I’d heard of Siobhan Dowd long before I met her. And everything I had heard both underpinned and added to what I’d discovered for myself on reading her first novel, A Swift Pure Cry: here was an author whose storytelling showed exceptional assurance and integrity.
It wasn’t so surprising, then, that it was these two characteristics which were most in evidence when we met. Having been long listed for the Guardian Children’s Book Prize, Siobhan had learnt that A Swift Pure Cry had not made the short list. Naturally, she was upset; unfortunately, despite strict instructions to the contrary, she’d heard from one of the judges that she might have done so but for… As chair of judges, that’s not usually the kind of conversation it is comfortable to have. But Siobhan was not trying to discomfort me; she was merely quietly staking out her corner to be taken as seriously as she should be. And, unusually, I agreed completely.
Not all much-vaunted first novels live up to their reputations; A Swift Pure Cry certainly did. A thought-provoking and unsettling story, based on events in Ireland in the 1980s, in which a 15-year-old girl struggles to find a coherent path for her life in the midst of poverty, alcoholism, teenage pregnancy and moral hypocrisy, it was greeted everywhere, except in the Irish Examiner whose reviewer had ‘hated every sentence’, with fulsome reviews. Writing in the Guardian, Jamila Gavin summed it up best when she wrote: ‘Siobhan Dowd’s novel was inspired by a true story, but it has the momentum and fascination of a detective story. In a densely woven tapestry of poetic language, sensations, and childhood experience, Dowd’s characters stumble through life, bewildered and bereaved, accepting yet rebelling, reviving feelings and emotions that are most usually pushed into the back recesses of the mind in adulthood, or simply lost from memory.’ Others wrote versions of the same and no one was surprised when, in addition to its place on the Guardian Children’s Prize long list, A Swift Pure Cry was short listed for the Carnegie Medal, the Booktrust Teenage Prize, the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize, the Sheffield Children’s Book Award and the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis and the CBI Bisto Book of the Year Award.
It was, however, as a first book that A Swift Pure Cry found its real place winning the Eilis Dillon Award in Ireland for a new children’s author and the Branford Boase Award in the UK. At the ceremony for the latter just a couple of months before she died, Siobhan, radiant in her success, said, ‘I’m moved beyond words at winning the Branford Boase Award. Henrietta Branford had a razor-sharp intellect and compelling honesty in her writing. Fire, Bed and Bone, which I’ve just finished, leaves me mourning the books-that-might-have-been had breast cancer not so cruelly taken her from us. This is an award that taps you on the shoulder and whispers “Hurry up and earn me.” I promise to do my level best.’
Siobhan had certainly hurried up and earned it. Long before A Swift Pure Cry had nailed its reward, Siobhan’s second book The London Eye Mystery was published confirming both the quality of her writing and that she was an author capable of writing many kinds of stories. Ironically, her second published book was actually written first. Siobhan delivered The London Eye Mystery, an adventure story about a boy with Asperger’s Syndrome who disappears while on a trip on the London Eye, to her agent Hilary Delamere, at exactly the moment that Mark Haddon was winning all the prizes with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. ‘Obviously, it wasn’t the moment to publish it,’ says Hilary, ‘but I did show it to several publishers and all were taken with the quality of Siobhan’s writing.’ But even that wasn’t really the beginning. ‘Siobhan had been “practising” writing for years,’ says Hilary. ‘She wrote a short story, The Parvee and the Buffer, for an anthology called Skin Deep which Tony Bradman was compiling. It was word perfect and within it were all the things we now know her for.’ The delay over publishing The London Eye Mystery stalled Siobhan but did not stop her. Quickly, she got on with A Swift Pure Cry. The diagnosis of her breast cancer came in the middle of writing it. ‘She came to see me and told me that she had cancer,’ said Hilary. ‘“I’ve got so many books to write. I’ve just got to do them,” she said. And she did. She went on writing so that we have four fantastic books.’
Both Hilary and Siobhan’s publisher David Fickling believe that Siobhan’s was a remarkable talent. ‘We don’t say enough about the style of writing,’ says Hilary. ‘Hers is exquisite. She renders complex things simple.’ Fickling agrees. ‘I have never known an author like Siobhan. She was a wonder! I don’t think she knew quite how good she was. She could make words sing. She was always seeking editorial advice and I felt slightly bad that I never had enough to give her. But really she only needed me or Hilary to say, go Siobhan go! She wrote like an angel.’
Fellow author Meg Rosoff first met Siobhan when they shared a platform at the London Book Fair. Both new novelists, they discovered they both had breast cancer. ‘It’s a powerful alliance, the breast cancer club,’ says Meg. ‘We exchanged diagnostic details and e-mail addresses. I went home and read A Swift Pure Cry, which I reviewed for the American market… It is a luminous, life-affirming, passionate novel.’
Life affirming and passionate are characteristics of Siobhan’s which have driven everything she has done. Born in 1960 and with her first book only published in 2006, Siobhan had already done much to get other authors’ books to readers before becoming a writer herself. She worked in New York for International PEN first as a researcher on the Writers in Prison programme and then as programme director of the Freedom-to-Write Committee. This led to her founding the Rushdie Defence Committee in the USA and to travelling to Indonesia and Guatemala where she investigated the human rights of persecuted writers. It was in recognition of this global anti-censorship work that Siobhan was named as one of the ‘top 100 Irish Americans’. As Jonathan Fryer wrote in Siobhan’s obituary in the Guardian following her death on 21 August 2007: ‘Human suffering frightens many people. Others, it ennobles and drives to action. The writer and human rights campaigner, Siobhan Dowd, who has died of cancer aged 47, was firmly in the latter category. A free spirit, with a zest for life, she was passionately committed to countering oppression and discrimination. She confronted the brutalities of the human condition head-on, with a rare blend of practical engagement and literary flair.’
Siobhan found a new outlet for her campaigning when she returned to the UK. Here, with Rachel Billington, she co-founded English PEN’s readers and writers programme taking authors into prisons, young offender’s institutions and schools in deprived areas and then extended the project yet further into refugee centres as she had always been concerned about the plight of marginalized people, especially Irish travellers and the Roma. According to those who worked with her, including Lindsay Mackie from Education Extra, Siobhan was ‘principled, meticulous and dedicated. Her legacy is still with us.’ Siobhan’s final job before taking to writing full time was as deputy commissioner for children’s rights in Oxfordshire, another way in which she could ensure that the rights of some of the most needy in society were protected.
Without ever being strident or causing her to become an ‘issues’ writer, all of her concern about the needs of others, especially those most without a voice, comes into her books. It is most evident in Bog Child, a stunningly good book which is, without doubt, her best yet. It is a profoundly moving story about how a teenager whose brother is one of the hunger striking prisoners in the Maze in the 1980s, lives through it and makes his own choice about joining the IRA. And there’s fun in it too just as there was throughout Siobhan’s life.
At her memorial service on a brilliantly sunny, tinglingly cold day in Oxford in November, the room was filled with music and poetry, the stuff Siobhan adored and had always adored since her earliest childhood growing up as the youngest of four sisters in a large household in South London. Remembering their childhood and Siobhan’s cleverness and creativity, her sister Denise said, ‘So the years passed and Siobhan worked hard at her writing. She loved children and welcomed her nieces and nephews into the world. She wrote stories for them. It became clear that this was a direction she could successfully pursue. And then A Swift Pure Cry emerged, triumphant. In it she quotes part of a ditty our father used to say:
“Ice cream, a penny a lump
The more you eat, the more you jump!”
Well, when I read Swift Pure Cry, I jumped. Yes, I jumped for sheer joy because my funny, clever sister had at last achieved her potential.’
And so she did and it is good to celebrate but there’s a bitter side to that too which Meg Rosoff sums up perfectly: ‘I knew Siobhan’s cancer was not curable, but whenever we met, she spoke with the enthusiasm of a person who intended to live forever… Having crammed so much more than the usual amount of living into half a lifespan, she should have left us feeling satisfied. And yet it is impossible not to feel cheated by her death. There was so much more to come.’
(published in hardback by David Fickling Books)
A Swift Pure Cry
978 0 385 60969 2, £12.99 hbk; Definitions, 978 0 09 948816 3, £5.99 pbk
The London Eye Mystery
978 0 385 61266 1, £8.99 hbk; Yearling, 978 0 440 86802 6, £5.99 pbk (June 2008)
978 0 385 61426 9, £10.99 hbk
Solace of the Road
Hbk (Spring 2009)
Before her death Siobhan set up The Siobhan Dowd Trust as follows:
‘A trust has been set up to manage all the proceeds from her literary work. The aim of the trust will be to help disadvantaged children improve their reading skills and experience the joy of reading. It will offer financial support to: public libraries; state school libraries (especially in economically challenged areas); children in care; asylum seekers; young offenders and children with special needs.’
Cheques to be made payable to The Siobhan Dowd Trust and addressed to The Siobhan Dowd Trust c/o Polly Nolan, Flat 10 Hendred House, Hendred Street, Oxford OX4 2ED.
Julia Eccleshare is the children’s book editor of the Guardian and co-director of CLPE.