I’m on a quest to read popular novels that aren’t the type of thing I’d usually read. Novels which might make one of my most respected literary friends wrinkle her nose and push it aside if I offered to lend it to her. The sort of writing I’m not steeped in. I’m doing this because, as a writer, I want to know what readers of commercial fiction read and what’s popular and then I’ll try to analyse why.
I’m steeped in Amis and Achebe, Brontë and Bashevis Singer, Camus and Carter, De Beauvoir and Dostoevsky and I love modern writers like Matt Haig and Paul Kingsnorth, Sunjeev Sahota and Emma Donoghue and Sarah Winman and Roddy Doyle. So it’s probably fair to say that I’m going to struggle with Hilary Boyd’s ‘Thursdays in the Park.’ I picked it out because it’s about an older protagonist, and I’m interested in how writers create the older protagonist, as I have one in in my first novel.
Boyd’s central character defies the stereotype of young heroines:she offers readers a role model or a lifestyle they can look forward to when they’re older, or she simply champions the older reader. So I read Hilary Boyd’s novel about 60-year old Londoner Jeanie who falls in love with Ray the Aikido teacher and is fed up with her sexless marriage to dull, rich, controlling George.
It’s a romance and that’s pretty much what the book is about. I never felt particularly close to Jeanie who was, to me, a middle-class heroine, attractive, popular, just like all the other stereotypical romance heroines, but older. That, in itself, was disappointing. Jeanie and I never bonded, although I did feel a bit of sympathy when I found out poor George had been abused as a child. Well done Hilary Boyd for not being scared of that one.
The signposting was a bit of a problem for me: I knew what would happen next on every turn. And then I struggled with the holier-than-thou perfect daughter Chanty and the silly spoilt son-in-law, and Jeanie’s unbridled passion for the man she chats to in the park who mistakes her for the two year old’s mum, rather than her Granny. (Oh yeah, right?)
I’m not really the target audience for this book. I noticed that Hilary Boyd had the usual difficulties making the romantic or sexy scenes different or unique – a problem we all share, where the protagonists look at each other with heaving hearts and sigh a lot and shrug a lot and shake their heads with disbelief. I did learn something from Boyd though; she’s empathically behind her character all the way and she creates feasible human dilemmas. I suppose Jeanie wasn’t enough of a feminist protagonist for me; she didn’t rebel enough, and her acceptance of the views of others, especially George, didn’t convince me to care about her sufficiently.
I wouldn’t want to be Jeanie and I couldn’t make the leap of sympathy but I’m sure ‘Thursdays in the Park’ is popular with the reader who likes her novels easy to read and happy at the end. On my masters’ course we were often asked: what does the central protagonist want and what stands in the way? This one was simple. Jeanie wants Ray and George is blocking her path to ultimate happiness with a man.
I read ‘Shock of the Fall’ by Nathan Filer and the blurb told me that Filer’s novel follows in the footsteps of Mark Haddon. Filer is a mental health nurse so it’s clear he knows his background. The book is written from the point of view of Matt, whose unhappy situation stems from his brother’s death earlier in the story and we follow Matt’s progress as we are quickly hooked into the idiosyncrasies and dilemmas of the character.
Nathan Filer does two things I like a lot. First of all, the voice which tells the story is really engaging. Matt’s character is unique, surprising and speaks to the reader as someone we come to understand and know and like, unlike Jeanie whom we know everything there is to know about from page one.Secondly, the novel is well shaped, not linear and although it leads the reader to where you know you’ll ultimately end up, the journey has a few surprises on the way and this deepens the reader’s compassion for Matt and his family and we care about the impact of what has happened to brother Simon.
This is definitely a ‘safe hands’ book: Filer’s story is so well organised and his character speaks with such clarity and credibility and authority that the novel is captivating. Add to that the bittersweet humour and the contrast between the harrowing scenes and the touching moments, and it makes for a memorable read. Cleanly written, cleverly contrived, ‘The Shock of the Fall’ works well on the levels of both a story well told and a learning journey for the reader.
I’m glad I read both books, although I enjoyed one much more than the other. But my journey isn’t just for my own reading pleasure: I’m building an understanding of what is popular, of what readers want and what works for them. And then it all goes into the writer’s bag of learning to be sifted and synthesised, so that I know what to aspects to reject and what techniques will work for me as I continue to develop my unique voice.