Image by Tina Tiller
Image by Tina Tiller

BooksJune 29, 2024

The Sunday Essay: The beginning of a book

Image by Tina Tiller
Image by Tina Tiller

Claire Mabey’s early brush with evangelical Christianity sparked a life’s fascination with the power of stories and the fuel to write her own.

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.

Five years old

At Bethlehem College the carpet is a crowd of small, tight coils. That wiry nylon kind that pushes bumpy, red-purple divots into your little knees at mat time. There’s a vast crest of four chambers – blue and grey, a dove trapped in mid-flight in one corner, a crown in another – woven into the middle part of the carpet that flows through the wide hallway that smells new and unsure. I like the dove, and the pointy claw that looks like the Little Mermaid’s dad’s trident. 

My lunchbox is bright yellow with a black Batman symbol on the lid – the one with the wings spread out, more animal than man – and I am quietly thrilled by it every time I pull it out of my schoolbag.

“That’s a boy’s lunchbox,” says one of the girls who I know has a lot of sisters. 

No it’s not, I think. Is it?

I find a spot away from the girl with many sisters at the base of a tall tree – the kind with leaves like spears – and eat my Marmite and butter sandwiches on thin Molenberg bread with my back against the tree’s  trunk, watching the game of catch and kiss that is taking place right outside our classroom. 

When my sandwiches are eaten (all but the drying crusts) and my lunchbox hidden away again, I join in. The boy who lives near my house – with his mum and grandmother who own the fish and chip shop – catches me and puts his hand up the skirt of my uniform. I push him away. 

At the bus stop the next day, the same boy throws his arms around me and my schoolbag, and tells me he’s going to marry me. I know in that moment that I will be a nun. I will never get married, and I will live in a red brick house next door to another identical red brick house where my best friend Julia will live and she will also be a nun and our identical horses will live in the front yards of our brick houses and will be able to see each other over the garden wall and our gardens of tall flowers with petals as large as our faces. We will have Batman lunchboxes. We will have tall and protective trees. Our brick houses will be merry and impenetrable, like the third little pig’s.

At mat time the teacher whose hair is Marge Simpson’s only not as tall and not blue teaches us about God and his rules.

“This is a heart,” she says as she draws a red heart on the whiteboard with a whiteboard pen with a poisonous scent that I like. “When you lie,” she says, ”your heart starts to turn black.” She takes the black whiteboard pen and colours in her red heart until it is a shadow. “You must ask Jesus every night to let you into the kingdom of heaven. Pray every night to Jesus to help you not to lie so that your heart won’t turn black.”

We sing ‘I am in the Lord’s Army, Yippee’ before we go to our desks to learn how to draw letters on the envelope-sized grey notebooks with wide line spaces that I hold to my nose and smell, and turn the pages of, even when they’re blank.

At night, I pray in my narrow bedroom covered with fervent, floral Laura Ashley wallpaper that matches the Laura Ashley duvet cover even though black is my favourite colour. Because it is so black and covers white paper so boldly and so well. Not like the other colours where I can still see the white. Jesus doesn’t reply to my prayers but I imagine him watching from the clouds in the sky where he lives with his father, God. Jesus has a brown beard and sad eyes (God has a white beard and fierce blue eyes) and I know I never want him to get down from the clouds, ever. Because another teacher at Bethlehem College told us that if Jesus, who is also his father God, ever did show up he’d be so holy and his light would be so bright and strong that we’d probably die. Right there in front of him. Hello Jesus. Hello God. Too holy. Dead. 

So my first prayer in my bedroom at night is to ask Jesus-God that I be let into his kingdom. My second prayer, like a little voice inside parenthesis, is to ask that they never show up at school or at home because I don’t want to die.

Seven years old 

I am sent to pray for myself in the resource room. 

I had brought to school a new pencil with a troll on the end of it, eager to show it off, stroke my chin with its shock of magenta hair while I sat at my wooden flip-top desk, daydreaming.

“That is an evil object,” said my teacher with her face alarmingly close to mine. Her hair is a wild dark cloud that matches the unruly strips of eyebrow above her damp, fearful eyes. My tiny troll with its blazing teardrop hair. My hair is bright red. Was I evil too?

The resource room is a magical place. Quiet, people-free, breathing with books and pencils and manilla folders, and notebooks and the smell of fresh dust, almost rain. Paper, stilled and waiting. I wander the dark room feeling at once at home and on the edge of danger. Circling hell with my devilish toys and wishes against God and the lies making soot bloom over my heart. I find a book about a grandmother who had magic enough to swell cabbages to the size of cars, and another about a witch called Bad Jelly. They are banned books and in that dark room we are quiet and banned together.

Seven-and-a-half years old 

I don’t know it yet but I am soon to be transferred away from Bethlehem College and into a small, Steiner-ish school that will have Medieval-themed weeks and a horse in a paddock. But before I am rescued, my class is ushered into the standard six classroom with the older kids who are near adult enormous. I can’t wait to be that old and tall and loud. 

The teachers shut the curtains. They shush the buzzing excitement that rises from the floor of the darkened classroom where we sit on the tough nylon carpet, knee to knee. The smell of us. Our crumbs and breath. One of the big girls walks tall around the edge of the huddle, to the front – to the carpet stage – and settles herself there on a stool, poised and large with stately pauses. She tells us a story about a girl who was sad, and so frightened, especially at night. This girl was lost in the dark until one night her bedside lamp turned on. All on its own! The big girl’s eyes are wide-serious, her hair straight and gleaming blond. She talks like an adult with authority and withholding. She tells us that the girl’s lamp turned itself on and shone its light directly onto her bible which was open on her bedside table though the girl could have sworn it had been nowhere near her bedroom. The bible was open on a page and on that page, Jesus told the girl things that made her feel better. And, said the big girl, that girl was me. This happened to me.

I am arrested by awe. Jesus can sneak into bedrooms with his own book that his father God wrote about him and flip through its pages so thin they are like a layer of skin to find his favourite and most comforting passages, and place it open, just so. Like a ghostly magician Jesus flicks on a bedside lamp while in the very same moment disappearing himself back to the clouds, where he can watch the girl read. Of course if he’d stayed the girl would be dead because of how powerful holy he is.

Thirty-seven years old

Thirty years later I start writing a children’s novel. I’m not sure what it’s about, only that I trust the characters who arrive whole, like visions: one young woman is shy at first, hardly talks – she lives inside a walled community, is forced to copy out books all day and is told that it’s all for “Prime” who inspires both awe and fear. One day she realises that she is remarkable: when she writes, pictures appear on her skin. But such a bewildering display of inner life is forbidden, and so she has to run away. She is helped by a prickly friend, and she is helped by trees.

My other lead character is a young woman who is a bookbinder; and she is restless and craves adventure and stories. Her favourite colour is black. A world grows around my characters – I feed the book ideas and it responds by changing them, or embellishing them, or rejecting them entirely and offering something else back to me. In this world there is a fear of books and a love of books, and a fear of young women and their wild potential, and a need for young women and their wild potential; there are stories designed to keep people in their place, stories that land in hearts and spread like stubborn smudges.

I write my novel, thinking I am primarily inspired by the Medieval period in which literacy was scarce, in which King James I published both the Bible and Daemonology in an attempt to scapegoat the fragile and the homeless and the women, and offer a framework within which to point at those people and observe the devil at work.

I write conscious trees into this world, thinking I am inspired by Medieval nun Hildegard von Bingen who had radical ideas about God and nature, who talked about greenings, and who had a vision of a cosmic egg that looks like a magical vulva with moving parts, like a time machine. 

I write an impossible garden that grows on the walls of a very strange but comforting house.
I create artwork for the windows of a formidable building: crests with symbols – not a crown or a dove, but a book, and hands with eyes open in the palms.

I write a Green Woman who is so far gone in nature she’s a goddess: unpredictable, amoral, vengeful, fun. 

I write a sprightly unmarried aunt who I think is inspired by my favourite novel about a spinster aunt who is in fact a witch that sleeps among beech trees and argues happily with the devil in a grove of apple trees. 

I write magical books that help and comfort my young characters on their quest to peer into the dark of the adults around them and find the light that must be there. 

I write a trickster book that appears and disappears, and that requires readers to think carefully about everything it tells them. And I write a shadow of a book that cultivates fear and lies and ill consequences. 

I write rebellion and reinvention.

I enjoy writing my book because when I read it I am lost in it until I don’t think that I have written it at all. It is like my subconscious has stolen into my room and turned on a light that shines on a story that talks to me and reassures me that I am not bad, or alone. 

When I finish writing I hand my manuscript in and I cry. I don’t read it for weeks. Until the proofs come back and I read it and am consumed by the kind of fear that adults cultivate in their most selfish and self-conscious moments. When I was five I was effortless and convinced of my stories, like me and my best friend will be nuns and live in brick houses with horses in the front yard. At thirty-eight I am painful to myself about this book that I have written because I turn upon it the adult eye: blue-cold as old God in the clouds. I stare down at the book I’ve written with its thoughtful trees, its troubles, its tensions between poisonous stories and the stories that show freedom. And I judge it and wonder if it will be let into the kingdom. 

And through my judgement I see the story that lives right underneath my book, in the roots.

I have written a story that seeded when I was five years old sitting on hard nylon carpet being told my heart would turn black if I lied. A story that began with a sturdy, unjudging tree that cradled my back while I ate from my Batman lunchbox that was confusingly unfit; it began when I was told that Jesus would have to listen to me beg him to let me into his kingdom, and that he had the power to sneak into bedrooms and turn on lights and accidentally kill children with his holiness. My story began all the way back when I was banished with my troll-topped pencil to a dark room full of interesting books as magical as a child’s open mind – Bad Jelly and the one about the grandmother who could swell cabbages. 

Claire Mabey’s first novel, published by Allen & Unwin, out 2 July.


My brief entanglement with the fear-mongering tactics of evangelical Christianity had a lasting effect on my understanding of stories and their power. Not that Bethlehem College was the end of me and Christianity. There was still the art history degree, and the Catholicism of one side of my extended family who infused me with ghosts and saints and eating the flesh of Jesus and drinking his blood; and the icon of St Joseph who was placed in a tree to keep the rain away from my cousin’s funeral (it did not rain); and the conversations with my Nana who lost her mother and her child and her grandchild and how, in the face of all that pain, the Virgin Mary visited her and my Nana did not die of holy light but was comforted by it.

And the Greek Orthodox nuns I stayed with for a while on their mountain monastery in Larissa and picked weeds out of their gardens and listened to their stories about growing marijuana “for the soil”, and their kindness to anyone who needed some. They never talked to me about Jesus or God or prayer or what would happen if I lied. Maybe I was too obviously unholy by then. But they were more afraid of corporations than of hell. 

Five years old

Last summer in St Winifred’s Church in the village of Branscombe, Devon – a coastline famous for its histories of pirates and smugglers – my five-year-old son and I watched an enormous ginger cat bat and claw at a shrew that squeaked through its slow death. Speechless, my son looked to me with eyes bright and wavering, blue as God’s. I cuddled him and told him this is simply what cats do. There are many more shrews. Perhaps the cat is hungry. We can’t judge it or stop it.

The church smelled of pine needles and the Medieval period. There were Norman bricks exposed in the wall and bright embroidered cushions of strange designs in the shiny wooden pews. The cat hid the limp shrew in the pile of children’s toys in the back corner of the church then marched out the heavy wooden door – above which a family of swallows tittered and shat – proud and bushy tailed. A shock of moggy fur ruffled with a day’s murder.

And eventually my son laughed at the cat despite the bruising of what he’d seen it capable of. He survived his first experience of death. We decided we liked the church and its interesting layers of stone and its embroidery and its killer cat. We walked through a dense and welcoming forest on the way home, oxygenating our blood with its greenings, and talked about the colour black and how much we liked it. We made up stories about a pirate cat who lives in a church and eats shrews for dinner.

The Raven’s Eye Runaways by Claire Mabey ($25, Allen & Unwin) is out on 2 July, and can be pre-ordered on BookHub and at Unity Books. The book release party is at Unity Books Wellington on 3 July, 6pm with Elizabeth Knox launching the book. All welcome.

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