I don’t know what it is in my nature that makes me distrust the incredibly successful. But I was comforted recently by Iris Murdoch’s The Black Prince to know that it’s not a perspective wholly unique to me.
In Murdoch’s novel, Bradley Pearson is a writer almost without publication, who has been saving his gift for the one book that will be his life’s crowning achievement. He is jealous and slightly resentful toward Arnold Baffin, a younger writer he ‘discovered’ who churns out a book a year, and who is, in Bradley’s opinion, squandering his talent on minor works and who moves too quickly to ever write anything worthwhile.
In the same spirit I’ve avoided novelists with huge repertoires simply because I assumed a wide appeal pointed to a diluted art form that would leave me a) wishing I could recover the time wasted on a poorly written book or b) feeling guilty for not slogging my way through something more challenging and meaningful to the human experience.
But after hearing Jodi Picoult and her daughter, Sammy, in an excellent interview on Radio 4’s Women’s Hour recently, I realised how narrow-minded and pretentious I was behaving and immediately picked up Leaving Time, published in November 2014 by Hodder & Stoughton.
Alice Metcalf, a research scientist studying memory and grief in elephants, disappeared after a tragic accident at the elephant sanctuary where she lived and worked. Her daughter, Jenna, was three years old at the time and although she has no memory of the events of that night, she believes that her mother would never have left her willingly. Now thirteen, she hires a washed-up private investigator (Virgil Stanhope) and a psychic hack (Serenity Jones) to help her find out what really happened the night of the accident and to locate Alice. The revelations at the end of the book leave everyone, including the readers, reeling.
I enjoyed this book. The four primary characters take turns telling the story in first person narratives – Alice sharing her history through her journals and research, with Jenna, Virgil and Serenity operating in the present day to find her. It worked well. There are grumblings from some that the book is weighed down by elephant research, but I didn’t feel that. The elephant’s behaviour and what Alice learned from them about love and loss so closely aligned to the events that I felt each entry added depth and texture to the story.
Here are five lessons I learned from Leaving Time:
- In-depth research and the details authors are able to thread through their story can make the whole thing vivid and believable.
- Telling a story through multiple narrators can work so long as their stories compliment and build on each other.
- Layer suspense one detail at a time, slowly uncovering the clues that move the reader forward to the climax of the story.
- Look at your story from each character’s perspective and determine which is most compelling? It may not be the one you started writing from.
- Just because an author is hugely popular, doesn’t mean they should be discounted as talentless hacks pandering to the masses.
On this last point, I was hugely inspired by Stephen King’s book On Writing, although I’ve always steered clear of his nightmare-inducing genre, and now I find myself enjoying Jodi Picoult. What’s next? A Nicholas Sparks marathon?
How about you? Do you read popular novels, or do you stick to the classics?