It’s rare that I don’t finish reading a book that I’ve begun, mainly because I’m quite persnickety about the books that I choose. Long ago I realized that to become a good writer, it was important to read good writers, and so I generally shuffle through the pages of a book under consideration, read short portions throughout, check the font size to see if I can read it comfortably and enjoyably, and buy the book or put it back on the shelf.
In the Woods, a first novel by Tana French, seemed to me to be a book that I would like. Because I am deep into writing my first mystery novel, I am reading lots of books classified as mysteries, suspense, a few thrillers, those with a child as the protagonist, and other criteria meaningful to me, and I’m learning a great deal about how other authors handle situations somewhat similar to those I am encountering in my story. Tana French is a good writer. She tells a good story, and she builds suspense well. Further, this novel has won several awards including the prestigious Edgar Award. The trade paperback version was nicely produced and the type was readable How could I not choose to read this book?
About a third of the way through reading In the Woods, I said to myself, “I can’t continue reading this. I read another chapter, wanting to finish the book, then suddenly, impulsively, I skipped the middle, read some of the ending to see how she resolved the characters coming to grips with the long ago murder in the woods, and put it down. I was troubled by my rejection of an author who had worked hard to successfully bring this story to publication thinking that there are many good things about it, and other readers might genuinely like this book. After all, judges had liked it well enough to give it several awards.
The feature of this author’s writing that forced me to stop reading was her lack of understanding the importance of point of view. French is an Irish woman writing a novel whose protagonist is male, and she writes his character in the first-person. The protagonist, Detective Adam Ryan, tells the story throughout the novel and reveals his inner psyche as he slowly remembers what happened to him in the woods so long ago as he investigates the current murder of another child in that same woods. Good story. Unfortunately, his “voice” is that of a female, as are the emotions he reveals, and even his behavior with other characters. I found this feminine point of view in a male character so troubling that I could not continue. Detective Ryan became, for me, not believable. I set the book aside wondering what to do with it.
Having attended a Borders closeout sale, I had picked up a hardcover version of Patricia Highsmith Selected Novels and Short Stories, and decided to read Strangers on a Train. I had seen the Alfred Hitchcock movie years ago and although I had forgotten the plot, I remembered only that a favorite actress Ruth Roman had been in it and that I had liked the movie.
A short way into reading Strangers on a Train, I began to note the contrast between Highsmith and French. It is stark and remarkable. Strangers on a Train is Highsmith’s first novel too and her point of view goes back and forth between two protagonists, Guy Haines and Charles Anthony Bruno, both written in the third person. Highsmith is female, but there is nothing feminine about these two protagonists. They are thoroughly male in speech, emotions, and behavior. Even though the reader comes to suspect that Bruno’s obsession with Guy Haines is more than is stated in the story, Patricia Highsmith is consistent in her portrayal of these two as male. She gets their “voice” differentiated too.
Point of view and voice are not the same. Point of view tells the story from the view and thinking of a certain character regardless of whether it is written in first or third person. Usually the word “voice” is used to describe active vs passive style, but “voice” can also describe how a particular character uses language and how the speech is different from another character in dialogue and thought. Highsmith nails it on both counts.
Thinking about voice, I remembered reading Barbara Kingsolver’s excellent novel Poisonwood Bible when it first came out. Many of my friends raved about this novel. Each chapter in Poisonwood Bible is told by a different member of the Price family with different ages and different personalities: a mother and each of four daughters. Their situations are interesting and their points of view seem clear. What I noticed as I read chapter after chapter was that they all sounded the same. There was no variation in voice whatsoever as Kingsolver switched from character to character even though all of them were telling their own story with their own point of view. It was the author’s style that told each story, not the character’s style.
As a reader, I’m very aware of point of view, of voice, and of style. As a writer, I keep wondering if I can make these an integral part of the mystery that I am writing, or will I be so immersed in the story that I, too, will lose perspective on what distinguishes one character from another.
We shall see. Your comments and advice are welcome.