14 July, 2013
The Importance of Storytelling (Weekend Reads)
It's been slow on the reading front the last few months, for two reasons. One, I've been moving full speed ahead and barely have the energy to fall into bed for a few hours of sleep each night, let alone read. And two, the last two books I picked were a little heady. It made reading them a bit of a challenge.
Both books were quite good, but slogs to get through at times.
Fall on Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald was actually painful to read at times. Incredibly well written, wry, and full of great storytelling, it was also full of not a single likeable character. I spent the first half of the book alternating between cringing and wanting to reach into the pages to slap someone. But the details, the rich descriptions, and the subtle but incredible turns in the writing kept me going. Bad writing and mediocre storytelling would have had me toss the book early on, simply because of the characters.
It's a story that follows a family through their rural Cape Breton Island life, with a stint in New York City, that captures young love, abuse, racism, ugly marriages, music, evil, obsession, strength, and light. Not a single character is flawless and it isn't until the end that sympathy actually grows. And that's my experience. I wonder if a reader with a different perspective of many of these issues feels the sympathy differently? As the story unfolds and history is clarified your heart takes leaps and plunges. Without good story telling this is just a book about an family's ugly history.
As I've grown older I've realized that good storytelling is what appeals to me more than anything in a novel. So many novels are character driven. And that's fine, but the storytelling has to be there too. If not, I'm happy to put the book aside and move on to something else more interesting.
I nearly did that with The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. Very much character driven and rather pretentious through the first half of the book, I came very close to moving on. But I'd been warned that this might be my response. So I forged ahead, helped by the short chapters. A few pages a night and progression through the book was what I needed before bed, that's all. Then I came to this passage:
"Personally I think that grammar is a way to attain beauty. When you speak, or read, or write, you can tell if you've said or read or written a fine sentence. You can recognize a well-turned phrase or an elegant style. But when you are applying the rules of grammar skillfully, you ascend to another level of the beauty of language... I get completely carried away just knowing there are words of all different natures, and that you have to know them in order to be able to infer their potential usage and compatibility."
And it goes on. I literally sat up in bed and read this passage over and over again. It explained so much for me as a reader and a writer. And it made me pay more attention to rest of the book, caught up in the stories of the characters now.
Words make stories, but in the hand of a good writer - someone who can ascend through language - they make beauty, even when the stories are ugly. That's what good storytelling is and I will always pursue that.