Voice, characterization, backstory, all in two lovely and quite-dense paragraphs.
Since Olivia got sense and kicked me out, I live on the quays, in a massive apartment block built in the nineties by, apparently, David Lynch. The carpets are so deep that I’ve never heard a foodstep, but even at four in the morning you can hear the hum of five hundred minds buzzing on every side of you: people dreaming, hoping, worrying, planning, thinking. I grew up in a tenement house, so you would think I’d be good with the factory-farm lifestyle, but this is difference. I don’t know these people; I never even see these people. I have no idea how or when they get in and out of the place. For all I know they never leave, just stay barricaded in their apartments, thinking. Even in my sleep I’ve got one ear tuned to that buzz, ready to leap out of bed and defend my territory if I need to.
The décor in my personal corner of Twin Peaks is divorce chic, by which I mean that, four years on, it still looks like the moving van hasn’t arrived yet. The exception is Holly’s room, which is loaded with every fluffy pastel object known to man. The day we went looking for furniture together, I had finally managed to wrestle one weekend a month out of Olivia, and wanted to buy Holly everything on three floors of the shopping center. A part of me had believed I’d never see her again.
Tana French, FAITHFUL PLACE
Sunday’s word count was 385, for a total of 4,498. My Clarion West Write-A-Thon page is here.
What I like most about this is I feel the imagery sets a very particular, chilly and winter-hued tone:
He knew it was regarded as one of the loveliest Tudor manor houses in England and now it was before him in its perfection of form, its confident reconciliation of grace and strength; a house built for certainties, for birth, death and rites of passage, by men who knew what they believed and what they were doing. A house grounded in history, enduring. There was no grass or garden and no statuary in front of the Manor. It presented itself unadorned, its dignity needing no embellishment. He was seeing it at its best. The white morning glare of wintry sunlight had softened, burnishing the trunks of the beech trees and bathhing the stones of the manor in a silvery glow, so that for a moment in the stillness it seemed to quiver and become as insubstantial as a vision. The daylight would soon fade; it was the month of the winter solstice.
THE PRIVATE PATIENT, by P.D. James
Here is the lovely chapter one opener of Louise Marley’s The Brahms Deception. (The book has a short prologue, too.)
Roses spilled over the garden wall surrounding Casa Agosto, blooms of scarlet and pink and white blazing against the pale stone under impossibly bright Italian sunshine. Below the village of Castagno, forests and fields glittered faintly, as if washed in gold. Here and there, grapevines stretched and twisted in long, straight columns. In the valley beyond, a brown ribbon of road meandered along the blue line of a narrow stream. The Italian hills looked like bolts of dark green velvet, rolling gently from the ancient hilltop where twelve houses, each named for a month of the year, clustered along cramped streets. The houses were tall and narrow, trimmed with window boxes and surrounded by small gardens. Saints’ niches pierced the outer walls, their tiny statues nestled amid offerings of tiny nosegays or bunches of herbs. In the garden of Casa Agosto, the branches of an ancient olive tree drooped to the grass, heavy with unripe fruit. A wooden bench, painted with a rustic scene of wooly lambs in a green field, nestled in its shade.
It was all real, Frederica reminded herself. Everything was real. Except for her.
What I like in this is that it’s classic scene-setting. We get an abundance of imagery, an opportunity to really see Casa Agosto, and to get a feel for what it–and by extension–the tone of the novel are going to be like. We get color and romance, we get two separate mentions of Italy, in case the first one goes past too quickly, and the way the first paragraph is structured also tells us that Casa Agosto itself is important. It’s not some random house the characters are going to pass through and abandon.
And then we get a Question, in the form of Frederica and her musings about her unreality. If the setting itself isn’t enough to engage us, we now get something to be curious about. It’s as though she’s let us look around before taking our hand and leading us into the scene.
I was powerfully struck by many things in M.K. Hobson’s The Hidden Goddess, but somehow this struck a deep chord. Emily’s talking to a magician who practices credomancy, whose power is all about the practitioner’s self-confidence and the way they’re viewed by others, and this magician tells her:
“I’m also a woman. Failure, struggle and doubt are my constant companions. They are not always pleasant, but they inoculate me against overconfidence. As such, I would not trade them for all the arrogant bravado in the world.”
It’s a nice bit of characterization, and it also speaks to something I feel, in my marrow, as truth. That idea of arrogant bravado–a thing I see as coming from a place of privilege, of developing from experience the expectation that one’s shiniest objects of desire will be dropped in their laps by the Universe–it’s the flip side of being trained to have low expectations.
Like most people, I’ve had my share of good and bad flips of the cosmic coin. The character in this novel who’s expressing this idea, on the other hand, is someone who, because of her ethnicity, gender and the society she lives in, has never had anything handed to her. Everything she is and everything she has she’s made herself, and she knows it could be yanked away by a wisp of bad luck, a mistake or even an accident of timing.
I understood her perfectly in that moment: in two lines, Hobson made her utterly real to me. It is very neatly done.
Here are a couple passages from American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, and the Birth of Hollywood, by Howard Blum, that are witty and really capture character:
It was well known that the detective and Rogers detested each other with the long-standing ill will that only the self-absorbed can find the patience to sustain.
Billy despised anarchists. In his long career he had arrested murderers, thieves, swindlers and crooked politicians, but he had a singularly deep, visceral hatred for anarchists. He thought they “lived without any regard for a single decent thing in life.” “They exist in a state of free love, are notoriously unfaithful to their mates thus chosen, and are so crooked that even in this class of rogues, there does not seem to be any hint of honor. That is, their way of looking at the world directly challenged his orderly, patriotic, churchgoing, monogamous, achieving middle-class life. And that, he knew with unshakeable certainty, was an unforgivable crime.
I found the content of this book to be very absorbing and it is a fast read, the kind of history one just rips through. But Blum’s central conceit is to tie together three lives, those of Clarence Darrow, detective William J. Burns and filmmaker D.W. Griffith, and I don’t think that ever quite comes off. Darrow and Burns definitely intertwined, but they glanced off Griffith–he just happened to be around.