But this reader almost didn’t get there. While things happen to the characters – you could say too much happens in a novel that references two world wars, 9/11, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease – the only real plot is in their interconnections, and CJ Fisher keeps us waiting a long time for that. All three strands come with a cast of minor characters, who show us the world from their perspective, so if you put the book down for too long you’re liable to forget who belongs with whom. Furthermore, everyone’s an amateur philosopher, as Myles says, not fully understanding “the rules that determine which things matter enough to be told” (p62), so we get semi-stream-of-consciousness and meandering dialogue.
When We Were Alive is an ambitious debut novel about love and loss and the struggle of being human. Thanks of Legend Press for my review copy.
Claire is a thirty-five-year-old single mother, her days bounded by tidying up after her son, the routine of her job in one of England’s last remaining shoe factories and her own fear of change. Estranged from her parents since their unsupportive response to her pregnancy, she worries about her son’s future while hoping for love with a man she meets at the pub. Arun is a sixty-seven-year-old grandfather who makes hand-crafted chappals at home. A recovered alcoholic, veteran of a long-ago extramarital affair, he rails at the indignities of old age, his troublesome prostate in particular.
Despite their self-pity, these two point of view characters are engaging and satisfyingly complex, and their sections sufficiently long (the book is divided into four sections in total) for the reader to become absorbed in their lives. The writing is fine, with touches of humour, but I wasn’t sure if this qualifies as a novel. While I applaud the portrayal of ordinary lives in literature, including an emphasis on work, which can be overlooked by writers who only really know about writing, the footwear fabrication connection between the two seems far too tenuous for me. My favourite part, a reminder of how, in a simple Indian village house, “the walls smelled of ash and cow dung, smoky and rich” (p81), might not be so evocative for other readers. Perhaps I was expecting too much as Anjali Joseph’s debut novel, Saraswati Park, published in 2010, won a clutch of awards, but this, her third, reads like the result of a talented writer’s struggle to meet a publisher’s deadline. Thanks to 4th Estate for my review copy.
As my regular readers will be aware, and quite possibly tired of hearing/reading about it, multiple early drafts of my debut novel, Sugar and Snails, were narrated from three different points of view. While I am completely convinced that dropping the voices of the parents has made it a better novel, I still miss those characters. My next novel, Underneath, also has a single first-person narrator, although he speaks in three different voices: a jailer; a young child; and an increasingly disintegrating forty-year-old man. For what I hope will be my third novel, Closure, I’ve gone back, with some trepidation, to three distinct (third person) narrators whose stories intertwine throughout the novel. I think that’s the right way to tell that particular story, but how can I be sure?
The parallel narrative makes significant demands on the reader. The wider apart the different strands are, the more difficult it is to keep those different worlds in mind. There has to be a significant payoff for this extra effort: exquisite writing; lively characters; a satisfying integration towards the end. Writers who have done this well, in my opinion, include Anna Hope for her portrayal of a doctor and two inmates of a Victorian asylum; Tanya James who has ventriloquised a filmmaker, a poacher and an elephant in The Tusk That Did the Damage; both Carys Bray and Celeste Ng for their sympathetic portraits of various members of a grieving family; and one of my favourite writers, and fellow East Midlands resident, Alison Moore, who creates such deliciously quirky characters. I’m sure you could suggest some more – and perhaps some male writers (!), as I don’t think this is approach is solely confined to women, it’s just that these were the authors who jumped out at me when I glanced up from my screen to my shelves.
I think the parallel narrative is less effective when it’s the result of a single strand not seeming enough (although would anyone admit to this?); when the additional strands don’t add anything extra to the single perspective; when there are no clues as to how they’ll come together (or when they never achieve that integration); when a novice writer is trying too hard to impress (and who doesn’t initially?) or when an experienced writer isn’t trying hard enough; or when they make the book overly long and complicated (yeah – a bit like this sentence!). All of these I need to be continually asking myself about my current novel. Can you add anything to this checklist?