Sunday, January 16, 2011

How's That Working Out For You? Being Clever?

There are certain maneuvers that only really great authors can pull off.  Things like second person narration, unconventional narrators (children, animals), tricks like that.  Most authors realize they're too gimmicky and don't use them without a lot of thought, hard work, and good cause.

Multiple narrators, though, is just too tempting for a lot of people.  I think an author's relationship with the first person is going to vary a lot from individual to individual--for some people it's trickier, because you have to more fully inhabit your character; for others (and I'd be one of these), it's almost a crutch, because speaking with your character's voice allows you to write without thinking--the way I imagine method acting to be.  Imagination straight to the page, no interpretation required.

So when you have a lot of main characters, giving them each a first person voice seems like the logical thing to do.  But it's deceptively complicated and should not be attempted by amateurs.

Now, I'm not calling Karen Maitland an amateur.  She wrote Company of Liars, which I absolutely loved, and which I thought was well-crafted and deft.  But so far, I'm feeling pretty disappointed in The Owl Killers.

And part of it is definitely the fact that it's narrated by over a dozen characters.  In fact, I give her a lot of credit for doing an artful job with it--each one is clearly thoroughly imagined and realized--their voices are different, their motivations, the information they have available, their takes on reality. 

At this point, though (100 pages in, so nothing to sneeze at), it doesn't feel like it's coming together.  Most of what I feel is frustration at the misunderstandings, the secrets, the fears of the powerless.  But there have been so many little plotlets introduced--the priest with hidden passions (which, it's really hard to ignore the fact that there are no gendered pronouns in that postcoital scene, so if that's supposed to be a secret, um, sorry), the girl who's been raped, the Owl Killers themselves, the tension between the beguines and the villagers.  I assume they'll all come together, but it's too many balls for me to keep in the air. 

And, as is often the risk with multiple narrators, the focus jumps quickly, sometimes within a few pages, from one story to another, completely unrelated one.  I'm not sure where I'm supposed to be investing my energy.  And lord, life in medieval England is pretty crappy--there's a lot of pity and fear and emotional energy being demanded of me. 

I need a little focus, is what I'm saying.


Brenda Pike said...

Oh, no! The Owl Killers was highly recommended to me, and I was looking forward to it. Granted, it was recommended by someone for whom English is a second language, but I really wanted to like her taste in books...

She also recommended The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England, if you're interested.

LibraryHungry said...

I know, I agree! Loved her previous book. It's possible, though, that this is one of those things that's just a little beyond me--it's too complicated for me, which doesn't mean that it's failing. Always hard for me to tell. I'm going to finish it, though, so we'll see. And I'm excited about the other recommendation!

Kris said...

Okay, so , we have to have lunch soon, because I just read "Room", and I'm not sure how to feel about it. We need to talk :)