Caroline Hardaker is joining us today to talk about her novel, Composite Creatures. Here’s the publisher’s description:
How close would you hold those you love, when the end comes?
In a society where self-preservation is as much an art as a science, Norah and Arthur are learning how to co-exist in their new little world. Though they hardly know each other, everything seems to be going perfectly – from the home they’re building together to the ring on Norah’s finger.
But survival in this world is a tricky thing, the air is thicker every day and illness creeps fast through the body. And the earth is becoming increasingly hostile to live in. Fortunately, Easton Grove is here for that in the form of a perfect little bundle to take home and harvest. You can live for as long as you keep it – or her – close.
What’s Caroline’s favorite bit?
She pulled me to her side and pressed the binoculars to my face. “Keep looking, Norah. Up there in the dark. The birds – they might come back. They might.”
When we look up at the sky, we’re looking for hope, for help. Whether it’s to a wide blue expanse or the all-consuming black of night, it’s a thing we can wonder at. Where meteors soar and seagulls flock. But what if, one day, we looked up and the sky was impossibly still. No longer living. A strange and alien shade of lilac, hazy with the fog of industrialisation. A dead space – no birds, no stars, no moon.
How would that feel?
This is the reality of the world Composite Creatures is based in. It’s a world very much like our own, but suffering with the excesses of everyday chemicals and plastics. Water, air, and earth are all tainted. In this version of England, walk on the grass long enough and you’ll lose the tread of your shoes. Wildlife is almost non-existent, and what were common birds and garden creatures are now relics, stuffed and preserved, in museums.
And yet, some characters still look up, still have hope that things will get better. To find out whether their hope is misguided – you’d have to read the book. But Norah’s mum is determined to gift young Norah a sense of wonder, and to connect her to how the world used to be in her own youth – when birds swam the sky, you could make shapes from fluffy clouds, and the moon shone in the night sky as white as a pearl. Norah doesn’t see the point, she looks up through her mum’s old binoculars but she’s not even sure what she’s looking for, but appreciates that even just the act of doing it makes her mum happy. Her mum is a link to the natural world, and is decaying at the same rate the earth is.
Throughout the novel, we keep coming back to the sky. Norah’s friends gift her a vintage book of birds for her birthday – a nod to Norah’s relationship with her mum. And one night, after a few drinks, Norah steps out into the street and spins her arms in a wide circle, revelling in the expanse of space. It’s freeing and a moment where she can shake off the heavy burden of home and imagine herself doing anything. It’s a brief moment of utter joy, before rejoining her fiancé in their little terraced house.
But not everyone looks up. Norah’s fiancé – Art – sees the world in an entirely different way. From their membership to the exclusive Easton Grove to their relationship with the mysterious creature living in their attic, his eyes are very much cast down to the earth. Norah can hardly get him to lift his eyes from his desk, and this disturbs her. It doesn’t sit right, even if she isn’t sure why. The truth is, Art is emotionally integrated into the troubling moral world of the novel in ways that Norah finds difficult. And when she struggles the most, she turns to creativity, to the garden, and to the sky as a place of refuge. So even if she doesn’t realise it, she’s looking for the birds to return, just as her mum told her to.
We all need hope. And in a world that’s slowly rotting, the sky is our last great escape. Look up there now, out of your nearest window, and see what you find. Take a moment and imagine.
Now, isn’t that beautiful?
Caroline Hardaker is a poet and novelist from the northeast of England. She has published two collections of poetry, and her work has appeared worldwide in print and on BBC radio. She is Writer in Residence for Newcastle Puppetry Festival and is currently collaborating with the Royal Northern College of Music to produce a cycle of songs to be performed throughout the year. She lives and writes in Newcastle.