Good Reading : November 2009
36 goodreading ı NOVEMBER 2009 Everything about books www.goodreadingmagazine.com ONLINE word of mouth up close If magic has been a symbol in the 40-plus children's books that Anna Fienberg has written in the past 20 years, it has a much more active role in her first novel for adults. Escape had been underway for around eight years, despite an original deadline of 18 months for its completion. At its heart is Rachel, her relationship with her husband Guido, and her obsession with magician and escape- tist Har ry Houdini. 'It has been like giving birth o an elephant,' laughs Anna, who rogressed to adult fiction from her ward-winning children's books like he 'Tashi' and 'Minton' series, and her novels for young adults, such as the lauded Borrowed Light. Slender, olive-skinned and beautiful, Anna Fienberg was bor n in England to Australian parents who were in the UK for her father's studies. Anna's father's family were Russian and Polish Jews. 'There's Irish in the family as well,' says Anna, 'so I'm the quintessential Australian mongrel. While ostensibly Jewish, my family is very secular, but I had a childhood full of the Jewish high holiday celebrations, which I loved.' Anna was editor of the NSW School Magazine when she wrote her first children's book. Billy Bear and the Wild Winter, published in 1988, emerged from a series of stories she wrote for School Magazine. Several other books for young readers followed, then the 'Tashi' series, the first of which was published in 1995, which is just as beloved by children of three and four as those of 12, and the 'Minton' series, which is aimed at children between three and seven years old. While working on the finishing touches of Escape, Anna was also completing the 16th in the 'Tashi' series: Tashi and the Golem, also released in September. Anna works with her mother, retired librarian Barbara Fienberg, on the 'Tashi' series, but has gone it alone for her books for teenagers, and for her first novel for adults. 'I've used magic in my children's books as a symbol of the possibilities in life, but in Escape it is magic on the commercial level,' she says. 'Magic is beautiful lies, but the magician is upfront about it, and the audience knows. There is magic in relationships, but sometimes when people fall in love, there is a great urge to invent yourself, and the other person, to fulfil a particular ideal.' Rachel, the nar rator of Escape, is spellbound -- first by her husband, Guido, who was a magician when she met him and fell in love -- and then by the legend of one of the greatest magicians in history, Har ry Houdini. Anna says the Houdini obsession shows the relationship between magic and real life. 'Har ry becomes an idealised image for Rachel, the way we sometimes project what we want and need on our partners,' she says. 'I started reading about Houdini, drawing on the splendid book about him by Ruth Brandon. It's quite a psychoanalytical portrait, looking at his tricks and methods, and he comes across as a competitive, neurotic, and often vicious man ... [but] Rachel's view of him is very different.' There are plenty of magic tricks in Escape, and Anna tried them all out herself, even buying a book on lock-picks (after supplying evidence of a clean criminal record) as well as authentic Smith & Wesson handcuffs. 'I have a friend who's a magician and actor and he used to bring various magic tricks to show me, including the "exploding wallet" and the "light from nowhere", each of which I used in Escape.' While launching a colleague's book at the Byron Bay Writers' Festival in early August this year, Fienberg said something that almost sets the theme of Escape: 'Having a passion or obsession is a refuge from real life.' Rachel's and Guido's obsessions might make them hard to like, but for Anna, there's a fine line between a character's likeability and his or her potential to interest the reader. 'I want readers to have sympathy for the characters and I wouldn't write a book without conflict,' she says. 'I'm interested in our secret selves. The outside appearance can be an illusion ... Women often blame themselves for a bad relationship. After years of this, and without a strong sense of themself, their cores can be so shredded that they think, "This is all I deserve" ... In real life people can be totally mysterious and opaque, but I [supplied] a reason for Guido's attitudes,' she says. 'You can see why the best sex in the novel is with Houdini ... and that's just in Rachel's head!' Escape by Anna Fienberg is published by Bantam, $32.95. magic touch ANNA FIENBERG plays with the darker side of magic in her first novel for adults, as she tells JENNIFER SOMERVILLE.
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