Holiday in very hot Greece meant lots of reading. Some great books, some very disappointing. Here’s my list, in no order at all.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Sex and Stravinsky, Washington Square, The Passage, The Help, Brooklyn, The Earth Hums in B Flat.
Of these, I loved Brooklyn the best. Beautiful, restrained, elegant writing. And a couple of others, naming no names, made me reflect a lot on the relationship between reader and writer.
Two of the above books ended in the death of a key character. Now I think there is a contract between a writer and her reader and it’s about holding the reader securely in the world of the novel. The reader, after all, is giving me, the author, hours of his or her time. I don’t want her to feel cheated or manipulated at the end. You won’t catch Jane Austen killing off Lizzie Bennet just when Darcy has at last declared his love for her. What’s OK in a spy or horror thriller is not all right for other types of fiction. It’s all about a strange, enigmatic understanding of plot that the reader develops over years of engaging with stories, in fact since being told her or his first fairy story as a small child. Now of course those expectations can be subverted or upended or shattered, and that might be part of the novelist’s plan, but such subversions, I think, should be handled with incredible skill and sensitivity, and should be part of this unwritten contract from the first. So much writing is just plain unsubtle.
But now I’m reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Lacuna, which is wonderful. The very opposite of a worthless book, full of life and character and quirkiness. And that’s the contract - as a reader, I am prepared to be lead by the nose by Kingsolver into uncharted waters because I trust her utterly.