Book review: Devoured by Anna Mackmin
PUBLISHED: 12:30 02 July 2018
Lyrical, shocking, funny and furious, a new novel based on a Norfolk childhood is winning rave reviews
Anna Mackmin grew up in a tiny Norfolk village in a ramshackle house overflowing with idealism.
It wasn’t ideal.
Her mother was a potter, her father a poet and they opened their home to a succession of writers, artists, dreamers and drifters. Anna rarely went to school but roamed the surrounding countryside with her little sister. “I have made people laugh about my childhood at parties all my adult life,” said Anna.
Now she has written a novel, inspired by that Norfolk childhood, which has been praised as “a dazzling debut” by Stephen Fry and already sold to a film company.
Devoured tells the story of a girl and her sister, growing up with their potter mother and poet father and a house full of writers, artists, dreamers, drifters and predators in a tiny Norfolk village in the 1970s.
It is a novel, not an autobiography, but many features of Anna’s childhood reappear in the book.
“I grew up in a house in Tuttington, near Aylsham, that a lot of people lived in and moved through. When my parents split up my dad lived in even more of these houses in Norwich. I did live in some pretty harum scarum places,” she said.
Occasionally she attended Burgh Primary School but her mother had a pile of signed absence slips by her bed which Anna could simply take.
The mother in Devoured is militant in protecting her daughters from refined sugar and mass-produced clothing, less so in protecting them from psychological and physical harm.
Twelve-year-old narrator Bo, like Anna, often cooks for the entire household, and Devoured is punctuated with recipes, prepared by a child to satisfy herself and the adults who should have been looking after her.
“The novel is about appetite and nourishment, taste and sensuality and sexuality,” said Anna. “Bo has such an appetite for life.”
It is also about an almost-teenager trying to navigate an adult world, believing she is learning to swim when really she is drowning.
Beyond the home-grown veg and house meetings, the spaced-out, tuned-in, dropped-out philosophies, the fictional community is seething with jealousy and threat and the peace and love dream is spiralling into a dangerous nightmare.
Anna is not bitter about her own childhood, but there is still anger. “The people that were doing the neglect thought that they were making conscious choices, they thought they were being principled,” she said.
When Anna’s childhood community fell apart she was left to struggle with eating disorders. “There is no bitterness, but I still have anger at the neglect,” she said.
The style of the book is remarkable, a torrent of dialogue which seizes readers from the opening scene of Bo racing along a Norfolk lane with her bicycle and her beloved dog, and slipstreams them into a fascinating, compelling, funny, appalling, story.
“I wanted it to feel as if the person telling the story was in the past and in the present, almost directing her own life, but powerless to direct it too,” said Anna, an acclaimed theatre director. “The characters are amalgamations of people and some are completely made up.”
She began the novel 15 years ago but wrote just a few pages until she became a mother.“I started writing three or four hours every night. I wrote it to stop myself going completely crazy at a very extreme moment in my life. It was to remember who I was as an adult, and as an entirely therapeutic exercise just to see if I could. And it really was the most pleasurable experience. Once I got going it just poured out of me.”
The novel had been rejected several times before Henry Layte, of Norwich-based Propolis, saw it.
“I have struck absolute gold with Henry,” said Anna.
Now film rights have been sold – to Jane Evans, who spent time living with Anna and her family during her childhood and went on to be a film producer for Miramax and Dreamworks.
Anna went on to drama school. Her adored sister, Scarlett, trained as a dancer. Together they ran a clothing company, Mackmin, which was so successful they were able to sell it to fund the beginnings of the careers they really wanted, Anna as a theatre director, Scarlett as a West End and film choreographer.
Anna is already writing a sequel to Devoured, and has written a play, inspired by the death of her mum 18 months ago. She had dementia, but shortly before she died Anna told her about the book.
She is also close to her father, a Norwich poet and psychologist. “He and I have talked a lot about my childhood,” said Anna.
With the novel drawing so much on her childhood she knew there would be questions about the lines between fact and fiction.
“But in a way my childhood is nobody’s business. I hope this is a book for every woman,” she said.
It is also a book for anyone who has ever been a child, curious, eager and exposed.
Devoured, by Anna Mackmin, is published by Propolis