Blog by author Clare Owen: Writing about fear in Zed and the Cormorants
Read an extract from Zed and the Cormorants
Zed and the Cormorants is a book about fear. Fourteen-year-old Zed moves from London to Cornwall because her dad thinks a fresh start and a simpler lifestyle will be good for her family, but no one asks Zed what she thinks. And if they did, she probably wouldn't admit - at least not at the start of the story - to feeling overlooked, afraid and very much alone.
On this level it's a contemporary story with very 'real' depictions of a struggling family and the kind of fears that every teenager could relate to: Zed misses all her old friends - particularly her best friend for whom she has quite confusing feelings - and she's terrified she won't fit in at her new school. Not having the internet isn't helping nor are her sister's epic meltdowns or the knowledge that this is 'last chance saloon' for her mum, who has been struggling for some time with her mental health.
On the other hand, it's a story that looks at fear through a more traditional gothic lens. There is an atmosphere of foreboding and hidden secrets right from the start, there are ancient myths, an eerie wood and a haunted building, all of which give rise to a visceral terror. Within weeks of moving to their new home, Zed is convinced that her family have unwittingly given a flock of vicious cormorants the means to take revenge for a historic betrayal.
Frankenstein author Mary Shelley said that gothic literature was designed to 'quicken the beatings of the heart' and this is certainly how Zed feels when she's under attack from the birds. Of course, you don't have to be under attack from a flock of angry birds to experience a panic attack. The sensations are just the same, even if the panic just creeps up on you at a bus stop or when you're sitting on the beach eating an ice cream. Does it matter then if Zed's racing heart, breathlessness and hot sweats are brought on by the birds in the woods or by worrying about her new life? By exploring the two sources of stress together and negotiating the overlaps, my story becomes a more nuanced look at anxiety and the many ways that a brave, resourceful young woman might work through it.
It was really important to me that Zed had to find her own way to get a handle on her fear, so on one level this is a story about growing self-awareness, independence and self-care. That's not to say, of course, that young people who are struggling shouldn't ask for help, but we've come a long way from those early gothic novels where innocent young girls were the victims and it was only men - the heroes - who could take on the monsters.
At the beginning of the story, Zed always puts others first and suppresses her own emotions, but she very quickly learns that in order to save herself, her family and her community, she has to take control and face her fears head on. By unravelling the story of the birds - working out why they are aggrieved and what she needs to do to appease them - Zed also discovers strategies which help her work through her feelings towards her parents and her female friends. She's able to contemplate the power of physical attraction and the potential of romantic love and develops the confidence and self-respect to be really honest about her needs and wants.
The natural world itself - initially an alien, brutal, lonely place - plays a big part in this. It becomes a valued 'teacher' as well as a place to think and be at ease; it's where Zed makes peace with her new circumstances and the young woman she has become. This is a really important part of Zed's story and I think it should be part of every young person's story, regardless of where they live. Engaging with nature and showing concern for the environment is surely a crucial part of managing anyone's anxiety because, if we continue to destroy it, then everyone's future is at stake.