It’s amazing how early your assumptions can settle as a reader. Like at the top of the second page. There are four words that become a pin stuck into fabric. It’s such a vague early impression, the kind of thing you’ll be wholly familiar with when you’re reading your way into a story, working out what’s what and who’s who. It’s quite a stroke of genius, I think, but the thing that really makes this book work so well is that Joanne Harris didn’t once try and draw a big arrow or underline or highlight it. It’s like seeing a yellow leaf fall in October and realising your brain has said, ‘it’s autumn.’
And the confidence in that line flows on. As you read you build the world around this assumption and there’s nothing to disabuse you of it (at least nothing strong enough for me to remember). We have more than one point of view, after all. The clues may well be there, lurking like an ablative error.
Of course when you get to that point where you realise you’ve been had (no, I don’t mean that detrimentally, it’s quicker than saying you realise you’ve allowed yourself to form all these opinions about what’s going on that are based on a point so far back in the book now that you can’t put your finger on what it was – that’s all) you start looking back to see how misshapen the fabric’s become; you start wondering, marvelling. And then there’s the thought that this would be one of those books worth reading again because now you know.
The characters are expertly pitched – indeed, if they weren’t I think the reader would feel they’d been had when that moment comes. The points of view in the book pit class, age, even educational needs against each other. And although it’s a large school which seems to consume the attention of its inhabitants, it’s a small small world in which they revolve. In one case, smaller than they’d ever imagined.
Read it, and then read it again. It may be even better the second time around!
At a writers group meeting I attended, one of the writers was airing a new chapter of a work in progress, trying it out on the group. She got to a point where she described an angry character as incandescent with rage and the whole group reacted: the writer herself sagged and read the words out as though channelling a bored fifteen year old; at least three quarters of the group listening lifted their pens and made a cursory note; the remainder flinched or winced, sucked a breath in through clenched teeth. When the time came for feedback there was a tight little smile and hands raised in surrender – yes, I know.
It’s drummed into us as writers – perhaps I should say the budding type, the aspiring type (read the not-yet-successful type) – avoid the clichés. If the reader can finish the image before you it’s not really doing its best. And yet there it was, in this booker-longlisted novel, in the opening pages – someone was incandescent with rage. The effect was interesting. Needless to say, it stopped me in my tracks. So early on in the novel, where I’m reading my way in, reaching to feel this new world, understand its characters, comprehend what may be about to unfold, I find I am all at once removed. I am become not reader, not even writer-as-reader but critical-writer-as-reader. Oh dear! My brain most likely said. What was he thinking? What was his editor thinking? What was his publisher thinking? Surely, in the opening pages, many people would have seen this and flagged it up. So why is it still there?
I took me right back to that shrinking, flinching writer admitting their error at our writers group. I wondered whether Paul Murray had to defend this inclusion against all-comers, whether it was really there in a post-grammatical, nouveau-laissez faire ironical way. Maybe it’s just that these are the easy things to spot, the simple things to fix when writers groups get together and talk about their work. They’re certainly more instant, more objective than our emotional response to a piece. It feels like a contribution to point it out, rather than an under-appreciated ‘I like how your words made me feel’. Perhaps readers who are only readers have it best. Perhaps they can take the words as they see them – as they are intended – and go with it. Then I thought what the hell, and read on.
I’m glad I did. It’s a genuinely funny, genuinely touching and finely crafted book. It’s very honest too, in its way. As much as I really really want one character or other to get their comeuppance in the end, it rings chillingly true the way Paul Murray has it. It’s a big book but it’s well worth the effort. Nothing feels wasted. Nothing feels overdone. So what if there’s a single thing in there that pulled me up. I got past it, and I’m richer for doing so.
Then again, maybe that’s why it didn’t make the Booker shortlist!