Sometimes the most obvious things are the ones we fail to notice. And then the universe gives us a kick up the backside so we get the message.
A cousin kindly forwarded me a plea for male readers for a radio programme audience (if you go to the Edinburgh International Book Festival, you will notice the male/female ratio for most events, which explains the gender-specific request for the radio show). I had no idea if I could go but I ordered the book anyway. In the end, we were busy that weekend so I never did make it, but I started to read the book…and resurfaced a couple of days later.
Then a few days later, as I was driving home, I passed by The Edinburgh Bookshop. It’s a wonderful shop, tucked away at Holy Corner in Edinburgh (for the non-locals, it’s called that because there is a church on all four of the corners of the intersection of two roads. I know this well because I have to prove it to one member of the family or other each time we are there.) It’s also where the girls used to go to an after hours book club for a few years so we have a particular affection for it. With hindsight, I should have pulled over and stopped to take a picture, but it was late and I was hungry and probably late for picking up from a dance class and there was a car right on my tail, so I kept going despite knowing I should just stop for a minute. The entire window was full of books by one author. The same one whose book I had just read.
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell.
Maggie O’Farrell was a name I had heard of, I knew she was an author, but that was about it. I couldn’t have named any of her books or told you anything about what type of books she writes. The sad fact is that the same is true of most authors – I haven’t even heard of them, never mind knowing anything about them. And on investigation, it turns out she lives in Edinburgh and she only won the flipping Costa Novel Award (now I was feeling really bad – I didn’t even know that).
I wrote last week about learning from these authors. Let’s look at one of her characters for a minute. Meet Iris.
Iris walks along the street, keys in one hand, coffee in the other.
Right. This is not fair. In one line, I have a picture of Iris. In just one line. I just stopped reading at this point and decided I needed a break. When I had gathered myself again, it got better.
Iris walks along the street, keys in one hand, coffee in the other. The dog is just behind her, claws tick-ticking on the concrete. Ladders of sun drop down through the gaps in the high buildings and the night’s rain is vanishing in patches from the pavement.
So that’s how you do description. I was taking a lot of mental notes by this point. Next page. One scene. Dialogue – so it turns out this is how you do dialogue, and characterisation, and description. All in one page. I think it’s worth including in full. You’ll enjoy this.
Iris sits opposite Alex in a bar in the New Town. She swings a silver shoe off the end of one toe and bites down on an olive. Alex toys with the bracelet on her wrist, rolling it between his fingers. Then he glances at his watch. ‘She’s never usually this late,’ he murmurs. His eyes are hidden behind dark glasses that give Iris back a warped reflection of herself, of the room behind her.
She drops the olive stone, sucked clean, into a dish. She’d forgotten that Alex’s wife, Fran, was joining them. ‘Isn’t she?’ Iris reaches for another olive, presses it between her teeth.
Alex says nothing, shakes a cigarette out of its box, lifts it to his mouth. She licks her fingers, swirls her cocktail around her glass. ‘You know what?’ she says, as he searches for a match. ‘I got an invoice today and next to my name it had “the witch” scribbled on it. In pencil.’
‘Yeah. “The witch” Can you believe that? I can’t remember who it was now.’
He is silent, striking a match against its box raising the flame to his mouth. He takes a long draw on his cigarette before saying, ‘Obviously it was someone who knows you.’
Iris considers her brother for a moment as he sits before her, smoke curling from his mouth. Then she reaches out and drops an olive down the front of his shirt.
I think that scene should be in every ‘how to’ guide to fiction. It tells you more about this brother and sister than you realise until you get to the end of the book and re-read it, and you realise that yes, you did pick it up the first time round. It was all there. The scene stuck in my head all the way through the book so when I got to the end, all I could think was “yup, knew that”. The one thing that really riles me (all right, there is more than one thing) is when something appears at the end of a book in a grand unveiling and I don’t just think, I know that it was not set up properly. It was just dropped in to solve a problem, to get to the ending, to wrap up something that made no sense. There were no clues, no hints, no way that I, the reader, could have worked out how the story was drawn to a close.
In this book, however, I knew what was going to happen because it was the only thing that could happen, because I knew the characters, knew what they were like, knew how they would react. It was an inevitability – as it should be. Twists are great, but you have to be able to say “I should have known that” – because the author laid out the trail – as well as a second trail, the one which you were supposed to follow, thinking you had figured it out, only to find you were deceived all along (cue evil laughter from the author – fooled another one). My batting average for figuring out what the twists are has improved greatly, but (fortunately) there are still enough variations to catch me out. It would be boring otherwise.
Anyway, back to Maggie O’Farrell. In the spirit of obsessiveness, which in my family we know is an inherited trait, I now have two more of her books on my holiday reading list. It reminds me of our holiday ten years ago in Boston (unbelievably, still the era when you couldn’t get any book in the world delivered to you within a few days) when I ordered every book Jodi Picoult had written to be delivered to our hotel. Back then, only one or two of her books were available in the UK and, having read The Pact, I had to read everything else by her. It does mean I have pretty complete collections by my “go to” authors. Maggie O’Farrell has been added to that list.
PS every book I’ve mentioned this week and last comes highly recommended by me. Read any of them, you’ll be glad you did.
PPS you should also have known that this blog was going to be about Maggie O’Farrell because I’ve been telling you it would be for the last two weeks. Just in case you thought I hadn’t laid the trail…