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Moira Forsyth finds her own wonderland in The Treacle Well

Saturday 23 May 2015

The Herald, Jackie McGlone

A golden afternoon and we are drinking tea, although it's certainly not a tea party, let alone a mad one.

My companion, Moira Forsyth, is telling me a story and, of course, it is about the Mad Hatter's party - and the novelist, who knows Alice's Adventures In Wonderland by heart, is being a very unlikely Dormouse.

"'Once upon a time there were three little girls... and their names were Elsie, Lacie and Tillie, and they lived at the bottom of a well,'" Forsyth quotes.

"'What did they live on?' said Alice... 'They lived on treacle,' said the Dormouse. 'It was a treacle-well.'" Then both Forsyth and I fall about laughing at Lewis Carroll's lunatic logic and wordplay on Alice's confusion about a well that draws treacle and not water. "'But they were in the well,' said Alice. 'Of course they were,' said the Dormouse, 'well in.'"

"When I was seven, which is when I first read Alice - the perfect age - I thought that it was hilarious and I still do; it's so clever," says the youthful-looking 64-year-old, Highlands-based writer and publishing executive, whose fourth novel is titled The Treacle Well, a nod to Carroll's playful, puzzling work, published 150 years ago last month. A shelf of books is being published to mark this very important date, honouring the world's most quoted book - after the Bible and Shakespeare. So, Forsyth's timing beats the White Rabbit's.

Although The Treacle Well is not a tribute to Alice, it draws from that deep, dark unsettling well of knowledge that we live in a world where often nothing makes sense, particularly tragedy. It is - as with her previous trio of novels - an evocative family story, spanning the decades from 1958 to 2012. It tells of hidden truths and lies and the tricky business of loving but cloying familial relationships.

In a beautiful quote for the book's jacket, Candia McWilliam writes: "The Treacle Well identifies the deep stickiness of families and the powerful tug of their secrets. The reader grows more helpless and more vigilant, while also becoming involved with and fond of the characters Moira Forsyth has breathed into life."

A gifted storyteller, Kilmarnock-born Forsyth's novel, set in Aberdeen, centres on two sisters, Esther and Louise, their "nearly sister" Margaret, and older cousins, twins Caroline and Daniel - Margaret is their step-sister but is brought up by the girls' parents. We meet them one hot, sunny afternoon. The little girls are lying in the shade of a big apple tree in their grandparents' garden; Caroline is reading Alice In Wonderland to them - again. It's a scene that will be preserved in the amber of Esther's memory. The book begins with her, widowed and sleepless, spooling backwards through her life, "Back and back, faster the further she went, through her own unfurling life."

She drifts towards sleep and, in her half dreaming state, encounters shadows, "since she would not call them ghosts". Esther tumbles down into the burrow of memory, remembering - as Carroll's line has it - "her own child-life and the happy summer days".

It's a quiet, heartbreakingly good read, a pleasing 400-pages long. The writing is elegant and spare, with never a word wasted or a redundant cliche employed or an iota of sentimentality allowed. For Forsyth, wonderland is not a place but a state of mind. As for that treacle well, years later, on the eve of her wedding, Esther tells herself: "By tomorrow night she would be clear of the treacle well. When you are in it, there seems no way out, no imaginable time when you will be free to make your own decisions and know what is coming next. When you are out of it, it becomes a dream, short and transitory." If only.

The lives of women and the warp and weft of family life are at the beating heart of Forsyth's work: Waiting For Lindsay, David's Sisters and Tell Me Where You Are. All of them, including The Treacle Well, share something else, something more mystifying. "People who have gone missing," says Forsyth when we meet in Edinburgh.

There's a lost child in Waiting For Lindsay; in David's Sisters, the eponymous David keeps appearing and disappearing; in Tell Me Where You Are, carefree, careless Susan betrays her sister, abandoning husband and child; and in The Treacle Well, someone leaves, someone whose absence will remain a powerful presence throughout the novel.

Perhaps there is something deep and meaningful in her own psyche that might explain this recurring theme, acknowledges Forsyth, with a laugh, but she has given up analysing it. Indeed, she is more than 40,000 words into her fifth novel and someone disappears in that too. "I used to think that this missing fictional person was my missing brother, the one my parents didn't have before my younger sister, Dorothy, and I were born. We longed for an older brother," she says.

Walking a mile-and-a-half every day to school - Forsyth's family moved to Aberdeen when she was two - they would talk about pretend brothers, inventing lives and adventures for them. Forsyth also had a make-believe twin, David, so while The Treacle Well is not remotely autobiographical, she and Dorothy, and their cousin Linda, were close during their childhood. "I've always had in mind a story about three girls who grow up and change and have very different lives, in which good and bad things happen - as they have done to us - and still have that bond."

It's been a long apprenticeship, confesses Forsyth, whose father Bill was an accountant, her mother Audrey a legal secretary before marriage. Also a published poet and short story writer, Forsyth produced her first novel, Escapades Of Amelia, at the age of 12. It apparently owed a considerable debt to Enid Blyton. She went on to gain a degree in English Language and Literature at Aberdeen University, where James Naughtie was a contemporary.

Married at 20, Forsyth and her husband, "a really good man, who always encouraged me to write," moved to Hertfordshire, in 1974, where they stayed for ten years, before moving to Morpeth, in Northumberland, when their daughter Esme was two and son Malcolm three-months-old (both now live and work in London). In 1994, the family moved back to the Highlands. "Life looked so perfect," says Forsyth. "We were home in Scotland." But it wasn't quite as perfect as she imagined and the marriage broke up, "which was horrible, grim".

Always, though, she carried on writing, despite working in education in jobs which have ranged from teaching young offenders to running business and government-led initiatives, in the Highlands, assisting youngsters to move on successfully from school. "I so enjoyed that job; it was very, very good for me."

Now living alone, near Inverness, with her beloved cats in a house, with "a large, untidy garden" and a hill close by that she runs up daily, she is editorial director of Sandstone Press, the small, independent, Dingwall-based publishing house that constantly punches above its weight. The award-winning publisher was launched in 2002 by Forsyth's life partner, Robert Davidson, and Forsyth is one its founders.

"We met because we were both writers and it's been a lovely, long relationship," she says, adding: "Sandstone was Bob's vision and it's been a great success, thanks to him and the terrific team around us." Her first two novels, originally published by Sceptre, are now available from Sandstone as e-books.

As an editor, Forsyth has worked on more than 30 books published by the company, including the biography of Edwin Morgan, Beyond The Last Dragon, by James McGonigal, which won a Saltire Award in 2011, and Eve Harris's Booker longlisted novel, The Marrying Of Chani Kaufmann. When she is not editing - "it's very hard to keep space for your own writing when you are editing [another writer's work]," she tells me in an email - she runs novel-writing masterclasses and sessions on how to prepare and submit work for publication.

So how does she do it? "I don't actually write much when I am editing someone else's book, but I do believe that editing has been good for my own writing - it's made me much harder on myself."

She left full-time work in 2012. "I was exhausted!" she exclaims. "I was working all day, then reading and editing at night for Sandstone. I had several years of writing absolutely nothing. I felt as if a bit of me was getting pushed aside, although I had had about five years of not writing after my son was born. All my creativity went into the children. But it came back. I think you need fallow spells as a writer." Not too many, we trust, since she's such a engaging writer.

We finish our tea and Forsyth dashes off - not down a rabbit hole, but to catch her train home, with a broad Cheshire-cat grin. Perhaps it's also a mark of relief that no attempt has been made to stuff her into a teapot.

Moira Forsyth

Moira Forsyth