Flatlands

2023

Fiction

Flatlands is a homage to Paul Gallico’s classic short story The Snow Goose. Freda is a twelve-year-old evacuee from East London, who has been sent away at the start of the war, leaving behind everything familiar to her, to escape the expected German bombing.

In her new temporary home in Lincolnshire, Freda finds herself billeted with a strange, cold and, ultimately, abusive couple, whose lives mirror the barren landscape in which they live a hand to mouth existence, based upon subsistence farming and poaching.

There, deprived of any warmth, she meets a young man – Philip Rhayader -a conscientious objector who has left Oxford and his prospective vocation in the church following a nervous breakdown. Slowly, he introduces her to the wonders of the natural world and its enduring power to heal.

Flatlands is beautifully-written, and highly evocative of the remote Lincolnshire landscape, the Second World War and the two people whose loneliness brings them together for a life-changing time. I have always loved Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose, and the way Flatlands riffs on this, Dunkirk and Peter Scott’s work as an ornithologist is an inspired development. It reminded me a little of Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley in its poignant account of a poor young girl’s experiences as an East End evacuee, and Elizabeth Jane Howard’s After Julius. Altogether a fine period novel, full of quiet drama and sorrow at loss, cruelty and mortality’
Amanda Craig

‘Compelling and beautifully intimate, Sue Hubbard’s Flatlands is a classic piece of storytelling.’
Toby Litt

‘Flatlands is a haunting and lyrical  novel about loneliness and the compensations of the natural world, art and unlikely friendships.
Maggie Brookes

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‘The featureless Fens can be difficult to describe. For all the vastness of the skies, the flat fields often appear monotonous: “Apart from the occasional belt of trees and the spike of a distant church spire etched like a thin pencil line against the low sky, everything was drawn in horizontals.” However, Hubbard does an excellent job of conjuring this austere setting, and the consolations that can be found from withdrawing into nature, where the changing of the seasons and the routines of the wildlife offer their own companionship.

But Flatlands does not romanticise rural life. Frida lives with an abusive couple, who take the government’s evacuee payments, yet make little effort to feed or clothe her properly. Meanwhile, Rhayader struggles with his faith, his art, his sexuality and his sense of purpose. However, such hardships are part of the “special kind of loneliness” that is also fundamental to this empty fenland scenery…. The Essex marshes in Gallico’s novella were a vivid if vague presence, Hubbard’s Lincolnshire Fens are imagined in all their bleakness and beauty. In the process, she reveals the depths of feeling that can be found in even the flatest places.’
Flatlands – novel of the week in The Tablet

‘Taking its inspiration from Paul Galico’s novel The Snow Goose, Sue Hubbard’s Flatlands explores the wartime relationship that develops between Frida, a 12-year-old evacuee from the East End of London and Philip Rhayadar, a troubled conscientious objector, who are both exiled to the East Anglian fenlands. Precise in its historical detail and admirable in its evocation of the large skies and isolation of its setting, this is a moving study of an unlikely friendship and the healing power of natural world.’
The best historical fiction books of 2023, The Sunday Times

Reviews
Historical Novel Society
Star Tribune
The Guardian
The Literate Quilter
Perspective Magazine
Jera’s Jamboree
Boomers Daily

Reviews in French
Le nouveau blog littéraire de Pierre Ahnne

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Sue Hubbard reading from Flatlands, Carnegie Library



Sue Hubbard introduces Flatlands

Sue Hubbard on writing Flatlands

Award-winning poet, novelist and freelance art critic Sue Hubbard introduces Flatlands – a moving tale of friendship and the beauty of nature, set in the wild landscape of the Fens during the Second World War.

In 1933 the ornithologist and wild life artist, Peter Scott, went to live in a deserted lighthouse on the mouth of the River Nene that runs into the Wash. It was in this isolated spot, full of wind and migrating birds, that he created his first bird sanctuary. In 1941, his friend the American journalist and short-story writer, Paul Gallico visited and subsequently published his children’s novella, The Snow Goose, a parable on the regenerative power of friendship, inspired by the lighthouse, which he relocated to Essex.

So how did I come to choose a children’s book, much loved by a post-war generation, as inspiration? Well, I was reading it to my grandchildren and was struck by the potential to create an adult story. I was drawn to the waterlands and wide skies of the Fens and to the characters of a young man and a girl, both outsiders, who create a bond by saving a wounded wild goose.

In Flatlands, I return the story to the remote corner of Lincolnshire where Scott’s lighthouse actually stands, to weave a narrative that examines the lives, emotions, and ethical dilemmas of my characters at the outbreak of the Second World War. In this remote, war-time landscape, with its airfields and bombers taking off for Germany, I take the bare bones of the original story and explore how Freda, a twelve year old East End evacuee, and a young Oxford student, Philip Rhayader, sent down after a crisis brought on by his pacifism and uncertain sexuality, give each other solace before being forced to face the terrible unforeseen consequences of the war that will change them forever.

Told through the eyes of Freda, now in her 80s, on the eve of celebrations to remember Dunkirk that are being celebrated in her old peoples’ home, Flatlands is a novel about memory, love and loss but a love expressed through an unlikely friendship that leads to that, now, rather unfashionable word, redemption.

Before starting the book I wanted to walk the sea wall from the lighthouse around the Wash to Kings Lynn, some 15 miles. It is so wild and lonely – with no mobile phone reception – that I took my son with me. During the whole day, we saw many birds but only three people.

During the writing, chance would have it that I met a painter at a party who turned out to be Peter Scott’s daughter, herself an ornithologist. Together we went to the lighthouse and watched from a bird hide, white swans and geese swimming in the dark. In order to understand how to manoeuvre a small boat down the River Nene and into the Wash and then on southbound towards Ramsgate to get to Dunkirk, I rang the Harbour Master at King’s Lynn, who talked me through it, suggesting a number of nautical maps on which I could plot a chart in order to avoid the sandbanks.

Research for a book like Flatlands takes one to all sorts of places. I had to watch videos on how to catch a wild goose and read about the hard life in the Fens just before and during the Second World War. I read books on farming and poaching and had to understand what it meant to be a conscientious objector and to be a young child evacuated out of the city into a remote part of the country with virtually no support or protection. I discovered the Inklings discussion group at Oxford that consisted of J.R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis and found out, without ever going there, what the inside of the British Embassy in Paris looks like… I write organically, so my books grow bit by bit the deeper I dig into the background and times of my characters, fitting it all together like a jigsaw. The more one finds, the richer the book becomes.

Publication details

UK edition
2023
Pushkin Press
256 pages, hardback
ISBN: 9781911590743

French edition (Un Ciel Si Vaste)
2023
Mercure de France
288 pages
ISBN: 9782715260313

Rainsongs

2018

Fiction

UK edition
French edition
UK edition
US edition
Chinese edition

Newly widowed, Martha Cassidy has returned to a remote cottage in a virtually abandoned village on the west coast of Ireland for reasons even she is uncertain of. Looking out her window towards the dramatic rise of the Skellig Islands across the water, Martha recalls the losses in her life: Brendan, her itinerant husband and charming curator, and her ten-year-old son, Bruno, who met an untimely death twenty years earlier. Alone on the windswept headland, surrounded by miles of cold sea, the past closes in.

As the days unfold, she finds herself drawn into a standoff between the entrepreneur Eugene Riorden and local hill farmer Paddy O’Connell. As the tension between them builds to a crisis that leaves Paddy in hospital, Martha develops a relationship with Colm, a talented but much younger musician and poet – roughly the same age that Bruno would have been if he’d lived. Caught between its history and its future, the Celtic Tiger reels with change, and Martha faces choices that will change her life forever.

Rainsongs conjures the rugged beauty of County Kerry’s coastline and the inner landscapes of its characters in richly poetic and painterly language, moving effortlessly between the lives of people and the life of the terrain; between the forces that shape character and those that shape the world. It unfolds as a compelling tale of grief, art, and the fragile, quiet ways in which time and place can offer a measure of redemption.

‘For her keen and gracious insights into the relentless grieving process, for her transcendent evocation of the rough charm and enduring splendor of Ireland’s rural treasures, Hubbard deserves a place in the literary pantheon near Colm Tóibín, Anne Enright, and William Trevor.’
Carol Haggas, American LIbrary Associaion Booklist

‘A compelling story, freighted with heartbreak and loss’
Shena Mackay

‘A beautifully-written and evocative novel about grief and greed, art and life, isolation and emotion’
Amanda Craig

‘A lyrical evocation of Ireland’s fragile, ancient coastline reveals a poet’s sensibility. This multi- layered story of love and loss, of a woman ‘erased by grief’, who finds solace in the heart of a community that is threatened from within, is exceptionally moving. This book will stay with you.’
Eleanor Fitzsimons

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‘Woolfian echoes and quotations pulse through Rainsongs, haunting the reader with the ubiquity of mother love and longing.’
The Guardian

‘Hubbard’s precise descriptions of the physical landscape are tremendous and moving. Her knowledge of Irish history and culture is impressive.’
The Irish Times

Un récit sensible et sombre, troué de lumière et réchauffé par la poésie minimaliste que dégage la langue de Sue Hubbard.
Gaspard Iris, Télé Z

Reviews
Parry Sound Books
Star Tribune
Irish Echo
The Jewish Chronicle
3quarksdaily
The London Magazine
Daily Mail
The Guardian
Irish Independent
Shiny New Books
The Irish Times
The Irish Times
Library Thing
Book Marks – collected reviews for Rainsongs

Reviews in French
Charlotte Parlotte
Les Echos
Librairie Bruneteaux

Translations of French reviews

Un ciel si vaste de Sue Hubbard on Checkabook:

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Sue Hubbard talks about the inspiration behind her novel Rainsongs:

Day Bowman on Rainsongs:

Sue Hubbard interviewed about Rainsongs:

Sue Hubbard interviewed about Rainsongs:

Sue Hubbard discusses Rainsongs:
RTE Radio 1, Ireland

Sue Hubbard Rainsongs interview: Wombwell Rainbow

Publication details

UK edition
2018
Duckworth
242 pages
ISBN: 9780715652855

US edition
2018
Overlook Press
240 pages
ISBN: 9781468316636

French edition (Le Chant de la Pluie)
2018
Mercure de France
288 pages
ISBN: 9782715250765

Chinese edition
2020
Yilin Press

Girl in White

2012

Fiction

Paula Modersohn-Becker was a pioneer of modern art in Europe, but denounced as degenerate by the Nazis after her death. Sue Hubbard draws on the artist’s diaries and paintings to bring to life her singular existence, her battle to achieve independence and recognition and her intense relationship with the poet Rainer Maria Rilke.

Not only do we discover Paula’s vibrant personality and rich legacy of Expressionist paintings, but also come to understand something of the corrupted ideologies of the Third Reich. Written with the eye of a painter and the soul of a poet this moving story is a meditation on love, loss, memory and, ultimately, hope.

‘Imagine a chest of drawers – unopened for a hundred years. Inside small garments carefully folded. A woman today opens the drawers, unfolds what she finds and, as she does so, the garments become stories. The chest of drawers belonged to the painter, Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907). … (and contain) the secrets of some exceptional, very lonely paintings, which had a considerable influence on “modern” German art. …those intimate folds become interstices of History, beyond any notion of what is modern or not. I recommend this haunting book.’
John Berger

‘Beautifully written and wholly knowledgeable – Girl in White is a triumph of literary and artistic understanding, a tour du force: masterly, moving. ‘Hubbard goes where few dare go, and succeeds. You are the less for not reading it.’
Fay Weldon

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Review in Parry Sound Books

‘”In art,” the Expressionist painter Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) declared, “one is usually totally alone with oneself.” For a female artist in the early 20th century, such aloneness was radical in itself. It is Modersohn-Becker’s radical aloneness, as artistic pioneer and independent woman, which particularly fascinates Sue Hubbard in her new novel, a fictionalised account of the artist’s life.

During her most productive period – her last stay in Paris – she is destitute, and repeatedly compelled to appeal for financial aid from others, including her estranged husband. Ultimately, she returns from Paris to her husband in Germany, forced by history into this “compromise”. As one character puts it, “I don’t believe the world is yet ready for a woman artist to make it alone.

Yet it is precisely this “aloneness” that is a prerequisite for art. “Art without pain, without sacrifice, without loneliness,” says Rainer Maria Rilke, one of Modersohn-Becker’s lovers, is “impossible”. It is the impossibility of Modersohn-Becker’s position – torn between the loneliness of art and enforced selflessness of her role as wife – that destroys her. After returning to her husband, she falls pregnant, and dies shortly after childbirth. The power of Hubbard’s novel for contemporary readers is in its distillation of dilemmas which, of course, are still pressing for women today. As Rilke wrote of Modersohn-Becker in his great poem “Requiem”, it is her spirit which, of all his dead friends, most seems to haunt the future.’
Jonathan Taylor The Independent

‘The poet and art critic, Sue Hubbard, has written a richly layered book about Paula Modersohn-Becker, … In Hubbard’s moving imagining of Paula’s story, she creates a believable, parallel tale about Paula’s daughter Mathilde, a violinist.’
Sipora Levy Jewish Chronicle 27th February 2013

Browen Griffiths reviews Girl in White

‘Any artist reading this book will feel a great amount of empathy with Paula. I particularly recommend this to those with an interest in the art world as it captures perfectly the romance and excitement of the industry while sympathetically capturing the dark emotions, poverty and confusion that often follow alongside. With particular nostalgia it delves into the Expressionist’s community of isolated and beautiful Worspswede; thus emphasising the alienation of many of the Expressionist poets and artists and the strong bonds they formed between one another. The use of characters such as Rilke and Rodin shows how the novel is a great exploration of this great cultural movement.

Hubbard’s use of the entirely fictional character of Mathilde creates a deeply emotional resonance within Paula’s story as it is slowly revealed in alternating chapters. As the reader delves into Paula’s secrets and thoughts so is her daughter – now just as vulnerable and lonely herself. Paula’s unsettled mind and the conflicting society of Worpswede become reflected in the unsettling Germany that now exists and the uncertain future that awaits Mathilde. What is never called into question though is the strength and courage of the Becker women. This is an incredibly nuanced and intense work and one which I strongly recommend.’
Francis Smithson Cardiff Studentmedia 28 November 2012

‘I have just read a beautiful novel about a real person. In The Girl in White, the English poet Sue Hubbard has written an imagined life of the German expressionist artist, Paula Modersohn-Becker; it’s an art form with the unattractively scientific sounding handle ‘biofiction’. I already knew a little bit about Paula’s work, but from a historical perspective: after her premature death in 1907 her work was denounced by the Nazis as degenerate. What I did not know was how she was in fact just beginning to find her confidence as an artist after an intense inner struggle to balance her many roles as daughter, mother, wife – and, above all, painter. In trying to live independently and survive on her earnings in an intensely male dominated world, she was ahead of her time. This was little more than a century ago but in some ways the difficulties she faced appear medieval, in others merely variations on the same struggle many women still face today… (click here to read the full review)’
Anna Seba, 22 October 2012

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Interview with Sue Hubbard about Girl in White
Elatia Harris, 3 Quarks guest blog

Publication details

Republished 2022
Pushkin Press
320 pages
ISBN: 9781782279129

First published in 2012
Cinnamon Press
288 pages
198 × 130 mm
ISBN: 9781907090684

Depth of Field

Fiction

Depth of Field is an acute observation of the nature of identity and memory. Hannah’s close observation of the physical world, both in the country and the East End, imbues it with a deep sense of both history and place. John Berger has described the novel as ‘highly evocative’ giving ‘the rare quality, not of a text, but of a place. It surrounds its readers and waits until they see in the dark to make their own discoveries.

Having grown up in the Home Counties, with her Jewish identity submerged and largely unidentified, Hannah experiences a sense of alienation and otherness. An early marriage to an emotionally repressed academic and their subsequent move to rural Somerset in search of the idyll of family life and self-sufficiency, is shattered by her husband’s infidelity.

Hannah returns to her embryonic career as a photographer, moving from the country to London’s East End – convinced that if she can find her roots, some connection with her grandparents’ Jewish past – that she will make sense of her life. A failed affair leads to a breakdown, and to her ex-husband gaining custody of her two children. Left alone to rebuild her life she begins to realise that we each have to construct our own lives. Identity is not dependent on spurious notions of ‘roots’ or ‘romance’.

‘Highly evocative… the rare quality, not of a text but of a place. It surrounds its readers and waits until they see in the dark and make their own discoveries.’
John Berger

“This is the first novel of a writer with genuine talent. Sue Hubbard’s originality lies in the gritty detail of the imagined past she pursues amongst the realities of a contemporary East End. This gives a remarkable freshness to a theme of a lost Jewish identity underlying Hannah’s moving story’
Elaine Feinstein

‘Depth of Field is a poet’s first novel in the best sense of the word; lyrical highly visual and beautifully observed. At its heart is the profound and moving study of one woman’s struggle for self determination…’
John Burnside

Depth of Field opening section…

Setting the focus

I am in the dark. This small room is like a nun’s cell. Everything in its place. Neat, spare and entirely functional. There is a sink, the developing trays, a shelf of chemicals. Above the workbench the safety lamp glows a womb-like red. I have got used to doing things by feel or touch, by intuition. On the other wall, away from the water is an enlarger and a stack of boxes containing different grades of photographic paper and my books. The walls are bare except for a small spot where the paint peeled when I finally took down the photo of Liam. It left a small patch like pale new skin after a sticking plaster has been removed. In the developing trays black and white shapes are beginning to emerge from the bromide like thin ghosts. They seem to come out of nowhere, fragile as those transparent moths that gathered in our garden porch, clustering round the storm lantern on late summer evenings. They surface silent as memories and like the moths will only last for a while until they too perish; their paper yellowing or torn, lost or crumpled at the back of some dark damp drawer. Born from silver grains, they will eventually begin to age, will suffer attacks of light, of humidity; fade, weaken, and then vanish. Once transcendence was achieved through remembrance; through the images we keep in our head, or a smell, a taste, the chance sound of a voice. Perhaps it isn’t coincidence that this is the century that invented both photography and history. But whereas history is simply a construct, the photograph is a device through which we try, for a brief moment, to hold time still before it moves relentlessly, indifferently on.

Sometimes I work listening to music. To Bach’s late cello concertos or a Brahms intermezzo. But this morning I need quiet. Being here in this silence, among the faint whiff of chemicals reminds me of the labour room, of all that whiteness. Only the dull electronic blip, that thin line pulsating on the green screen monitoring the foetal heart beat, the sound of my own breathing; the icy tiles and starched linen.

Through my lens I have raised them from murky obscurity. Particularised and named them. In a way given them birth. Mary, Winston, the small girls with black braids like oiled rope, in pink nylon dresses, skipping. The abandoned synagogue in Princelet Street.

In order to obtain a positive picture, in which the light and shade corresponds to the original subject, it is necessary to print the negative. Everything contains the potential to be its opposite.

Publication details

2000
Dewi Lewis
192 pages
ISBN: 1899235825

Rothko’s Red

2008

Fiction

Rothko’s Red is a collection of ten stories, subtly linked by painting and art, about the lives of women: their hopes, fears, failures and challenges. They reveal the choices and destinies of a number of characters from very differing backgrounds, embracing the harsh realities of desire, loss and ageing.

Powerful, yet tender, psychologically intricate and emotionally perceptive, these fearless stories examine the complex lives of modern women. Substantial, moving and beautifully written they call upon both Sue Hubbard’s wide ranging knowldge of and feel for art, as well as her skill as a poet.

‘The ten stories in this dazzling collection share a connection – sometimes direct and sometimes oblique – to a painter or painting, ranging from Goya to Rothko, from Bernini to Jackson Pollock. Sue Hubbard is an art critic as well as a fine poet, and her understanding of human motivation is as highly developed as her feeling for language and art. She writes with perception and sensitivity about contemporary English women, and about the men who give them so much pleasure and pain.’Ruth Fainlight

‘Compelling and authentic, Sue Hubbard’s stories have the unmistakable feel of reality. Bleak, yet always tinged with love, the reality comes from the joining of distinct skills: the artist’s eye and talent for composition, and the poet’s touch, with imagery which is never laboured but always the perfect expression of a story’s theme. Not a word or picture is out of place.’Bernard O’Donoghue

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‘Each story in this, Hubbard’s first collection of short fiction is nominally centred around art. But what truly links the pieces herein is the themes of longing, loss and melancholy, and a sense that not even an intimate knowledge of the beautiful and the sublime can protect one from the daily tragedies of life. The collection is quiet, almost to the point of defiance, but in its understated, delicate descriptions of the mundane, Rothko’s Red has an acute power.

While several of Hubbard’s protagonists ultimately find redemption, it is always at a cost to themselves; the academic who gets away with cheating on his wife, but not without being fleeced by his mistress; the widow who realises that she is content alone, but only after a disappointing sexual encounter with a man she meets on the internet; the middle-aged divorcee who has an affair with an immigrant you enough to be her son and who she regards with distant amusement.

With Hubbard’s background in art criticism and poetry, it is not surprising that her writing is painterly and vivid. She lingers on colours and textures, edges and scents: “Mummy grew tomatoes, red gems, that what she called them… I remember that special smell when she watered them in the early evening after a day of sun.”

The collection is quiet, almost to the point of defiance, but in its understated, delicate descriptions of the mundane, Rothko’s Red has an acute power.
The New Statesman

‘She certainly fashions an arresting opening in which Adam and Maggie gaze at a large magenta Rothko that prompts him to utter a paean to her genitals. But Adam is just the first in a long line of disappointing men blundering naively or selfishly through Hubbard’s stories. Inability to commit, unreliability, unfaithfulness – just some of the character faults her protagonists encounter in male partners.

Other recurring motifs are mildewed books and broken frames, silvery stretch marks, women washing under their breasts and their armpits, doing up ruins in Italy. Art links the stories and all the artists invoked are men. Unexpectedly, perhaps, the most powerful results are achieved when Hubbard ventures beyond her middle-class creative types. Janice, the farm worker’s abused wife whose knowledge of art is limited to the lid of a biscuit tin, wins our hearts when she starts stockpiling apple chutney in her son’s toy cupboard as a hopeful means of escape.

Evidence of the poet’s gift for imagery – “the wind snaps at the washing, filling out the drying shirts like the bloated bodies of the drowned” – is in plentiful supply. Of the ten stories, only two are in the first person. The second and last in the book is nakedly personal, and all the more powerful for it.’
Nicholas Royle, The Independent, 9th September 2009

Essay on Rothko’s Red by Isabel Fernandes:
“A short story that wouldn’t work after the opening lines”: Frustrated Maternity in First-Person Narratives

Publication details

2008
saltpublishing
160 pages, trade hardback 
198 × 129 mm (B format)
ISBN: 9781844714445