The Dominant Narrative Voice

9182e95bd28566e2825b6e30ed2ca727I used to work with an educational advisor who was always looking for ways to help children develop their own voice in their writing.  It’s not an easy concept to get over to primary children, especially those who find it difficult enough to write anything at all in the first place, leave alone characterising it with their own particular style.  Possibly the best way to explain what you mean is to offer them examples of writers whose written voice is so distinctive that they are able to recognise who the author might be even if they haven’t encountered the particular text you’re reading from, but that argues the type of wide acquaintance with authors that an eleven year old is unlikely to have developed.  I have tried it with Dr Suess but I’m not certain how well the experience translates from those who write in regular metric verse to those who write in prose.

Truth be told, I’m not sure how good I would be at recognising the style of a particular novelist.  What I am aware of, however, is a small number of writers whose individual voice is so strong that for hours, sometimes days, after I have finished reading their work I find myself thinking, speaking and even writing in their particular idiosyncratic rhythms.

I first noticed this during one summer holiday when I was in my teens and for the only time in my life read Jane Eyre.  The only time, not because I don’t think this is anything less than a remarkable piece of work, but because the music inherent in Charlotte Bronte’s writing was so pervasive that all my postcards home were written as if Jane herself was penning them.  I got some very pointed comments from the people who received them and, given that much of my life is spent writing in one form or another, have never dared go back to the novel again.

What brought this to mind currently was a re-reading of Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Gilead, for a book group meeting later this month.  Circumstances meant that I was able to get almost halfway through in my first session, so the narrative voice had ample opportunity to seep into my consciousness.

This morning a splendid dawn passed over our house on its way to Kansas. This morning Kansas rolled out of its sleep into a sunlight gradually announced, proclaimed throughout heaven – one more of the very finite number of days that this old prairie has been called Kansas, or Iowa.  But it has all been one day, that first day.  Light is constant, we just turn over in it. So every day is in fact the selfsame evening and morning.

Whether this is the voice of Robinson, the author, or John Ames, the narrator, it is characterised by that slow development of an idea into something greater than it started out as; a propensity to take nothing at face value but rather to dig further and deeper into every thought through an unhurried revealing of the notional layers  that shroud a fundamental nugget of truth. And, not only do the rhythms of the piece reflect this but so strong are they that for several hours afterwards so also did my speech.  My own voice was subdued by that of the novel.

I don’t know about you, but when this happens I find it disturbing.  I am used to getting lost in the world of a book, or so wrapped up in its plot that I spend time away from the text speculating on how the action might turn out.  That is part of the pleasure of reading.  When, however, I find that I am losing myself not in the book, but to the book I feel very uncomfortable.  Possession by another being isn’t quite what I signed up for when I took the novel down from the shelf.

Something that I have found myself reflecting on while writing this piece has been the fact that both of these novels have first person narrators and I wonder if this is significant.  Would a third person narrator, necessarily at a further remove from the action, have the same potency?  I am just about to start Robinson’s second novel in the Gilead trilogy, Home, which is not told simply in the voice of one person.  It will be illuminating to see if has the same influence.

Purging the Shelves

thelampI am slowly reading my way through Francine Prose’s book, Reading Like A Writer and this morning, in the course of the chapter on the sentence, found myself brought up short her quotation of the opening lines of Virginia Woolf’s essay On Being Ill.  It’s a lengthy quote, even though it is only one sentence long, but I hope you will excuse my repeating here.

Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness, how we go down into the pit of death and feel the waters of annihilation close above our heads and wake thinking to find ourselves in the presence of the angels  and the harpers when we have a tooth out and come to the surface in the dentist’s arm-chair and confuse his “Rinse the mouth – rinse the mouth” with the greetings of the Deity stooping from the floor of Heaven to welcome us – when we think of this, as we are so frequently forced to think of it, it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.

Prose is writing about the sentence; Woolf (when we finally get there, although I’m not complaining about the journey) about the paucity of novels centred around illness. Both of these are subjects for other posts. However, what caught my attention in this quite remarkable opening to Woolf’s essay was the accuracy of her observation about the way in which illness affects our perceptions of ourselves and our place in the world.

Last week I had a bout of food poisoning.  It was not funny!  Neither, however, was it in any sense life-threatening.  That didn’t stop me feeling extremely vulnerable and casting my mind ahead to that time when I shall no longer be able to live alone and will need to downsize to a property that while smaller will also be safer for someone who has no immediate family who will be able to offer support.

This week, I am glad to report, I am feeling rather more positive, but the fact that my house (not to mention my garage) is full of things which I rarely use and which it might be a good idea to slowly recycle (i.e. get rid of) instead of having to panic at some point in the future, has stayed with me.  You know where this is going, don’t you?

What do I do about the books?

Oh, I am not unaware of the irony.  Given that in my previous post I was complaining about the number of people who borrow books and then never return them, is there not a perfect answer right there?  Don’t worry about it.  In fact, start begging people to borrow books simply so that they will take them away and install them permanently on their shelves.  Problem solved.

I think not.

To begin with, it is never the books that I think I might manage without that people want to borrow.  The ones that don’t return are always the ones that I would never dream of being parted from whatever the circumstances.  And furthermore, I have a sinking feeling that if I started lending out books willy-nilly the winds of change might begin to blow and people might suddenly start sending them back to me. I might end up with even more than I have now.

One very simple first step has been to bring together all those books that others have lent me in the past.  I’m sorry if feelings are going to be hurt, but they are going back unread.  Then there are those books that have been languishing on my shelves ever since I moved into this house and are still as pristine as the day they were bought.  If I haven’t got round to reading them in fifteen years they really can’t have been that important in the first place.  And, if I’m honest, there are some that have been there at least twice as long as that.  The charity shops are going to have a field day.

But, what about the rest?

Being harshly practical I know that at least half of what I have in the house and all of those stored in the garage are going to have to go, but on what principal of selection?  I can’t be the only person out there who has faced this dilemma.  There must be people who have walked this path before me and come up with some sort of acceptable strategy.  No suggestion can be too wild, too extreme.  I just need help – soon!

P.S. Ideas as to what to do about the twenty-two teapots wouldn’t go amiss either.

Neither A Borrower Nor A Lender Be

3 Nikolai Petrovich Bogdanov-Belsky (Russian painter, 1868-1945)   Reading in the Garden 1915Polonius, Chief Counselor to Shakespeare’s Claudius, tends to get a very bad press.  Apart from the fact that he has clearly chosen the wrong side in Hamlet v the Rest of the World, he is also universally condemned for being a pedant.  If there was a contest for the fictional character least likely to be invited to a party, you could be fairly certain he would make the top ten.  And yet, every time I see the play I reach the point where he is giving advice to his student son and I have to ask myself why he is so disliked.  Is it, perhaps, because we don’t like being asked, via Laertes, to examine our own short-comings?  Because you have to admit that much of what he has to say makes very good sense.

Who, for example, would argue with his precepts on friendship?

Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,

Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;

And I definitely need to listen to what he has to say on the subject of buying clothes.

Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,

But not express’d in fancy; rich not gaudy;

For the apparel oft proclaims the man,

Let me tell you, Jolyon Bear would be in the audience cheering him on.

You may not think, however, that he has any words of wisdom for the readers amongst his audience.  Don’t you believe it. Heed both his and my advice and take these words to heart.

Neither a borrower nor a lender be;

For loan oft loses both itself and friend,

We probably all know the perils of lending books.  To be fair, some people do return them, but over the years certain dire experiences, including the loss of a signed copy of the first of the Discworld novels, has taught me that I should never lend out a book.  Don’t get me wrong, I frequently pass on books which I have enjoyed to other people, but these days I consider them a gift and make it clear that I have no expectation of ever seeing them again.  If it is a book that I value and want to be able to return to at some point in the future I will recommend that the other reader gets hold of their copy or if we are on those sorts of terms I will buy them a copy as a present, but I hang on to my own like grim death.

During these past few months, however, when my reading time has been at a premium, I have begun to realise that borrowing books is every bit as much a peril to be avoided as loaning them out.  I don’t think I’ve made a habit over the years of asking to borrow someone else’s books.  I’m rather too fond of having an excuse to buy my own.  But what I’ve become aware of recently is just how eager other people seem to be to force their own favourite books onto me.  Truly, I have piles of the darn things all over the place.

This has been bad enough if it has been a book that I actually wanted to read.  It’s frustrating as it is not to be able to get round to authors whose works I have normally automatically read as soon as they appeared without other people reinforcing what I’m missing.  The real problem, however, lies with those works I have absolutely no desire to read in the first place.  Before I would have skim read them and then passed them back with a ‘thank you, perhaps not quite for me, but very interesting’, knowing that I had enough knowledge of the book to be able to get away with my deception.  Now that isn’t possible and yet still the books mount up.  How do you say ‘no’ to someone who thinks that they are doing you the greatest favour in the world and who just isn’t going to understand when you can’t see your way to prioritising their book over and above all those that you have actually selected for yourself?  It’s like telling someone that their beloved child is not welcome in your house.  In fact it is probably more difficult because, if said child has previously swung your cat round the living room by its tail or de-feathered a pillow in your bedroom, Mom or Dad presumably already has a fairly good idea that a return visit by their offspring isn’t going to be particularly welcome.  Not having enjoyed the last book they offered doesn’t seem to cut quite the same ice.

And, as Polonius knows, friendships can falter over this.  If you suggest that you might return the book unread and perhaps borrow it again at a more opportune moment, you are inevitably encouraged to keep it because they are sure you will get round to it soon. This is, of course, accompanied by a look that implies not only are you slighting their book, but also them, their taste in reading and probably their right to exist on this earth at all.

Does anyone have an answer to this, because saying “no thank you” doesn’t seem to work?  A friend of mine whose mother-in-law was constantly and pointedly extolling the virtues of an annual spring clean eventually had a wall plaque made with Mole’s immortal words

Hang spring-cleaning

written on it and placed it where it was the first thing her adversary was likely to see as she came through the front door.  Perhaps I should do something similar with Polonius’s sentiments.

sks41aWell, hello again!

I’m still feeling my way round getting back to writing here, but as the hours of daylight get longer so the problem with my eyes becomes slightly less of an issue and while I don’t think I’ll ever get back to posting as regularly as I used to the need to be part of the book blogging world is beginning to outweigh the discomfort.

Are you all well?  I do hope the winter months have treated you kindly.  The Bears would like you to know that they are thriving, although they could have done without the freezing temperatures during the nights and were observed to be channelling Queen Victoria when the snow forced them to cancel an outing last week.

Life has not been entirely bookless.  I am, however, having to be rather more discriminating in what I choose to spend my reading time on. At the moment I’m coming to the end of Kamila Shamsie’s Orange shortlisted novel, Burnt Shadows.  This reinforces the value of a good book group, because I doubt I would ever have read the work had it not been selected by another reader for discussion this coming Wednesday.  Starting with the horror of Nagasaki, it charts the life of Hiroko Tanaka, a nuclear survivor, who then finds herself caught up in further international conflicts as her life takes her to the India of partition, the subsequent subcontinental nuclear confrontation and the aftermath of the twin towers.  If this sounds depressing reading then I suppose in one sense it is, but the very fact that through all these troubles Hiroko is able to maintain supportive friendships with people who should stand firmly on the other side of the political divide gives grounds for hope that at some point in the future we might find a way of co-existing with those who are ideologically in the opposite camp.

We will be glad to get back to a ‘proper’ group meeting this month.  December and January were given over to an experiment to bring several reading groups together to discuss the same novel and explore it in greater depth through the involvement of an academic who had studied the work and might thus bring a different level of insight to the conversation.  We read the book for our individual meeting in December and then met with the other groups in January. This would have been really interesting had it not been for the fact that the book chosen was, to put it bluntly, poor.  Or at least, we thought it was.  All the other groups loved it and I know that a lot of book bloggers did as well.  However, I think that was because of the subject matter, which was always going to appeal to those who are interested in the book world.  What no one ever asked was ‘is this a well written book?’.  And we just didn’t think it was.

You will have noticed that I am being very circumspect about the title of this work.  I’m pretty certain some of you will have enjoyed it too and I don’t want to alienate you all and have you scream at me to crawl back under my winter stone just as I’ve stuck my nose out to smell the daffodils.  It is interesting, however, what different groups demand of the books that they choose to read.  Are we just attracted by the themes or do we look for quality in the writing as well?  Someone said to me that having two literary PhDs and a Professor of English Language amongst our number does make us a rather unusual group, but surely you don’t have to have formal qualifications to be interested in the quality of an author’s writing?  What do you focus on in your groups?  Do you question the writer’s ability to write with skill as well as to tackle interesting subjects?  Surely we are not alone in this?

Sunday Round-Up

DSC_0382Well, not much to report on the eye front, other than that they are still troublesome.  So, for the moment I’m going to try and write one round up post a week just to make sure that I don’t lose touch with you all and give my reading time one day a week over to catching up with your sites.  I really don’t want to have to drop out of the blogging world altogether.

Inevitably, what I read is going to have to be prioritised rather differently now.  I don’t want to have to leave any of the three reading groups to which I belong either, and so those novels are going to have to come first each month.  I just hope that not too many books that I’ve read before will turn up on the lists because re-reading is going to be a real waste of time.  In fact, two of the three for November are re-reads.  At least the first, Graham Greene’s A Burnt-out Case, which is for discussion tomorrow, is a book I read as an undergraduate, so a good long time ago.  I wish I could remember more of my earlier reactions to it.  I do remember being amazed (although pleased) that a Catholic college would set their students a book like this, which has a lot of disparaging things to say about a certain sort of religious observance.  Coming to it a second time I’m not sure that it is as good a book as I remembered, but interestingly its themes do seem to be reasonably adaptable to any ideology and the author’s horror at the way in which the world re-writes an individual’s story to suit its own needs is as relevant to day as when the book was written.

The book I was in the middle of when I suddenly had to start to count the number of pages I could manage in a day was David Mitchell’s latest novel, The Bone Clocks.  If you’ve read this you’ll know that it’s not the sort of book to read in small bursts if you want to have any hope of following what is going on.  The plot is so convoluted and so intricately interwoven from one section to another that you really need to have a good run at it in order to keep everything straight in your mind.  This is the first novel of Mitchell’s that I’ve read and I have to say that I enjoyed it very much indeed.  Because I’m interested in structure the manner in which he divides his text up into what appear to be six separate sections only then to have them all run into each other in one way or another fascinated me.  It is a high risk strategy, however.  If you happen to come across a section that is written in a style that annoys you he does run the risk that you will put the book down and not go back to it.  This very nearly happened with me where the fourth section was concerned.  Had it been any earlier, I might just not have gone on.

Is there anyone reading this who is a real Mitchell addict?  I heard an interview with him in which the interviewer seemed to suggest that in fact the interweaving is not just in each individual novel but that it carries through from one book to another.  Is that the case, does anyone know? Certainly, there is a reference in this one to Black Swan Green, although it doesn’t seem to be anything more than a passing mention of the place and one character.  If it should be so, then somehow I am going to have to find time to go back and read all the earlier ones just to see how he manages it.

Enough for today.  Same time, same place, next week, I hope.

Monday Miscellany

DSC_0382I’m sorry that I’ve not been around that much over the past week or so.  There have been two main reasons for this.  The first is that I always forget just how much extra time is going to be taken up once the university term starts at the beginning of October.  It isn’t just the sessions themselves and the planning that goes into them, but also the time taken travelling back and forth.  During the summer months I faff around complaining that I am not getting enough stimulation and, as a consequence, when autumn events, both academic and cultural, start to be advertised I sign up eagerly without giving sufficient thought to the practicalities of what I am committing to and the effects that will have on my rather fragile health.  This year I have definitely over committed and I am going to have to spend reading week pruning my diary and cutting back my expectations.

The second reason is less easily dealt with.  I am having problems with my eyes again and this is obviously curtailing the time that I can spend reading and writing.  We have tried a number of medications, but at the moment are struggling to find anything that doesn’t actually make the situation worse.  As you can imagine, this is frustrating in the extreme.

So, excuse me if I don’t visit your sites as often as I would like until we can get something sorted out.  It doesn’t mean that I don’t care or that I don’t miss you.

The Long Way Home ~ Louise Penny. Defying Expectations

abLouise Penny has, for some time now, been one of my favourite crime writers.  I was, therefore, very pleased to be given the opportunity to read her most recent novel, The Long Way Home, in advance of publication in order to write a review of it for Shiny New Books.  You can read that review by following this link.

However, much as I enjoyed this book, it did give me pause for thought.  As you will see from the review, I found myself questioning whether Penny, like the central (though absent) character in this novel, Peter Morrow, shouldn’t be asking herself whether or not she wanted to continue as a crime writer.  The Long Way Home doesn’t need a murder to make the point that Penny is exploring: namely the impetus behind the creative process and what examining that impetus means for the people involved.  But, Penny is a crime writer.  Her readers expect a murder.  Or perhaps, more importantly, her publishers and their publicists demand a murder because they don’t have faith in her readers to follow a writer they love into something rather different.  As I say in the review

there may perhaps be stories to tell about Three Pines that don’t require a death to drive them.

More pertinent perhaps, is the question would her publishers ever allow her to tell them.

What I didn’t go on to to say in that review is that in this novel Penny herself references some of the writers I think she has the skills to emulate.  When I read her more recent books with their insightful dissections of the ways in which people and communities respond in moments of crisis, the authors I think of are Marilynne Robinson, Richard Russo and perhaps especially, Elizabeth Strout.  I would love to turn any of these loose in Three Pines and see what they had to tell us about the social chemistry of the village, but I shouldn’t need to because Penny is more than capable of telling us herself.

This isn’t the only crime novel I’ve read recently where I’ve felt there was a rather different type of story fighting to get out.  Val McDermid’s most recent freestanding story, The Skeleton Road, which I reviewed here, is another where I thought the author was much more interested in the background story than in the crime that was the excuse for telling that story.  Would her publishers have been prepared to take the risk, however, on a novel that they couldn’t advertise as the latest McDermid murder hunt?

You begin to understand why, when J K Rowling wanted to break out in a new direction, she was so insistent on doing it under another name.  Maybe it wasn’t simply (or perhaps that should be even) that her original audience wasn’t prepared to try something new, but that, where their best selling authors are concerned, publishers will only accept more of the same.

But, a good writer is a good writer whatever the genre they choose to adopt and to tie someone to the same patterns repeatedly is to deny them the opportunity to develop and grow.  It also denies the reader the opportunity to develop as they follow their favourite authors into new fields.  It might be a vain hope, but it would be good to see the book world taking responsibility and helping both readers and writers stretch their creative wings and, like Peter Morrow, discover that they have more than one type of story to tell, that there is more than one type of story to read.

A Traumatic Weekend.

IMG_0001You will have to excuse me if I don’t post anything lengthy or sensible today.  The Bears and I have had a traumatic weekend.

This should not have been the case.  It certainly wasn’t what we had planned.  The only thing in the diary for these two days was a visit to Stratford to see the RSC’s new production of Love’s Labour’s Lost.  You may have read about it.  It’s been staged along with Much Ado About Nothing (which the theatre’s powers-that-be have decided is the missing Love’s Labour’s Won, but that is a conversation for another day!) setting one on either side of the First World War.  It’s not the first time that Love’s Labours has been located in the Summer of 1914.  Ian Drury placed it in an Oxbridge College in that year and closed the show with a shower of bright red poppy petals.  It tore me apart.  And, to be fair, this production is every bit as good, if not better.  As I took part in a well deserved standing ovation, I was in tears at the end.  However, brilliant or not, it does not excuse what happens just before the interval!

My trusty companions and I were really excited because it was clear from the rehearsal stills that one of the leading actors was a Bear.  Now, just because, when Shakespeare drew up the cast list for this play, he forgot to put the Bear in doesn’t mean that it isn’t perfectly appropriate for Lord Dumain’s faithful friend to accompany him when he signs up to study with his King for the next three years.  When I go to stay anywhere for any length of time The Bears always come with me.  And who else should Dumain try out his romantic verses on if not someone who has loved him since he was a boy?  All perfectly logical and indeed highly proper.  This was a performance we were looking forward to.  Theatrical Bears finally coming into their own in the country’s leading theatre.  Imagine then, our anguish when the thespian Bear playing the role of Bear Dumain, far from being treated with the dignity that his character’s unswerving love and devotion deserved, was dangled by the ear over the parapet of a roof top!

Well, as you will not be surprised to hear, I had to be forcibly restrained from climbing onto the stage and carrying out a daring act of rescue.  It is not enough for the Company to insist that the Bear has never been dropped and that there is no intention that he ever will be dropped.  All I can say is that he has never been dropped YET and that doesn’t mitigate the trauma this poor ursine must go through every performance wondering if this is the time he has to learn how to bounce!

Of course,cruelty to Bears is nothing new to the RSC.  There was the never to be forgotten performance of Richard III in which Anton Lesser kicked the Duke of York’s Teddy Bear!  You can tell how shocked the audience were. They had sat through the murders of Clarence and Hastings without so much as a murmur but, when Richard unleashed that unkindest kick of all, the intake of breath that went round the theatre was deafening.  You might have thought that following such a reaction as that the Company would have learnt its lesson, but it appears otherwise.  The RSPCB will have to be notified.

And so, even as I write to you, The Bears are composing a letter of sympathy to the intrepid performer, assuring him of their support should he wish to take this matter up with Equity.  They are doing it, however, through blearily eyes, because, as you will understand, they had very little sleep last night due to bad dreams.  And, as much as I assure them that I will never dangle them by the ear over a rooftop parapet, it is too late; they have seen it done.  They have witnessed the cruelty that we humans are capable of and their faith in humanity has been shattered.  I hope the RSC realise just what they are responsible for.

What I Loved ~ Siri Hustvedt

whatilovedI’ve said it before but it bears repeating, one of the best things about belonging to a book group is that it puts you in the way of books that you might otherwise never have read.  I’ve had Siri Hustvedt’s 2003 novel, What I Loved, on my radar for some time now but the necessary push to pick it up off that never ending mountain only came about because a fellow reader chose it as the focus for this month’s discussion.  If you’re reading this Jen, then thank you, because while this book may be, as some of the group pointed out, flawed in certain ways, in my opinion, it is a flawed masterpiece.

How to even begin to tell you about this novel?  Well, it’s set amongst the artistic and academic communities of New York’s Manhatten and covers roughly the decades of the seventies, eighties and nineties.  It focuses on two families, those of Leo, the narrator, an art historian and academic and of Bill, an artist and, ultimately, Leo’s closest friend.  We watch, through Leo’s eyes, as Bill develops from a painter, struggling to make a living, to an internationally recognised installation artist. We also watch the growing dismay that surrounds Bill’s only child, Mark, as it becomes apparent that he has serious mental health problems and finds it almost impossible to empathise with other individuals, however close to them he might appear to be.  Both Leo and Bill make a living from trying to analyse aspects of the world around them and then presenting those analyses in ways that will illuminate their subjects to any who come into contact with their work. The irony is that while they are busy dissecting and reinterpreting external matters neither of them has any real understanding of the situation closer to home: of the damage that Mark has suffered and which in turn he is inflicting on others.

More interesting than the plot line for me, however, were the various ideas that Hustvedt explores as she takes us through the lives of her main characters.  These are so many and varied that it would be impossible to discuss them all.  For example, if you are interested in the art world and the way it is manipulated by a small number of individuals, you will find it examined here.  If your concerns are more to do with the relationship between physical and mental health problems, then that is scrutinised too.  Consequently, I am going to concentrate on just one aspect of the novel, that is, what Hustvedt has to say about our relation to story, partly because it was what interested me the most and partly because I think what Hustvedt is saying in relation to this topic also finds echoes in respect of the other issues she covers.

In the very first paragraph Leo reflects on

the uncanny weight of things enchanted by stories that are told and retold and then told again

and this notion of what might be seen as a palimpsest of narratives building up over time, each telling either adding weight and meaning to those that have gone before or concealing something of importance from a previous experience, is relevant both to Bill’s work, which focuses on revealing the unexpected hidden in the depths of the ordinary, and in the way in which those around him fail to understand what is happening to Mark.

As I made my way home, I realised that two narratives about Mark had unfolded inside me – one on top of the other. The superficial story went something like this: Like thousands of other teenagers, Mark had hidden parts of his life from his parents. No doubt he had experimented with drugs, slept with girls and maybe, I was beginning to think, a couple of boys…like so many children his age, he had tried on various persona to discover which one suited him. He behaved one way with his peers and another with adults. This version of Mark story was ordinary, one tale like a million others of a normal, bumpy adolescence.

The other story was similar to the one that lay above it, and its content was identical: Mark had been caught lying. He had formed a friendship with an unsavoury person I privately called ‘the ghost,’ and Mark’s body and voice changed depending on whom he was speaking to at the moment.But this second narrative lacked the smoothness of the first.  It had holes in it and those gaps made the story difficult to tell.  It didn’t rely on a larger fiction about teenage life to fill in its ragged openings but left them gaping and unanswered.

I find the idea that we tell stories about the people we know which fit the template of a generic fiction we carry around with us, rather than seeing the actual narrative of their lives both compelling but also very disturbing.  And yet, it is difficult to see how society could function smoothly if we didn’t.  It is only when something goes radically wrong that we realise how superficial our knowledge of another really is.

Eventually, however, Leo changes his view of the way in which Mark relates to story.  From believing that

Mark’s life was an archaeology of fictions, one on top of the other and [he] had only just started to dig

he shifts his position because

[a] story is about making connections in time, and Mark’s stuck in a time warp, a sick repetition that just shuttles him back and forth, back and forth

until finally he is forced into the belief that

he doesn’t understand what language is. It’s like he never figured out symbols – the whole structure of things is missing.  He can speak, but he just uses words to manipulate other people…It’s more than that.  Mark doesn’t have a story…he doesn’t know what it is.

Can you imagine anything worse than not being aware of what your story is, of simply existing moment by moment without being able to make the causal linkage that moulds those moments into a meaningful existence?  As Leo says very early on in the novel

stories [are] like blood running through a body – paths of life

imagine what it must be like to live your life lost in a wood, surrounded by trees and with no path to help you chart your way through.  I caught the tail end of a discussion on the radio the other day in which someone was claiming that he didn’t think narrative was that important and that we all made far too much fuss about the way in which it related to human existence.  I’m sorry but I couldn’t disagree more.  For me, Barbara Hardy was spot on when she wrote that narrative is a primary act of mind.  The fact that when you read about a character who has lost the ability to make any narrative sense of his life you are not only chilled to the core but unable to find any point of contact with him, unable to get any handle on the way that he thinks and what motivates the way in which he behaves, only goes to emphasise how vital that sense of story is.

I could continue to explore the ways in which Siri Hustvedt moved me in this novel, but you must by now be getting the idea.  If you haven’t read What I Loved then I can only suggest that you do so as soon as possible.  You may not get out of it the same things that I did, but I can promise you that you will come away from it thinking deeply about some of ideas that she considers because there is something in this for everyone to engage with.

The Secret Place ~ Tana French

The-Secret-Place-187x300The Secret Place is the fifth novel in Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad sequence and by my reckoning, the best yet. Rather than featuring the same group of characters in every novel, French links each successive book through the reoccurrence of a relatively minor player from the previous episode in a more significant role in the next.  Enter centre stage Detective Stephen Moran, at present a member of the Cold Case Unit, but desperate to find a place in the elite Murder Squad.  The opportunity appears to have been presented to him on a plate when a sixteen year old school girl brings him evidence relating to a murder enquiry that stalled twelve months previously.  This is, however, no ordinary schoolgirl.  We last saw Holly Mackey giving evidence as an eleven year old in another case; giving that evidence to Stephen to whom she comes now because she can trust him not to treat her like a chicken.  Furthermore, we are well acquainted with Holly’s father, Frank Mackey, who is part of the undercover unit and who has featured in several of these novels as well as playing the central role in Faithful Place.  Nobody takes Frank Mackey for a ride and it seems that his daughter has inherited much of his calculating astuteness.

Both Stephen and the reader would do well to remember this as they delve further into the murder case that is now re-opened under the leadership of Antoinette Conway, a member of the Murder Squad but someone who finds it hard to work within the team.  As a junior investigator the previous year, when the body of Chris Harper was found in the grounds of St Kilda’s Girls school, Conway was frustrated by the silence maintained by the girls in respect of the dealings between themselves and the boys from St Colm’s, where Chris was a pupil.  Knowing that it is likely the powers that be will take the case from her, she and Stephen go into St Kilda’s quickly and hard and very soon narrow their focus to two quartets of fourth years, Holly and her friends Julia, Selina and Becca and their sworn foes, Joanne, Gemma, Orla and Alison.

The difference between these two groups is crucial to the motivation behind the murder.  Joanne is one of those sixteen year olds that I, certainly, would quite willingly swing for.  She sees herself as queen of all she surveys and manipulates the other three in her dorm to service her own needs.  If someone had murdered Joanne they could have legitimately pleaded public interest as a defence.  Holly, Julia, Selina and Becca are a different matter entirely.  They have that sort of intense friendship that can only come about during teenage years: a friendship where the needs of the group and of the other members of the group are automatically placed above your own.  And while Stephen recognise this and its importance to the case, he also envies them their closeness.  It is a type of relationship he has searched for and never found.

Such intense relationships can breed problems however and the reader has a type if access to what such problems might be that is denied to the two detectives.  French maintains a strict structure in this novel.  The actual investigation takes place over a matter of hours but the chapters that tell that part of the story are interlaced with others that chart the journey of the friendship and the pressures to which both it and the individual four girls are subjected.  French knows the teenage psyche only too well and the narrative she relates detailing the passage of the last months of Chris Harper’s life is only too believable to anyone who has worked extensively with young people of this age group.  In fact, this leads me to my only criticism of this book.  If you have worked with teenagers you know very early on who the murderer is and why the crime was committed.  You also know what the damage is likely to be to those who are left.  Once I realised where this was going I found it very hard to continue to the end.

Indeed, when I think back on her earlier novels I realise that French specialises in charting the harm that crime does to those who are neither the immediate perpetrator nor the most obvious victim and I find myself wondering, therefore, why I look forward to her books with such pleasurable anticipation.  Part of it is because she writes so well.  Take, for example, the closing lines of this conversation between Holly and her friends, which capture precisely a type of moment we all know but which we would be hard put to define even to ourselves.

In a while Holly says, “Hey, you know where Cliona is? She’s in the library, looking for a sonnet to copy that Smythe won’t know.”

“She’s gonna get caught,” Becca says.

“That’s so typical,” Selena says. “Wouldn’t it be easier to just write the sonnet?”

“Well, totally,” Holly says. “This always happens. She ends up working harder to get out of doing the thing than she would just doing the thing.”

They leave space for Julia to say something. When she doesn’t, the space gets bigger. The conversation falls into it and vanishes.

As long as French continues to tell me stories not only so exquisitely written but also so perfectly observed I am going to be waiting eagerly for whatever comes next.