Wednesday, May 27, 2015
This is Barbara Kingsolver’s first novel, published in 1998. A Baptist minister, Nathan Price, relocates his family from the state of Georgia in the USA to work as a missionary in the remote village of Kilanga in the Belgian Congo, in the late nineteen fifties, early nineteen sixties. Nathan is a man very sure of himself and his faith. We witness—largely through the eyes of his four daughters and occasionally his wife—his total failure to relate to the people of the village in which the family now lives, and the gradual disintegration of the family as it deals with a number of calamities, whether they be natural, personal, social or political. The title derives from the ambiguity—or perhaps complexity and subtlety—of the Kikongo language. Nathan finishes each sermon with these words: ‘Tata Jesus is Bangala.’ He wants this to mean: ‘The Lord Jesus is precious and dear.’ However, the way he pronounces the word ‘Bangala’ it means: ‘The Lord Jesus is the poisonwood tree.’ ‘Praise the Lord, hallelujah, my friends’ says Adah his daughter during her narration, ‘for Jesus will make you itch like nobody’s business.’
The story is told largely as a first person narrative through the eyes of the daughters: Ruth May, the youngest, who is five at the start of the novel; Leah and Adah, twins, who are fourteen; and Rachel, who is fifteen. Sometimes the narrator is Nathan’s wife, Orleanna.
I know nothing about life in a Congolese village in the middle of the last century, but I could not help feeling that we were not being presented with a ‘real life’ story here. Rather this was a vision of the world shifted slightly out of phase into a reality in which the natural laws to which we are accustomed do not always apply. To that extent the novel has a magical realist flavour. Certainly this is also due to the fact that this world is seen through very young eyes. To younger eyes, perhaps Kingsolver is telling us, the world is a less comprehensible, more magical, more mythological place.
The youngest daughter, Ruth, is playful, curious and adventurous. She is the one most able to adapt to this new world into which she is thrown. She is less fully formed and therefore more malleable. She has a less rational approach to reality and is more accepting of the strange, the unusual, the different. She is able to communicate with the other children in the village, when necessary at a non-verbal level. Leah, one of the twins, is deeply devoted to her father and tries hardest to accept and understand him. She is also independent and something of a tomboy. Although in the end she departs radically from her father’s views, she retains some of the passion, conviction and even dogmatism with which he holds them. Adah is the other twin, hemiplagic from birth (only one side of her brain develops), with apparent physical disabilities and a limited ability to speak (at least at this stage of her life). She is, at the same time, brilliant in a ‘Rainman’ kind of way. She also has a very distinctive way of perceiving and dealing with the world. The oldest daughter is Rachel, self-obsessed, superficial and enraptured with American culture.
Orleanna is deferential towards her husband but gradually begins to assert her independence as the family suffers hardship and, ultimately, tragedy. Eventually her maternal instincts take over, and she is a lioness defending her cubs.
I never really felt moved by this novel, its characters or their fate. I was intrigued, fascinated and interested, but not deeply, emotionally involved. I think this has to do with the fact that I never felt that these were real, flesh and blood people. Rather, they were mythological representations of different world views or philosophies. After the family leaves the village and the characters go their separate ways, I thought this became even more the case: these were politico-socio-spiritual embodiments rather than people. This was particularly true, I thought, of the daughters. And amongst them, particularly Rachel and Leah, who represent polar opposites. I would have been quite happy for the novel to end when they left the village, and was not really satisfied with the way it developed subsequently.
There are so many themes dealt with in this novel: religion and spirituality; politics and society; colonialism and the clash of cultures; the domination and callousness of the West. What was the final message that I took from this? Perhaps that no culture can ever hope to fully comprehend another. All of this was fascinating, thought provoking and would generate excellent discussion groups. It no doubt has in the years since its publication. But for much of the time, the concrete flesh and blood of humanity was buried beneath this intellectual load. For example, was the relationship between Leah and her Congolese husband Antoine a real relationship, or was it a vehicle for exploring cultural relations and political oppression? More the latter, I think, than the former.
This novel is no doubt a masterful achievement. I thought perhaps Kingsolver dragged it out too long. It could, as I have intimated, have finished satisfactorily about three quarters of the way through, after the family leaves the village. What comes after that is less and less story and more and more philosophical, political and social commentary. There are certainly moments of beautiful prose here, and the novel is always thought provoking. Nevertheless, because it is overlong, and because I never quite made an emotional investment in the characters or their story, I give it four stars.
So many analogies with other art forms are appropriate when considering writing as art. Painting with words. A verbal symphony. Recently I have spent several weeks wrestling with a chapter in my new novel. This book has been difficult to write from the word go, but this chapter just wouldn’t come together. I knew more or less how it needed to end, but getting to there from the beginning was like swimming through treacle.
In that previous paragraph I notice I have applied two non-artistic metaphors to the process of writing: wrestling and swimming (through treacle). I hope when I mention wrestling this doesn’t conjure up images of the theatre that appears on our televisions. Or sumo wrestling. Actually, I hope it conjures up no visual images at all. I can think of no form of wrestling which is even remotely pleasing to the eye. No. Think of wrestling with the lid of a stubborn jar, or a flat-pack piece of furniture. Something that just won’t bloody work!
As for swimming through treacle ... Well, I’ve never actually tried it, though I can’t imagine it would be very pleasant.
The image I actually had in mind when I began this post was of writing as a form of sculpture. Here is a piece of clay that we must keep wet, pushing it here, pulling it there, slicing away this, adding that. This is what writing sometimes feels like to me. I have a lump of something that I must mould and shape. Perhaps I see the final form inside this lump, as a sculptor might see the man in the chunk of marble. But drawing out that shape ... That is difficult and time consuming. This is how physical writing can sometimes be for me.
I think I have the shape of that chapter correct now. On to the next.
Monday, May 25, 2015
‘Walking along the beach, the sun shone brightly in my eyes.’
Some of you will read that sentence and realise immediately what is wrong with it. Others will stare for hours and see nothing wrong at all.
That, my friends, is a dangling participle. We all do it from time to time, dangle our participles, without realising we have done so. I can sometimes read past them without noticing.
A participle is an adjectival form derived from a verb. ‘Walking’ is the present participle of the verb ‘to walk’. We use it as a verb with the auxiliary verb ‘to be’: ‘he is walking’; ‘he was walking’. But we can also use it as an adjective to describe something: ‘He is a walking, talking dictionary.’
In the sentence above ‘walking’ is not being used as a verb. The subject and auxiliary verb are absent. It is being used to describe something. It is being used adjectivally. We might say, ‘There he was, walking along the beach.’ Here, ‘walking along the beach’ describes ‘him’, much as ‘dressed’ does in this sentence: ‘There he was, walking along the beach, dressed in a pink kimono.’ ‘Dressed’ is a past participle.
So what is wrong with the sentence at the head of this blog? ‘Walking’ needs an accompanying noun to describe. Taken as it stands, ‘walking’ describes the sun. If we rewrite this sentence we can see the problem more clearly: ‘The sun, walking along the beach, shone brightly in my eyes.’ Now perhaps the sun is walking along the beach in the strange world we are creating here. But probably not.
What is meant by this sentence is: ‘As I was walking along the beach, the sun shone brightly in my eyes.’ If this is what you mean, then, well ... it’s probably a good idea to write it. You might also want to say, ‘Glaring up above, the sun shone brightly in my eyes.’ ‘Glaring’ is quite happy to describe the sun. ‘Walking’—I have it on good authority—generally is not.
We are quite capable of dangling other things as well; participles are not alone in suffering this indignity. ‘At the age of eight, my family emigrated to Australia.’ Ah, okay. My family was eight years old? Clearly I mean: ‘When I was eight years old, my family emigrated to Australia.’ A useful rule of thumb is: If you mean one thing, don’t say another.
Of course it is easy for our eye to slip over things like this when we have written them ourselves. We know what we meant, so that’s what we read. Indeed, dangling bits are so common that we usually know what the person meant even when we didn’t write it ourselves. But they do jar. When I come across one I do just have to shake my head momentarily to dislodge the image of Old Sol strolling along the beach on (what would be) a very sunny day.
So be very, very careful about what you leave dangling out there.
Wednesday, April 22, 2015
In case you have been asleep during the last year or so, much of the world is currently devoting a lot of time, energy and money to remembering the First World War, which began and ended a century or so ago. In Australia the focal point for this is the battle that took place at Gallipoli, on the shores of Turkey, on and around April 25, 1915. In Australia we commemorate this as ANZAC Day, which is quickly becoming—if it is not already—the holiest day in Australia’s calendar. It was a massive catastrophe, a failed invasion, which resulted in the deaths of about 44,000 allied troops. ANZAC stands for ‘Australian and New Zealand Army Corps’. For anyone wanting more details, a quick Google search will yield hundreds of thousands of results.
About 8000 Australians died on the beaches of what is now ANZAC Cove. Although ‘claimed’ by Australia and New Zealand, we should remember that over 21,000 British troops also died during this debacle.
I have no problem with mourning the waste of life there and during the rest of this war. And a waste it was. This was no great defence of freedom; Australian troops were not ‘fighting for their country’. Australia had no argument with Turkey. This was very much a case of old men sending young men to die. Of course, many young Australians set off eagerly on this adventure, just as some young men today set off eagerly to fight alongside ISIS (or whatever we are supposed to call it these days). Rightly or wrongly, this is something that young men will do; a little encouragement from the ‘old men’ can turn a trickle into a flood.
Were the men brave who fought and died in these campaigns? Many probably were. Those who put their own lives at risk to save others, for example. An horrific scenario like this does indeed generate great acts of heroism. It probably also generates great acts of what some would call ‘cowardice’. Did many turn and flee? Probably. I wouldn’t blame them. I would likely have been among them. As much as heroism and bravery certainly occurred at Gallipoli and other World War One battlefields, being there in the first place was nothing short of stupidity.
As we remember this war, let’s remember it for its stupidity, waste and horror, rather than for the acts of bravery it triggered as a consequence. If we focus on the latter, do we not send the message that seeking out conflict in order to share in this glory, heroism, bravery and camaraderie is a good and worthy thing? Let’s not thank our heroes who fought and died in this pointless conflict. Let’s apologise to them.
Saturday, April 11, 2015
I know what it is like to be a keen young deacon in the Anglican Church. I also know what it is like when your faith slowly withers and dies, losing all relevance. Euan is a young Anglican deacon from Ireland, who accepts a brief posting to the Anglican community of Bahrain, with his wife Ruth and their young daughter Anna. This is shortly before the outbreak of the Second Gulf War.
When Ruth discovers that her husband has not revealed the full extent of his mission, she finds herself—emotionally at least—all but alone in Bahrain, and her faith begins to crumble. She meets a troubled young teenager, Noor, who has moved from England to Bahrain with her Muslim father, following a serious incident at her school. Noor becomes involved with Ruth and her husband, looking after young Anna at every opportunity. Ruth also meets Noor’s cousin, Farid, nineteen years old.
The story is told exclusively from the intimate point of view of Ruth and Noor. Other characters come and go, but none take centre stage. Everything is viewed and lived through the eyes of Ruth and Noor. This is their emotional, spiritual and psychological journey.
Those who are looking for action and adventure should not turn to this book. There is tension and even suspense here, but the essential story takes place inside the minds of these two characters. What happens is much less important than their response to it. There is surprisingly little external dialogue here, but a great deal of internal dialogue and introspection. This will not appeal to everyone. Some readers may become irritated with these characters, perhaps Ruth in particular, because of their poor judgement and questionable decisions. Nevertheless I felt that there was some real honesty and insight here.
There are some grammatical issues that I thought the editors at Faber and Faber might have addressed. I am used to seeing such things in self-published books—comma splices, mismatched subject and verb, misplaced commas—but I would have expected a more exacting standard here. The author also slips sometimes between past and future tenses. I can understand why for literary reasons an author might decide to adopt the present tense at times—to create a particular sense of immediacy perhaps—but the reasons here were not immediately obvious.
I found the ending satisfactory, with loose ends tied up. I was particularly interested in how Ruth’s character and spirituality developed. While at times I thought it might develop into such, this was not an apology for Anglicanism or any other version of the Christian faith. Again there was a certain truth and honesty here.
Thursday, April 9, 2015
For a time I worked for a community organisation, providing support for the long-term unemployed. These were usually people dealing with a multitude of issues: psychiatric and other health and/or substance abuse issues; domestic violence; restricted educational opportunities. What exactly I was supposed to do to help them was never quite clear. An hour’s chat, once every month or so—if they turned up for their appointments—achieved little. Often they didn’t turn up; and, let’s face it, beyond meeting the requirements for their welfare payment, what incentive did they have?
What struck me was how busy these people were. This was often their excuse for not attending their appointments: they just had so much to do! Quite how they managed to be so busy—always with no paid work, usually with no educational commitments, and often with no family commitments either—remained a mystery. There was I in my office, awaiting people who didn’t show, twiddling my thumbs, wishing desperately that I was as busy as my clients appeared to be.
This appearance of busyness is one I have encountered in many places and circumstances over the years. There were my fellow workers in that establishment, for example. I know they had just as much difficulty encouraging their clients to attend appointments as I did, but talk to them and they were always quick to tell you how busy they were.
When I was a clergyman I would often struggle to fill my time productively. I was, therefore, filled with guilt and a sense of inadequacy when confronted with the apparent busyness of my colleagues. What was I not doing that they were? Was I simply more efficient than they were, completing all the necessary work in much less time? Was I overlooking some important duties? Or were they really far less busy than they would have me believe?
The truth is probably a mixture of these things. Some things I probably didn’t do as a curate or as a chaplain that I was expected to do. I didn’t, for instance, visit every day the same people that I had visited the day before, who showed no interest in my visits; or who would tell me the same stories again. I didn’t stand around for hours in the nurses’ station ‘networking’ with staff, building ‘relationships’ with them—in fact gossiping and distracting them from their duties. I didn’t always attend the seemingly endless sequence of vital committee meetings. I didn’t always spend enough time writing reports that no one would read.
Also I have always been very efficient. I have always been able to spend half an hour on a task that might take someone else two hours. I was never inclined to extend this half hour by engaging in a very important, hour-long telephone conversation with a colleague—more ‘networking’ I failed to do. The problem with this efficiency is that it has often left me bored, at a loose end. What do I do now? The secret, I have learned from others, is, apparently, to create work. ‘I really must re-organise that filing cabinet that I re-organised last week.’ ‘I really should visit Mrs Smith again, because she seemed a little down at the service last week—and she makes lovely pumpkin scones.’ ‘I should form a committee to make sure that all our other committees are functioning efficiently.’
Busyness fills our empty spaces, warding of boredom and, perhaps, a nagging sense that what we are doing is not really achieving very much. Busyness (we hope) increases our worth and value in the eyes of others.
Much more important than busyness, of course, is productivity. I use this term with reservations, because it is used by business and government to constantly demand that more be done for less. Despite this abuse of the term, I know what gives me the greatest satisfaction. I can have a very busy morning but achieve nothing. On the other hand, I can have a quiet morning and achieve much. If I have a really productive morning—perhaps I write a very good chapter, or manage to get a huge chunk of copy editing out of the way—I feel satisfied. I can have a very busy day and feel no satisfaction at all. If I have a productive morning, perhaps it is okay to spend the afternoon reading for pleasure, or listening to music, or walking on the beach, or watching the birds chase each other among the trees. I don’t need to fill the empty time with more busyness. And I don’t have to feel guilty for not doing so.
Wednesday, April 8, 2015
I have written before in this blog about the much touted expression among writers: Show, don’t tell! (Here and here.) It is repeated so often, and is (or seems to be) such a key concept, that I constantly revisit it all the time in my own mind.
Anton Chekhov probably never wrote precisely these oft quoted words: ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.’ Nevertheless, this probably represents a valid distillation of what he expressed in several places, and of the way he tried to write. So how might we actually do what Chekhov suggests?
It was very hot, and the sun was shining brightly. Tom walked outside.
Here the author provides the reader with three pieces of information: (1) it’s hot; (2) the sun is bright; and (3) Tom goes outside. The action here is Tom’s walking outside; the rest sets the scene and provides the background. However, the same information could be conveyed to the reader within the context of the action, like this:
Outside, Tom blinked against the brightness of the sun, sweat beading on his forehead.
This is now told from Tom’s point of view. This conveys to the reader Tom’s experience of the bright sunlight and the heat. There is no external narrator—as in the first version—describing the scene ‘objectively’. The same information is conveyed, but in a more existential way. The reader is not, momentarily, lifted out of the story and provided with some ‘facts’, as in the first version. Rather, the reader experiences the reality as Tom does.
Note that this is not simply a difference between showing and telling. Both are actually telling. In the first version the reader is told that it’s hot and the sun is bright. In the second version the reader is told that Tom blinks and sweats. But that ‘information’—the relating of that experience—lets the reader know indirectly that outside, the sun is bright and it’s hot. The writer tells us that Tom is sweating to show us that it’s hot. Most importantly, rather than just giving us the facts, he conveys the effects of the heat and the light on Tom. This keeps us inside Tom’s world.
Sometimes as a writer we will want to set the scene, before plunging the reader into the heart of the action, back into the lives of the characters. Bear in mind, though, that at this moment the reader becomes an observer, rather than a participant. If that is the effect you want to achieve, that’s fine. But if you really want to immerse the reader in the story you are telling, you will try to hide yourself, as the writer, as much as possible. You can say, ‘The driveway was lined with frangipani trees’; or you can say, ‘Tom was overwhelmed by the scent of frangipani as he walked along the tree-lined driveway.’
Tell the readers one thing to show them something else.