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Bookish Birthdays: Sara Maitland

27th Feb 2014

Sara Maitland
Happy Birthday Sara Maitland! She's an award-winning feminist who has dabbled in Christian theology and written lots of brilliant short stories in between. Here's why you should be wishing her many happy returns...

Recent years have seen Sara Maitland achieve success with autobiographical works based on her quest for silence and solitude in the Scottish mountains. A Book of Silence came out in 2009 and explores the notion and the history of silence and how it stands at odds with our contemporary noisy world.

How to be Alone, published in January of this year as part of the School of Life range, takes the question further and offers experiments and strategies to allow more solitude in our lives.

But it is in her reworkings of tales from folk mythology, bible stories and even science that her originality truly shines. Maitland’s anthologies of quirky short stories tell familiar stories from unfamiliar angles.

They are tales of sexuality, of morality and of men and women and the roles they must play.In, Far North, a collection of deliciously dark tales published in 2008, we meet Saint Cuthbert who wishes he had committed a mortal sin so that his body could rot and he would not have to suffer the perpetual movement that comes with the veneration of his incorruptible corpse.

Hansel and Gretel get lost in the forest but rather than meeting a fearsome witch, they find the cruelty and rage of the witch within themselves. We follow the Sirens as they lure sailors to their deaths to forever exact their revenge against man for the rape of Persephone.

They are tales of sexuality, of morality and of men and women and the roles they must play. Always with a feminist slant, the stories often feature the pain of older women, neglected by their societies and whose lives and identities have been determined by their relation to those around them.

The collections often act as conversations between genres.

In Gossip from the Forest (also featured here) retelling of folk tales stand alongside reports of walks in real life forests. The story of the Seven Dwarves follows a walk in the Forest of Dean and a discussion of the moral codes of the kings and the woodsmen. Rumpelstiltskin pops up after the chapter on The New Forest and the history of royal hunting grounds.

The stories are familiar from our childhoods and from Disney films but Maitland’s retelling puts them in a context which causes the reader to reevaluate them. The characters become archetypes and metaphors which every reader can make relevant to her own life.

Moss Witch is another conversation, this time between the abstract world of science and the reality of people’s lived experience. The feminist movement is understood through a study of plate tectonics and vice versa.

The reader meets Henrietta Leavitt, a gifted astronomer but living in a time where women could only be assistants and so the importance of her discoveries was overlooked by her less able male boss.

The importance of memories and their relationship to narrative and the arts is beautifully explored through a report of a tribunal where Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of memory, is seeking reinstatement from a court of the Greek pantheon with Zeus as final arbiter.

Through applying scientific ideas to people’s lives, Sara Maitland provides a channel through which to understand them. These are true conversations between the narrative of science and the narrative of story-telling, each is understood through the other.

Science is of the world, as are people and their lives. The writer blurs the dividing line between the abstract and the particular, the objective and the subjective and shows how each feeds off the other.

Deeply thought out, psychological and spiritual, Sara Maitland’s stories personalise the impersonal and make particular the general.

How did Hansel and Gretel share their childhood trauma as adults? What did it feel like to be Sarah, wife of Abraham, as he took their son Isaac to be sacrificed? Through reading Maitland’s stories these familiar narratives take on a whole new meaning, and open up a conversation within the reader herself.