Geraldine Brennan meets the author whose potent prose has transformed a worthy document into a page-turner
AN education policy document that you want to curl up in bed with is a rare thing, so a new novel by the same author must be worth investigating.
Marion Molteno, education adviser at the charity Save the Children, last month published A Chance in Life, which she wrote with a colleague to reflect Save the Children's work with the most disadvantaged children in 50 countries. The booklet is a model of clear, visionary prose, "the nearest I've come to the joy of fiction writing in non-fiction," she says.
Close on its heels comes her second novel, If You Can Walk You Can Dance, written over four years, followed by two years of revision. Her writing life (mostly crammed into three hours a day before breakfast) began more than a decade ago. In the 1980s she wrote her first short stories while she was running an adult community education programme of English language classes for Asian women in Croydon.
"There was nothing I could give volunteers to read that would give them some insight into the exciting and moving aspect of the work - only turgid sociological stuff that irritated me intensely and that I knew nobody would read."
The stories became a collection, A Language in Common, published by the Women's Press in 1987. "The strength of the response was a real surprise to me. I had letters from Asian women who said they had never seen their lives or their mothers' lives in fiction before. The collection was a way of using writing to give one community an entree into another."
In If You Can Walk You Can Dance, music is the entree for Molteno's heroine. Jennie is a white South African political exile adrift in London in the late 1970s whose experiences learning and teaching music reflect her struggle to find a creative and physical home.
Jennie's childhood in South Africa with liberal parents is firmly and vividly based on Molteno's own. "I invented my twin sister and let her set off on a different adulthood but the childhood incidents are real.
"I had a very sheltered childhood, although terrible things were happening outside. I wanted Jennie's journey to be a metaphor for growing up. Everyone who leaves their childhood behind is going into a foreign land."
She left South Africa legally but had a history in student politics and felt unable to go back.
After two years studying in Britain, she arrived in Zambia in 1968 with her husband Robert (now editorial director of Zed Books). She was a recently-qualified teacher (English and history, with a postgraduate qualification from Manchester in teaching English to speakers of other languages). It was just four years after Zambia's independence.
"There were few trained teachers in Zambia then and I was given a lot of responsibility in history curriculum reform and teacher training. It was an exciting time. There was a new primary school going up every month."
Within a few years, by the time they had two young children, Robert was put in detention after a clash between the university and the government and later deported. "That experience made me grow up very fast."
In 1976, the Moltenos arrived in Britain. Her first full-length novel, A Shield of Coolest Air, draws partly on her own experience of "learning to look after children in a different culture. The children adapt but the adults find it hard."
She soon drew on her postgraduate experience of teaching English language. "While I was training in the mid-1960s I was teaching English to the first Asians arriving in the northern cities. By the time I returned 10 years later, communities were more established and it was clear that we could not just think in terms of adult education - it had to be whole-community education."
She became one of the initiators of tailoring language education to the Asian communities in outer London.
This work led her to set off for India and Pakistan with a backpack - "I had never been an independent traveller, although I had had to uproot myself, and it felt difficult to leave the children behind and go" - and later to learn Urdu "to get some equality into the situation".
Music, the key to life's puzzle for Jennie in the latest novel, was Molteno's means of giving herself a break after finishing A Shield of Coolest Air, when she learned the violin in a late starters' orchestra.
Marion Molteno has now started a third novel. "It's at a delightful meditative stage of the process," she says. When she wants to relax she plays the violin, having graduated to an amateur orchestra.
"A Chance in Life" by Marion Molteno and Kimberly Ogadhoh, Save the Children Pounds 4.50. "If You Can Walk You Can Dance" byMarion Molteno, Shola Books Pounds 9.99