Declan O’Driscoll

Based on a True Story


Kick the Latch, Kathryn Scanlan, Daunt Books, 2023, pp.96, £9.99 (paperback) 

A Writer’s Diary, Toby Litt, Galley Beggar Press, 2023, pp.400, £10.99 (paperback) 

The pliability of what is termed fiction allows almost any form of writing to be included within the definition of what was once thought to be a largely imaginative form. In an afterword to Kick the Latch, Kathryn Scanlan writes: 

Kick the Latch is based on interviews recorded in person and by phone in 2018, 2020, and 2021. With Sonia’s permission, I transcribed those recordings and used them to write this book, which is a work of fiction. 

Sonia is the woman whose voice and life we experience through the book. If the details of this horse trainer and jockey are convincing and the authenticity of the wording used is striking, does it matter whose words they are? 

Toby Litt’s A Writer’s Diary is categorised as fiction on the back of the book but on his website, the diary of which the book comprises is listed under non-fiction. So, we are reduced to using the term auto-fiction or to proposing that all recollections become fiction when processed through faulty memories and the limitations of language. A strap-line declaring, ‘Based on a true story’ is as unconvincing as the memoir writer who claims to remember verbatim exchanges from fifty years before. But if a book is presented to us as a work of fiction, we must treat it as such. Scanlan, when considering these questions of representation, has said: 

The existence of a clear ‘boundary’ between narrative nonfiction and narrative fiction seems unlikely – is it a single departure from fact, a single act of invention? – but I’m aware of a tension between the two when I write, and it’s a productive tension. To me, the idea of genre is useful as something to question, push against, make mischief with. 

Questions of classification aside, the more important question is whether the books are worth reading and, in both cases, these very different books offer much to engage the searching reader. In Kick the Latch, we are offered glimpses of a life through a first-person narration that moves quickly from short chapter to very short chapter, feeding us enough detail for the very personal perspective to cohere into a compelling life story. When we first meet the girl we will eventually know as Sonia, her determination is immediately obvious. Told she would never walk because of the dislocated hip with which she is born, she defies the prediction and eventually walks. Such resilience is needed throughout Sonia’s life as she develops a strong affinity with horses, an overwhelming desire to own one and eventually to devote much of her life to working with the horses who race against each other at the lower-level racetracks. 

At times, the pithy details we are given prompt a wish to know much more. The desperately poor but resourceful character known – in the impoverished neighbourhood in which Sonia grows up – as ‘Bicycle Jenny’ deserves a novel of her own: 

Before her husband died and her house burned down, Bicycle Jenny worked at Crocker’s, the slaughtering plant. What was left of her house was a scorched concrete hole in the ground. That’s where she lived. 

The spare details of the novel mean that we sometimes have little idea of how much time has passed from one chapter to the next or how representative specific occurrences are of Sonia’s life as a whole. It is left to the reader to intuit the circumstances and progress of a great deal of her life. We become like an acquaintance of Sonia’s for whom much can be assumed and for whom there is no necessity to elaborate on background details. This extends to practices – many of them highly dubious – that may be known to those engaged in horse racing but which will be unknown to those of us who have never owned a racehorse: 

Some horses want a wet mash to eat – you put beet pulp and boiling water in their feed and mix it up. You check their stool and make adjustments. This one’s a little loose. This one’s hard like road apples – he needs more bran. A bleeder will get extra alfalfa for the K-C vitamins, which helps clot the blood. Vets and farriers make their rounds. Everything all right here? Need anything? You might want to hang a jug on a horse. The vet’ll give copper, iron, arsenic, strychnine, a B12 cocktail. 

The vet sometimes attends to Sonia too amid working conditions that only someone as devoted to horses as she is could endure. The many miseries and hardships of the life she chose to live include sleeping in the stalls or trailers with the horses, eating terrible food and being subject to the attention of malevolent men. Almost as disquieting as the rape she endures is her shrug-of-the-shoulders reflection: 

I didn’t say anything because if I’d said something, I would’ve been off the track. My folks would’ve come and got me. The guy sobered up, I knew him, I seen him every day, I knew exactly who it was – it was bad, but anyway, I survived. I cut my hair real short after that. 

In other ways, there was little to differentiate Sonia’s treatment from that of the men who worked alongside her at the horse stables. She had to lift the heavy bags of feedstuff and muck out the stalls the same as they did. As a trainer who won a lot of races, however, it little mattered how good she was: ‘I was still a girl trainer. Everything you do you’ve got to do twice as good.’ 

Eventually, the rough, disordered life, in which injuries are a regular, accepted aspect of the job, becomes too much for Sonia. A new job brings with it new forms of brutality but life continues, and she persists. The arrangement of the novel – with its emphasis on brief, telling details – lends a resigned stoicism to Sonia’s character. Society does not recognise the courage of such people. By presenting us with this life and by rendering the details with acute attention to structure, expression and particularity, Scanlan presents us with a valuable, original work, regardless of how it is defined. 

The title of Toby Litt’s year of diary entries, A Writer’s Diary, is more accurate and precise than might appear on casual consideration. This is a series of reflections on what this writer does, the materials he uses, the art that impacts him and the happiness or tribulations of his immediate family. Most of his entries are serious considerations of what it is he is trying to achieve as a writer along with searching self-examination of his own abilities. There are times when this can become a little too ponderous to the extent that the reader feels excluded. However, playfulness and whimsy can make up entire entries on other days. On Sonntag 30 Juli (the diary he uses was bought in Munich by his partner, Leigh) he creates a fine parody of Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting In A Room and on Sonntag 3 September he begins to riff on the word tinnitus: 

Yes, bitingly and bitterly/ it ticks on unremittingly/ within me quite exclusively/ as if to find a use for me/ that may be just traducing me/ or somehow introducing me/ to tingling jingles, chiming rhymes/ a-tisket a-tasket/ it won’t cease if I ask it/ but loves to live repetitive/ so snickety pernickety/ invisible and risible/ tick-ticking like a – like a little flea/ as near as ear, as inner ear/ as inner ear and inner ear/ and all they hear is all they hear/ is tinnitus and tinnitus/ it is… it is… it is in us…/ in us it is, is tinnitus. 

On several occasions like this, comprehension decreases as the words descend the page. It’s as if a painter placed several, differently coloured accumulations of paint on a canvas and let them streak down the surface, melding and crossing over so that the end result looks nothing like the source. 

If the diary is to be considered as a novel, the main narrative impetus derives from the tension around the anticipated death of his very sick mother and the increasingly imminent birth of a son. Both are the cause of anxious, candid thoughts. This is especially the case when he admits to being angry because his mother asks Leigh’s permission to place a hand on her ‘bump’: 

And I felt so guilty because for a very short moment I found myself wanting to say, ‘Get off.’ Her hand looked pink, dry, boney, and most of all manky from the needles that have gone into the back of it. Her hand looked like a blood orange the day after you’ve grated off its zest. (She was wearing long sleeves, deliberately I’m sure, so we couldn’t see the state of her arms.) Mum’s hand didn’t look the kind of thing I wanted touching the baby. I also thought it might be unlucky, this contact. So obvious: ‘You’re death, it’s life – leave it a while before you interfere.’ And also: ‘Don’t give the baby cancer – don’t transfer your lurgy.’ 

Wondering whether his son will be born before his mother dies intensifies thoughts he has had since his teen years about his own death. These in turn lead to disturbing considerations about what would happen if his son died before being born or soon thereafter. 

The intensely personal nature of birth and death lends those diary entries an emotional heft that considerations of writing can never match. Many of these entries begin with a tone of self-reproach: ‘What am I doing?’. ‘Is it worth writing?’. ‘What’s there when nothing is there? It’s a good question generally, but I mean in the writing, when it seems I’ve said everything I have to say.’ 

‘All my writing is totally shit,’ he declares on Montag 8 Mai, bringing B.S. Johnson to mind, shouting ‘OH, FUCK ALL THIS LYING!’, in Albert Angelo. In part, this frustration with the limits of his abilities derives, like Johnson, from the ambition he has for his work (‘I want to write the best book that has ever been written about writing’) along with a tendency to measure himself against the greatest of artists. Several entries develop into elegant, knowledgeable appreciations of the poetry of John Keats. The same sense of searching for eternal truths is present in his thoughts about Bach’s Cello Suites. ‘No other work of art gives such a sense of being alone with, inside-with, another fully present human.’ 

To aim for such profundity in one’s own work is admirable but unreasonable. It is given to few to be as profound and accomplished as Keats or Bach. On Sonntag 21 Mai, Litt asks himself a series of questions, all of them answered with ‘You don’t’: 

How do you know if you’re any good? You don’t. You don’t, and you never will – not now, not ever. How do you know if this version of this sentence is better than that version of this sentence? You don’t, but you feel you might know if it was worse. How do you know you’ll ever reach a decent level? You don’t. 

At the end of the entry, he asks: ‘So, do you stop all this nonsense right now? Do you quit?’ But there is no answer. To accept that one will never be as great as Bach is to allow oneself to breathe, to sit in a room and listen to his Cello Suites without shame. 

The truth of Litt as a writer is that he has considerable ability, inventiveness and daring. Word by word, his creations are often gloriously springy surprises (Gerald Manley Hopkins is another of his favourite writers). He can illuminate the most mundane of subjects. Indeed, the diary is frequently at its most interesting when the author examines the workaday tools of his calling. He writes lovingly about the fountain pens, paper and pencils he uses. But who could reasonably object to more? The search for the perfect – if expensive – pencil sharpener becomes an adventure in itself. 


Declan O’Driscoll reviews translated fiction regularly for The Irish Times. He has also written reviews for the Dublin Review of Books, the LA Review of Books and the TLS.

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