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I just read this book.
I have to confess – I picked it up in the library getting my Penelopes confused and thinking it was going to be by Penelope Lively, a writer I love, so I was a little confused at first to get home and start reading and realise I was reading a New Zealand book! But I have READ Penelope Todd’s ‘Zillah’ books for young adults and enjoyed them very much indeed, so it was a happy accident.

This book is an account of Penelope Todd’s realisation, as her children were leaving home, that she felt completely empty inside, confused and as though she had been role-playing her life instead of living it genuinely.  In the book, she candidly reveals what it took for her to feel at home in her own skin again. She was most courageous and did things that most people only daydream of doing – she changed her name, she engaged in three years intensive Jungian therapy, she questioned her Christian faith and came out the other end a non-believer, she took a writing retreat, sans family, in a remote part of Spain (hence the title), she even flirted with an extra-marital affair.

I found the book engaging and read it in two binge sessions. There was something very comforting to me about reading this intelligent and pragmatic woman’s story.  There were several excerpts which moved me to copy them out into my journal. Here’s one – she discusses the contradictory impulses of the writer:

“The impulses are contradictory: to remain hidden; to come out as escort to your writing. The  writer’s life is a strange dance between the two. You write in long seclusion, knowing that what comes onto the page is a mix of bone and viscera, tough and tender; the things you’re proud of and thing that have the potential to shame you; then the work is ready and you can choose to herald it with a bold bragadaccio, walk coyly or proudly at it’s side, or be dragged in it’s wake. I alternate between the last two approaches, suspecting always that the flame of joy, unhooded, will invite the snuffer.

When the work isn’t perfect – and it never is – you are braced for every kind of ridicule. Sometimes there seems to be too much riding on it all and you think you’d rather sell confectionary or deliver mail for a living.

However, I recently found out that a family motto from my father’s side was Portet Vive. It behoves us to live. I choose a magnificent over a mundane interpretation. It behoves us to live well: richly, broadly, deeply and intricately – which adverbs for me, describe the route that writing seems to take.”

Amen to that!

There were a couple of things that I didn’t like so much in the book, one was that the author has a fascination with insects and writes about them frequently throughout the book – insects she observes in her surroundings and their metaphorical power for her. I found these bits a little forced, at times. The other thing is towards the end of the book she writes, verrrryyy vaguely and cagily about an extra-marital affair she flirted with but did not consummate. While I understand that she is writing about real people and has the feelings and privacy of those involved to consider – the writing around this stuff was so very cagey, the details so skant I question whether she needed to leave it in the book – in the form she offers it, it doesn’t add much.

These very minor considerations aside, I heartily recommend this book! It is full of wisdom and the story of her time at the Spanish retreat is compelling and at times, amusing. Penelope Todd has given all writers who are also parents a real gift with this book – she shows that it IS possible to have a fufilling creative life and a family. She talks eloquently about the struggle and the juggle. The writing is witty and eloquent and I came away feeling most heartened.

I also recommend her young adult novels – they are gripping, hip and edgy.

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