It’s dark all around us. My grandson, Zander – nearly three – is moulded into my lap, his body stilled by concentration as he watches the extraordinary goings on at the other end of the room. A young woman swings her puppet in the air, pretending to fly him over painted-cardboard-mountains and cotton-wool-clouds amidst birds that suddenly appear on sticks. In the seats in front of us children call out and wave their arms as if they too could fly. The toddler next to us is a groupie in the making, jerking excitedly as her mother holds her up to almost-stand on her lap. But Zander is stolidly silent, staring ahead. I whisper encouragement – ‘Look, he’s going over the mountain!’ A slight tightening of small leg muscles on mine is the only sign I get that he has heard. Now the flying puppet has landed in a bunch of twigs at the top of a pole. With her free hand the young woman brings out a closed umbrella, points it at us rather than up to the sky, and flicks it open to reveal scores of green leaves pasted on it. It’s the best moment in the show so far – the pole has become a tree, with the puppet in his nest at the top. I whisper to my silent Zander – ‘See, it’s a tree!’ He says, loudly – his first words – ‘It’s an umbrella.’
Well, you have to give it to him. It’s an umbrella, with leaves stuck on it. That’s all it is. We expect children to be so gullible. We create for them stories that can’t possibly be true – Father Christmas, Peter Pan, Harry Potter. Most children are at home in fantasy, and through it they practise that capacity to lose yourself in another reality which we call imagination. But Zander is not alone in wanting to be clear about what is fantasy and what is Real, and it is an instinct just as valuable as imagination. It is after all what enabled a child to challenge complicit adult society and say, ‘The emperor has no clothes.’
A week later Zander’s brother and cousin – aged seven and ten – present us with a Magic Show. Once again he is in an audience, on my lap. The magicians wear special hats, the chairs are set out in a row, so he understands what kind of event this is going to be. While we wait for it to begin he moves his hands in the air, flying his imaginary puppet.
Fantasy probably makes as much sense to children as any of the other things that happen around them and which no one thinks to explain, and there will be many moments when they are confronted with stories that cannot be reconciled with their developing understanding of what is real or possible. Each religion has its own – virgin birth, reincarnation, rewards in paradise. The media and celebrity culture of non-religious societies propagate equally unquestioned beliefs, for instance that you’ll be happier if you buy lots of things, or are rich and famous.
Fiction is strikingly more honest: it comes with a label on the tin, ‘This is only a pretend tree.’ This puts the reader in the right frame of mind for science fiction, thrillers, or vampires, but the kind of fiction I write aims to reflect real life, and that’s more confusing. I am regularly asked whether my novels are autobiography. If they were, I would by now have had more lives than the proverbial cat. But the characters – are they based on actual people? Again, No; but perhaps the question itself is a sign that I have succeeded – they are convinced the people must be real. Have I ever been to Tajikistan? That one still surprises me – how could I possibly evoke the atmosphere of the place otherwise? But perhaps that question simply reflects how sceptical we have learned to be in a world where we are overloaded with information. It feels real but we need to know if we can trust our source. So I explain – yes, I have been in all the countries in Central Asia that appear in the novel. Being there had a huge impact on me – discovering what had been going on for people in a part of the world that I and others in the west had heard almost nothing about; so many stories, waiting to be told. And precisely because I was aware of how much I had to learn before I would be competent to tell those stories, I read everything I could, and talked to people who had kinds of experience that I didn’t, and asked people who have lived there all their lives or worked there to read drafts. And what they said was, ‘It feels like my life.’
Beyond the setting, the question of how real a story is usually focuses on the characters, and that’s more complex. A couple of times when I’ve been invited to join a book group that has read Uncertain Light, one member of the group has said that Rahul Khan, (a pivotal character in the story) is ‘too good to be true.’ What’s interesting is that in each case the same person also found him deeply irritating, and inconsiderate of the needs of those close to him – qualities which you might have thought might disqualify him from being thought ‘too good’. And whenever this comment has been made, someone else in that group has challenged it, quite vigorously. Listening in, I realise that there are aspects of what made Rahul the way he was that I, as narrator, have not adequately conveyed, but I can’t avoid feeling that these reactions say as much about each of the readers as they do about Rahul. That people like him exist I have no doubt, for I have known them – I couldn’t have conceived of him or his story otherwise, just as I couldn’t have evoked the atmosphere of the Tajik mountains without having been there.
Stories hold up a magic mirror to our thoughts, reflecting back our own confusions and certainties. There will be reasons in the life of each reader which make certain things in a story real to one when they are not so to another. Like any novel, Uncertain Light is simply a web spun from words – an umbrella with leaves stuck on it. But my hope is that it carries the spirit of real lives lived with difficulty, but honestly; of loves held on to, and transcended.
Thanks to all the book groups that have invited me to join them, the readers who have shared their reactions. For some interesting thoughts on these questions, see readers’ comments on my blog post Scratches in the rock, by Kate Mole and Deborah Dawkin. Photo credits: Little Angel Theatre for the puppet show ‘Let’s Fly’; photo of child reading, Daily Mail, 26 November 2012.