Posts Tagged The Art of Unpacking Your Life
I recently wrote a review of the wonderful novel The Art of Unpacking Your Life by Shireen Jilla. It centers on a group of college friends who take a trip together 20 years after college. Much happens while they’re on holiday–births, deaths, love, scandal and affairs. It’s a topsy-turvy read. Highly recommended. Ms. Jilla worked as a journalist before writing novels. This is her second novel. Her first is a psychodrama called Exiled.
Recently Shireen Jilla answered a few questions via email.
Amy Steele: How did you get the idea for this novel?
Shireen Jilla: I was like a schizophrenic for years, muttering to the main characters, who wouldn’t leave my mind.
I wanted to write about a generation that didn’t all end up married with 2.4 children. By 40, some are single, divorced, gay, with children, without. To me, it is no longer clear cut.
Amy Steele: It’s your second novel. What did you do differently in writing this one than the first?
Shireen Jilla: My last novel, Exiled, was a psychological thriller set in New York. Like Rosemary’s Baby. So the plot came first. It was the very immediate story of one woman, so I decided to write it in the first person.
With Unpacking, my starting point was altogether different. I had been thinking about the six main characters for a long time. I was equally interested in each of their stories. So I eventually decided to use a ‘roving’ third person perspective inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway.
Amy Steele: How does your work as a journalist affect your novel writing?
Shireen Jilla: It makes it easier and harder. I am used to settling down to write, but a 1,00-word newspaper feature with a clear beginning, middle and end, is ver different from facing the mountain of 100,000 words of fiction. Once I had worked out what I wanted to do with Unpacking, I wrote it very fast.
The first draft was completed in five months. I spent six weekends working from Friday through to Monday, practically without sleeping.
I am not precious about getting the scenes down and I don’t prevaricate. I think that’s because I am also a journalist.
Amy Steele: Why did you decide to set this in the Kalahari? How did you recreate the settings?
Shireen Jilla: I tried setting it in Sardinia, but it wasn’t a remote or extreme enough to allow the characters to unravel in such a short space of time. When my brother took me on this trip of a lifetime to the Kalahari, my first ever to Africa, I realised it was the perfect setting.
I kept a diary, took hundreds of photos, some of which are on my website, bought books, and talked extensively to the guides. All the detail is accurate.
Amy Steele: As they seem to be the main characters, what do you like best about Connie, about Luke and about Sara?
Shireen Jilla: I am incredibly fond of all the characters in the book. I admire Connie’s strength, love her doubt. I was drawn to Luke because of his unspoken vulnerability. And Sara is highly intelligent and funny, but ultimately a loyal friend.
Amy Steele: Why did you pick three guys, three women?
Shireen Jilla: I wanted Unpacking to be about a group of friends, close but disparate. And I wanted it to be written from a male and female point of view. Both reasons led me to have six main characters. In a literary sense, six main characters is considered a handful. And the editor at my literary agency encouraged me to reduce them.
Amy Steele: Are you still close friends with college friends? Would you take a safari trip together?
Shireen Jilla: Yes! I would love to do it.
Amy Steele: What do like best about writing novels?
Shireen Jilla: I love the actual process. It’s probably escapism. Still, I am never happier than when I am in the middle of writing a novel.
The Art of Unpacking Your Life [Bloomsbury Reader] by Shireen Jilla is available now.
The Art of Unpacking Your Life By Shireen Jilla.
Bloomsbury Reader|March 2015| 316 pages| ISBN: 9781448215201
Connie invites her university friends on a trip to the Kalahari to celebrate her fortieth birthday. The story mostly centers on Connie. The other friends have side-stories. The novel is a sharp and rich depiction of college friends in later life. “They had been close at university, but their friendship had drifted as their lives had taken them in different directions.” Do they have the same bonds as they did at 20 that they have now not seeing each other daily? Over several days in a vast environment thousands of miles away from their comfort zone and homes, the group reveals secrets and encounters surprising challenges.
Connie’s four children [“No one had four children anymore.”] are in secondary school and her politician husband Julian continues to have affairs. His latest dalliance might break them up forever despite the family and image to uphold. For years after every affair, Connie stands by her man. Sara is a single, strong barrister who just completed a major case in London and prefers to keep men at arm’s length to avoid any emotional entanglements. “There was something fundamentally wrong with the men she dated. Too talkative, too vain, too stupid, too nasal, too egotistical.” Lizzie isn’t quite sure what to do personally or professionally. “Nothing measured up to their time together at Bristol University for Lizzie. She hadn’t moved on.” Lizzie “didn’t have a man, or own her own flat and her career was going nowhere.” The recently divorced Luke, Connie’s college boyfriend is on the trip. Is there still something between them? Should they have remained together all along? Matt shares the news that he and his American wife Katherine [“She was fragile and feminine compared with his English women friends.”] used a surrogate for the baby they’re expecting after years of IVF treatment. Dan isn’t happy in his relationship with a younger, not-too-serious boyfriend Alan. “The group never believed that Alan was good enough for Dan.”
Jilla writes splendidly about the bold wildlife and African landscape— “A wide, wild range of beautiful, even rare and endangered, species would be waking up in this safe haven, magically far away from the destructive nature of the human world. All because of her grandfather’s understanding and commitment.” It’s refreshing to read about adults who may still be figuring things out. The superb writing and multifaceted characters draw you in from the beginning and keep you riveted throughout the novel.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher through NetGalley.
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