still mothers. They are the kind of mothers so many women have had, the kind that hold you down in the name of doing you good. The dominant myth of motherhood is that mothers are shining angels of goodness and of love. And some mothers are surely that good, and some are better. But what about the other mothers? It is brave to speak of them at all.

what we have learned since then

Sunday, June 7th, 2015

In the final pages of Barbara Ehrenreich’s ‘Living with a Wild God‘, she says: “Human solidarity [...] is the only reason for writing for a book.” It’s one of those moments of joyful recognition that Ehrenreich is so generous at providing. You imagine a woman laden down with grenades of wisdom – she just chucks them out whenever she feels like it, not knowing or caring much about the impact, the blown minds she leaves in her wake. And you want to thank her, or punch the air, perhaps, for making the truth simple and believable. Ehrenreich has written this book out of solidarity with her species, and it is a book that fills the reader with gratitude: thank god for you.

Or maybe not god. God, or not god, is not exactly the question. In this reflection on science and religion, the existence of a monotheistic god is never at stake. Ehrenreich’s atheism is something she takes for granted, something handed down to her by generations of blue-collar workers and particularly by her (alcoholic, neglectful) parents, who teach the young Ehrenreich that if something can’t be expressed in words, then it can’t exist at all. Following her father into a scientific education, she attempts to fit the whole universe into this belief. When something strange happens in her seventeenth year, something that doesn’t fit, she represses it, tries to forget it, denies it. She hands over responsibility for the situation to a future version of herself. In the absence of better answers, she ascribes her experience to madness.

Yet the one thing that seems most unlikely in Ehrenreich is madness. Even as an adolescent (“a particularly clinical case”) her journal writing is assured, confident, and full of her irrepressible intelligence. She treats her younger self with great compassion for the most part, only losing patience when the troubled teenage girl shows a lack of ability to think clearly about her experience. Think about it! Make sense of it! She exhorts her former self. But this lack of thinking and questioning is a brief blip in the mind of a woman whose greatest gift to the world is her ability to think it through.

Because Barbara Ehrenreich is one of our greatest thinkers. She’s clear-sighted, rigorous, original, and she never allows herself to get away with an easy answer, or to use language to obfuscate or misdirect the reader. She is scrupulously honest, even when the subject does not yield readily to explanation. Her job is to report what there is to report, to enlarge our knowledge of the world and each other. Her foundation is a brilliant, if formidable, intellect – and if she doesn’t suffer fools gladly, at least she never assumes that you are the fool.

In this book, she thinks clearly, lucidly, and persuasively about the question that’s been bugging her since she was a kid: What the hell’s going on here? What exactly is this world? By the end of the book, she has, in her meticulous, clear-sighted manner, answered that question, or at least got as close to an answer as she can. Along the way, she provides a slyly witty account of her adolescence, which hints at the origins of her later successes and failures. Her account of her relationship with her father is sad and subtle; her tales of being exposed to potential fatalities are wildly entertaining: perhaps some combination of these influences make the adult Ehrenreich simultaneously a superlatively rational thinker and the kind of woman who spends hours alone in a kayak, taunting sharks.

There’s a sense of correspondence, too, between Ehrenreich’s teenage and adult selves. As a teenager, Ehrenreich demands of her future self that she reads her journal with compassion, that she doesn’t forget. She needn’t have worried: Ehrenreich more than does justice to her and to her story. She has written exactly the book that the young Barbara desperately needed to read. And for those of us who also spent our youth in passionate pursuit of the meaning of life, Ehrenreich’s perspective is invaluable. Here is a woman who has lived the life of the mind, who has travelled from solipsism to solidarity, and who sincerely attempts to answer the question posed in her journal by her sixteen-year-old self: “What have you learned since you wrote this?”

You might not find the meaning of life in this book, but you’ll certainly learn something, and that’s a very good place to start.

the visionaries

Saturday, April 25th, 2015

We watched it on TV, but some people went down to the lake and took pictures and video on their cellphones. The President’s security was pretty relaxed, they said, all things considered. But we watched it on TV. The President in his waders, and the still surface of the lake. And everyone saw it, everyone except me saw it, when he plunged his hands into the water and brought up the Baby Jesus.

The Baby Jesus did not cry or choke. The President held Him right up to the sky, shiny like a silver dollar and naked except His diaper, and then it was a bright mess of cameras flashing and phones going off and people crying. On the TV they played the Star Spangled Banner and Beyoncé was singing, but I just couldn’t see what they all saw.

“Look,” Mom said, touching the TV screen. “See here, son, that’s Jesus.” But all I saw was a smudge on the screen and the President holding up his empty hands, dripping with lake water, and his face so solemn and holy.

“And to think he used to be a Moslem,” said Mom, and she sighed.

I asked Mom could she describe the diaper on the Baby Jesus, because out of everything, that was troubling me the most. Like, how come the Baby Jesus could be in a diaper under the water? But Mom hushed me, and she said, “You know fine well what a diaper looks like.”

Next day was a school day and all anyone could talk about was the little Baby Jesus that our President had fished out of the lake. Imagine what else is in there, I said to Mike Powell. We’d been swimming in that lake since we were three years old or maybe even younger. Imagine if there are other babies in there, I said. But Mike Powell punched me on the arm and said, “That’s blaspheming.

Then I ran into Ginny Evers in the hallway and grabbed her and said, “You seen the Baby Jesus in the lake?” And Ginny said, “Well, did you see the Baby Jesus in the lake?” So that way I knew Ginny hadn’t seen nothing either and I started to say something else but then she leaned in to me and whispered, “Pretend you saw it, doofus.” She pinched me on the arm so it hurt and nodded her head. “Doofus,” she said.

All the lessons that day were about the Baby Jesus in Lake Chorizon. Mrs Royce played the TV footage over and over, and I still couldn’t see nothing but a dribble of water in the President’s hands. The others though were all gasping and cheering and Mike Powell stood up and started singing the school anthem, Lord Jesus we are humble students, so we all had to get up and sing it and Mrs Royce wiped a tear from her face.

At lunchbreak, me and Ginny took our sack lunches to the bottom of the playing field like always.

“You think it’s cause I’m bad I can’t see the Baby Jesus?” I wanted to know.

Ginny rolled her eyes. “Geez, you’re such a dumbass. You really think they all see it?”

“Sure,” I said. “They all can see it, my Mom and Dad too.”

“Bet they can’t,” said Ginny.

In history we did the American Presidents and how it was that only our current President could raise the Baby Jesus from out the lake, even though his history of being a Moslem and a black man should have went against him. Mr Victor, the history teacher, left us be to write in our notebooks about this moment in history, and that was when Ginny got up on her desk and said, “Wasn’t the Baby Jesus just the darlingest baby you ever saw?” And Mildred Cuth, with her buck teeth, said, “The darlingest!” And Ginny said, “And all that curly black hair, like a little African!” And Mildred Cuth said, “What you talking about, curly black hair? That baby has the cutest blonde fuzz.” But Mike Powell spoke up, saying maybe it was dark blonde and the water could have made it darker, or something, and then everyone was talking at once and debating, and no one could agree what color the Baby Jesus’s hair was.

Ginny got down from the desk. She winked at me and smiled her clever smile, and Mike Powell must have seen that, because he said, “Why you stirring up trouble, Ginny?”

And the others stopped talking and all looked at Ginny.

“She didn’t even see the Baby Jesus,” said Mildred Cuth.

“Course I did,” Ginny said.

“Your folks is atheists, I heard,” said Mike Powell.

“What’s that got to do with it,” said Ginny.

“Only believers can see the Baby Jesus,” said Mildred Cuth. “And patriots.”

Mike Powell said, “We ought to write the President about you. It’s unpatriotic.”

“You’re ridiculous,” said Ginny.

“Leave her alone,” I said, weakly, but then Mrs Royce came into the class to see what all the commotion was about and Mike Powell yelled that Ginny was anti-American and an atheist and didn’t believe in the Baby Jesus. Mrs Royce told everyone to calm down and be quiet and respect this moment in the history of our country with quiet contemplation. Then she locked her eyes on Ginny and said, “Come with me, Miss Evers,” and Ginny got up and followed her out of the room while the rest of us steepled our hands together to look like quiet contemplation. Mildred Cuth whispered, “Serve her right,” but Mike Powell hushed her. “Contemplate,” he told her.

Ginny didn’t come back to class so when the bell rung I picked up her backpack along with my own and went to Mrs Royce’s office. The door was open and no one was there. So I went out front and waited on the steps until the school had emptied out and then I rode my bike round back of the woods two miles to get to Ginny’s house and wheeled down her steep front drive and rang her doorbell.

“Hey,” said Ginny’s mom, wiping her hands down on her apron.

I dropped my bike on the path and held up Ginny’s bag and said, “Ginny left her bag.”

Ginny’s mom said, “Thanks, hun. You wanna come in and get a snack?” I followed her to the kitchen where she poured me out a glass of milk and stirred in a sachet of red powder which made the milk turn pink and frothy like a shake, and she put some cookies on a plate.

I said, “Is it true you’re an atheist, Mrs Evers?”

She smiled and said, “You talking about the Baby Jesus in the Lake? No one can talk about anything else today.”

“I can’t see the Baby Jesus,” I admitted. “I can see the President just fine, but I can’t see no baby. Do you think that means I’m an atheist?”

“Not necessarily,” said Ginny’s mom. “Maybe you just saw what there is to see.”

I didn’t understand what she meant, but I nodded like I did and went back to sucking on my milkshake.

“Where’s that girl of mine?” Ginny’s mom picked up her cell from the kitchen counter and dialled a number, I guess Ginny’s number, and she listened a while and then she said, “Ginny, it’s Mom, it’s getting late, can you call me back honey?” She smiled at me and said, “I’m gonna call that school.”

She went out of the kitchen and I ate my cookies and drank my milk, and when I got to the bottom of the glass, there was a dark pink sludge and I stirred it round and round. I thought about Ginny’s face when she got up and followed Mrs Royce out of history class. Defiant was the word for it. I heard Ginny’s mom say to her one time, don’t you defy me, young lady. But that was Ginny all over.

When Ginny’s mom came back in the kitchen, she didn’t look so good.

“Mrs Royce said she left at the normal time. She should have been home by now. I think I ought… you think I should call the police?”

I nodded yes, because she was a grown up and if she was asking a little kid for advice she must be real worried, and I figured a cop might be more use to her than me. She went out of the room again, but this time I could hear what she was saying, bits of it anyway – she was crying and saying, you have to do something, she’s a little girl. When she came back in the room she looked bad, shaking and red eyes, and I got down from the counter and went over and held her hand. We didn’t say nothing, and then a while later the doorbell rang. “Oh thank God,” said Ginny’s mom. She rushed down the hallway to the door, and I followed behind, wanting to see if it was a cop. But it was Mike Powell’s daddy. He was shuffling from side to side, and he shoved something at Ginny’s mom, a slip of paper.

“Oh Michael,” said Ginny’s mom, “you know I got no problem with your beliefs, I respect your faith.” She looked down at the paper. “I just don’t know about this.”

I eased the paper from out her fist. It was a picture of our President, standing in the lake, and holding up his hands. I guessed his hands were holding the Baby Jesus, but I still couldn’t see it. And there were words on the paper, saying “In Jesus we are free.”

Mike Powell’s dad said, “You do know, Sara, we all know, cause we all saw it. Now we got proof, the Baby Jesus came up from the lake, from our lake, he even had that fucking golden halo to prove it was Him, pardon my language, and now I’m here to ask you to accept the Baby Jesus as your personal savior. I don’t want to see you suffer no more.”

“Michael,” she said, “It’s not the right time for this discussion. I’m sorry, but my baby girl is missing, I’m waiting for the police to come.”

“The police ain’t gonna come to an atheist house, Sara. This is America.”

Then Ginny’s mom made a sound like the sound you make when you get winded from a punch, and my eyes flicked up to the road and I saw they were all there, Mildred Cuth’s parents, and Mrs Royce and even my Mom was there, but she didn’t see me. And Mr Powell was wrong, the police were there, but they were in the crowd, not coming down the drive. All of them were hanging back at the road, maybe twenty or thirty folks, and they weren’t doing nothing, but you got this funny feeling off them. And Mr Powell said, “Sara? Do you accept the Baby Jesus into your heart?” And Ginny’s mom said, “Yes I do, I truly do,” and Mr Powell smiled and said, “Well, hallelujah.” He walked up the drive to the top, where they all were standing, and there was some shouting and calling out, but Mr Powell was gathering them up, urging them away, and they all went, slowly at first, like they really wanted to stay and do something. I don’t know what.

When they’d gone, we went back into the kitchen, me and Ginny’s mom, and she said, “You want something else to eat, hun?” but she was crying and I said no thanks. She sat next to me at the kitchen counter and we were silent for a time and then we just prayed. And then it was getting dark and I said I better go home if that’s all right, and she said I could wait for Ginny’s daddy and he would give me a ride but I said it was no trouble on my bike. We didn’t say nothing else but I could see she was thinking a lot of deep thoughts and when I left she gave me a hug and said I was to take good care.

I cycled home fast as I could go. After everything, the streets seemed kind of dark and I didn’t want to be out there on my own. It was always Ginny who was the brave one, not me, and I was wishing so hard that she was with me, or at least that her daddy would find her safe. When I got onto my street, I could see the house was real dark and quiet, no one home. I let myself in and locked myself in the upstairs bathroom, and through the window I could hear sounds coming from the neighborhood: the whoops and calls of our parents, praising Jesus.