What happens when a book gets it right?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the balance a writer needs to strike between crafting beautiful sentences, tackling issues that make the reader think deeply and creating a story so compelling that the reader has no choice but to keep turning the pages. After all, who wants to write a serious, weighty book about important issues that no one reads because the story is dull?

The reason I was thinking this is because I was about a third of the way through a book, which shall remain nameless, but which had been widely praised by critics and which I thought I would enjoy. I didn’t. I found the story plodding, full of scenes in which nothing happened, peopled by characters I felt no connection to, and with no desire to turn to the next page to see what would happen. I just didn’t care.

Fractured by Dawn Barker

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And then Dawn Barker’s brand new book, Fractured, arrived. I hastily put away the nameless book and opened hers and was so glad that I did. Because right from the outset I was pulled into the heart of the story. I was so desperate to know what would happen that I even skipped ahead a little and peeked at the next chapters, and while I may not have liked all of the characters all of the time, I revelled in their complexity and in my need to know why they had done the things that Barker hints they may have done.

Combined with this very skilful narrative, Barker tackles an issue of motherhood that is spoken about very little, and which should be spoken about more (I can’t say too much here because I don’t want to reveal what happens). Barker brings the issue to its full emotional life and I found, as a mother, that I couldn’t help but reconsider my own experiences of mothering a new baby in those first and often god-awful six weeks after birth.

The writing in these parts of the book is especially good. You immediately feel the claustrophobia of new motherhood, as well as the small moments of joy that are often pushed away by the incessant demands of the baby and the need to recalibrate relationships within a family which, up until then, had consisted of only a husband and a wife and on the needs of oneself and one’s partner, but not on the needs of a tiny dependent baby.

Fractured made me think, not just about my own experiences of motherhood, but also ahead to the future, to an unimaginable time when my own children might have children of their own, and what my role as a grandparent could be. It also made me think about the stories of motherhood that we tell, of such much love and wonder and happiness, but I will also be sure to tell my children of the despair and the total re-evaluation of oneself and the fear that it will never end – and I will tell them that this is normal, and that it does end. And on yet another level, it made me think about my own writing, and the importance of keeping the reader not just intellectually stimulated, but also drawn right into the heart of the story.

The book is so accomplished that it is difficult to imagine it is Dawn’s first. I’m certainly looking forward with much pleasure to her second.

Pilgramage by Jacinta Halloran

The other book by an Australian woman writer that I have read this month is Pilgramage,Pilgrimage_HR_titlecover by Jacinta Halloran. This is a quiet book, with perhaps not the same drive as Barker’s, but with still the same tackling of serious issues, this time to do with ageing and mortality and medicine versus the spirit. I liked the way the book explored these themes, which are obviously similar to the themes of my book, If I Should Lose You.

Halloran’s narrative is contemplative, and driven forward by Celeste, a character who is particularly unlikeable at times, and very humanly fragile at others. I did find some of the coincidences in this book perhaps too much, and I also found myself cringing a little when a romantic entanglement seemed to threaten, but Halloran got us out of that in the nick of time. Certainly, the scenes with Celeste and her mother towards the end of the book are very powerful and this is a book worth reading.

These books are my third and fourth reviews for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013.

 

5 comments

  1. Hello. I know exactly what you mean regarding observing a balance between entertainment and thoughtful or applicable content in a book. It seems too often that I read a novel that attempts to address a certain issue or theme, and the author is obviously very interested in the affair, but the narrative content is sacrificed on behalf of stressing the issues that the book involves, or the voice of the author is too readily apparent which distances me from what I’m reading. It’s always a pleasure to discover a book that is rich both in meaning and entertainment. Also, I found your blog randomly, and noticed that you have books of your own. I read the descriptions and am interested in checking them out. If I do, I’ll be sure to let you know that they were enjoyed.

    • Thanks so much for stopping by! It really is a pleasure to find books that get that magic mix right – I think I may have read a few in a row that just didn’t, which made it all the more wonderful to find one that did. And I suppose that’s the joy of reading, stumbling across the one book that makes you stop, sit and become completely absorbed in its world.

  2. Shannon Meyerkort

    Was the nameless book ‘All That I Am’?

    I read If I should Lose You while I was visiting a friend in Sydney. It was my plane book and I couldn’t put it down.I made Lexi watch five hours of TV on the plane so I could read. I don’t think I said more than a dozen words to her the entire flight!

    I loved it, but I just have one question: why didn’t Paul think it was a good idea for Camille to donate part of her liver (if she hadn’t been pregnant). The relationship between Paul and Camille resonated strongly with me, but that was one thing I couldn’t understand, and was wondering why you had written him like that.

    It was fantastic meeting you at the festival, I hope you enjoyed the rest of it. I thought about it all the next day while cooking for my baby’s birthday party.

    regards Shannon

    • Hi Shannon – it’s funny but you’re the second person who’s asked me if the book I couldn’t finish was All That I Am. It wasn’t, I did make my way through that – I was stuck in New York in a hotel room in the middle of Hurricane Sandy so I was able to work through the slowish start and get to the end as I had nothing else to do!

      Thanks so much for your feedback about my book and I’m so glad I was able to keep you entertained for the flight – I’m sure Lex loved the opportunity for 5 hours of TV too! Re your question – I think Paul just wanted to play devil’s advocate. He wanted to make sure Camille had thought about all the repercussions of having major surgery and to acknowledge that there were risks and that she had considered how to deal with those risks, rather than rushing in heedlessly. Of course, as a mother, to rush in heedlessly is the only option – but maybe sometimes it’s worth having a plan to deal with the consequences and so I wanted Paul to be the one to have that point of view. I hope that makes sense – what do you think?

      The rest of the festival was great – it was so lovely to feel like a writer for a whole weekend. Back to the reality of being a laundry-woman now though!

  3. Pingback: Australian Women Writers Challenge Round-Up | While the kids are sleeping

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