The type of reader I am has very much shaped the way I write. I am a fast reader, given to skimming passages I don’t enjoy or ones that don’t seem relevant, and so I try to write for someone like me. This was brought home to me yesterday, when I started to read a library book that I had chosen against my better judgement. It was against my judgement because it has a sticker on it saying “Winner: The Man Booker Prize 2104” – and I generally find that books that win literary prizes tend to do it by being innovative and often overusing the sort of tricks that I abhor. And so it is with this one (“Narrow Road to the Deep North” by Richard Flanagan). (And I know that many of you will have loved this book, but this is my blog so I get to say what I think first – please do comment if you want your say about how brilliant it is.)
There are two things in this book that have annoyed me. First, speech is not indicated by quotation marks (“like this”). Why not? The system was devised as a handy way to indicate that someone was being quoted verbatim, and it’s very useful as a reader to know instantly whether you are reading the words of the character or those of the narrator. I don’t want to have to backtrack when I realise that I’ve been assuming that the wrong voice is speaking.
And second – much more important, this one – the narrative in this book shifts in time (not a problem in itself – I quite like that) but without warning or adequate notice. In one chapter, the hero starts off as a child. In the next section, we get a tip that we’ve moved on (“she lay on the hotel bed with him eighteen years after…”) – so I do my maths and work out that he’s now about 24. And then in the next section (“he felt fifty years pass”) he must be about 74. So far, so good – although I am growing a little tired of having to do my own arithmetic. But the next section begins: “When they arrived in Siam in early 1943…”. Bother. How old is he in 1943? I vaguely remember being given a start date right at the beginning, so back I go to find out what year it was when he was six…
Perhaps I have become a lazy reader. But they say that you should write the book you want to read, so I am meticulous to make sure that in the Plank books any swirly reminiscences are signposted and dated, and the main action is clearly placed in time. And Sam speaks “in quotation marks”. I assume that people are reading for the story, and not to practice their logic or maths.