Soul Searching with Anna Cookson
In this feature author Anna Cookson talks about the path to her first novel, The Sound of Your Soul. Taking cues from a creative exercise imagining its shape, weight and properties, Cookson’s ideas of the soul reveal a link that transcends the boundaries of human history, from Ancient Egypt to the present day.
Parched mummies peering out of painted eyes, mammoth sarcophagi with maps to the afterworld diligently scrawled on their lids: I’ve long been fascinated by the ancient Egyptian section of the British Museum. And, it was whilst gazing curiously at their canopic jars containing the dissected heart, lungs, liver and brain, that I began to wonder… what if the soul, like the other organs of the body, was palpable, physical, real? What if it was possible to extract it? And what effect would that have on you and those around you?
The inspiration for my first book – The Sound of Your Soul – took me on a magical journey, trying to ascertain the nature of soul, trying to conjure what it would look like, how it would behave, what it would do.
At first, I imagined it like sparkly pink candy floss; light, shimmering and ethereal. It was beautiful, a puff of cloud mixed with fairy dust, twinkling delicately with the essence of human life. But there was something wrong, something too idealised about this conception. If the soul is like the other organs, then it needs to look like it belongs in the body. It too needs to be pulsing with fleshy vivacity and shining with vivid red blood. It needs to be inescapably human, raw, uncomfortable, yet awesome in its own way. It cannot be too perfect. Nature gave me the cues for what shape it could take. The soul, capable of floating upwards, would look like a jellyfish, one of the oldest organisms on the planet. We would mirror nature’s design with an organ that, given the chance, would drift to heaven, would puff up and up and to the other side.
“Nature gave me the cues for what shape it could take. The soul, capable of floating upwards, would look like a jellyfish, one of the oldest organisms on the planet…”
Of course, I wondered what the ancient Egyptians would make of this and I was surprised to find they also talk of the soul flying free. Their whole concept of soul is much more complex than ours, but, put very simply, they believed it came in three parts, the Ba, the Ka and the Akh. Imagine the Ka as the life force, the human desires, like food and sex. The Akh correlates to the mind and intellect and the Ba, well, that’s the bit that’s much more like the soul as we would understand it. It’s the personality, the part that makes you unique, and the part of you that lives on after death. The Egyptians drew the Ba as a bird with a human head because it flew out of you when you died – and journeyed with the sun.
I went on to discover that people the world over have thought of the soul as something which could be wrought free from the body – something tangible in essence, something ‘steal-able’ even. The bokors (like shamans) in western Africa used to extract the soul and keep it in a jar. They said this turned a person into a zombie – they became blank and void. That’s why I have a shaman in The Sound of Your Soul instructing the main character, Cally, about what to do when she wonders whether this nefarious practice is happening in London.
Cally’s world is shattered when her husband goes on the new ‘Government Training Programme.’ Hailed as a week learning how to be a better citizen and how to cope with the perils of climate change, she is aware of the rumours that ‘nobody ever comes back the same,’ that they return vapid, empty, listless, languid. Their eyes, once sparkly like pebbles in a stream, are matt, deadened, as if the water, the source of life, has all dried up. So, when Simon doesn’t return from Training at all, she begins to heed the worried whispers that drip like poison into her mind. And, not long after that, she is forced to make a heartbreaking choice, between saving her marriage and saving her soul…
Our heroine is taken on a hazardous journey to the dust of Africa and through the tunnels deep, deep below London. What if the government has uncovered the long-hidden secrets of the ancient Egyptians? What if they are using them for their own avaricious purposes… and how can she get Simon, the real Simon, back again?
“…it is actually helpful to think of your soul and those around you as living organisms…”
Whilst writing about Cally’s quest for the truth, I became really interested in the interaction of two people’s souls in a relationship. How one person can be up, the other down, one person ready to change, the other not. It would have been easy for Cally to blame other people for her problems. Instead, she realises she needs to become mindful of where she is at first, she has to tend to and grow her own soul, before she can think about her marriage, or she is doomed, and the marriage will crumble anyway. How easy is it to give your power away? To point the finger at someone else? Cally has to learn to take responsibility for herself before she can hope for anyone else to shift. She learns that everybody’s soul is growing and changing all the time.
I think it is actually helpful to think of your soul and those around you as living organisms, so that you have to take another person’s movements into account. In other words, love grows and changes as we grow and change. We cannot stay still, that is not nature’s way.
Whether scientists ever capture it, whether the ancient Egyptians or the bokors had it right, the notion of soul is here to guide us, to grow our consciousness and to help us in our dance with everyone else on this planet.
I won’t tell you how it turns out for Cally and Simon, but I will leave you with the theory of a certain Dr Duncan MacDougall, an American, who in the 1900s decreed the soul weighed precisely twenty-one grams. His experiments told him that when a person passed over, something changed, and the body became lighter to the tune of exactly the same amount every single time.
Think about that.
Every single time.
Find out more:
Anna Cookson is an award-winning presenter and journalist, as well as presenting BBC Radio Kent’s breakfast show every day from 6AM.
Her debut novel The Sound of Your Soul is out now, available on Amazon or direct from Pegasus’ website: