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Hazel Prior: Penning Pain – An Otter Perspective

Hazel Prior: Penning Pain – An Otter Perspective

If so many people have it, why does it never appear in novels? That’s the question I was asking myself.

Pain – gruelling, long-term, physical pain – is horribly common in life but noticeably rare in literature. I hated having it. It’s not just the pain itself that hurts, though that’s bad enough. It’s the feeling of life passing you by. The frustration. The exhaustion. The extreme envy because everyone else you know can fill a kettle, open a drawer or write a sentence without even wincing. It’s also the loss of identity. Where was bright and bubbly me for all those years, and who was this pathetic, sobbing creature?

I was one of the lucky ones. Eventually saved by surgery, I clawed back my life and somehow became a writer. Despising my past, I wanted only healthy characters in my books. Yet I felt for the crowd of silent sufferers who weren’t being represented. Having written three cheery book club novels about music, dream-fulfilment and penguins, I finally realised it was up to me.

How to do it, though? I wasn’t prepared to abandon my preference for rural settings, for wildlife themes and funny, eccentric characters. And I didn’t want this to be just a sob story about somebody being ill. Anyway, how was a character with chronic pain going to be sufficiently dynamic to take the leading role? I was determined this should be an uplifting story because I turned to books myself during those dark times and so many of those reads – brilliant though they were – just made me feel worse about life. So the overriding message had to be one of hope.

I was stuck… until the otter appeared. It was a gorgeous little otter who popped its head out of the river close to our front door. I love otters and knew immediately that they would add vivacity and charm to any book. And, would you believe it, when I looked up the significance of otters, I found that, as well as playfulness, intelligence, curiosity, and new beginnings, they represent healing.

Phoebe Featherstone, my heroine, gradually came into being. Intelligent and curious, thinking is something she can achieve from her bed. She’s able to work out plenty about the local community by inspecting the parcels delivered by her courier father. With a cute baby otter to protect, she has the incentive to solve a mystery. Even this was problematic, since pain often produces brain fog. But in the end the brain fog also became part of the plot.

For research I hot-footed it to Dartmoor Otters and Butterflies, a local sanctuary where it’s a sheer delight to watch otters gadding about. The main aim of the place, I discovered, is not actually to entertain the public, but to rehabilitate injured or orphaned otters and re-introduce them into the wild. Only those who have become too domesticated are kept in captivity. Aha, captivity – a fitting metaphor for pain in my novel, with release as the ending we crave.

Significantly, the spirit of any otter, whether enclosed or in the wild, is one of huge playfulness and fun. Pain is never easy, but I hope I’ve found an otter way of looking at it.

Life and Otter Miracles was published on 14 September by Penguin

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