Saturday, September 24, 2011

“It’s Only a Novel…It’s Only a Novel”

“It’s Only a Novel…It’s Only a Novel”
…Perhaps Even a Breakthrough Novel!

Paperback: 300 pages
Publisher: Abingdon Press (May 2010) 
Language: English 
ISBN-10: 1426702388
ISBN-13: 978-1426702389

Please Note: This is a repeat of a review I wrote just after "They Almost Always Come Home," was released. It is up for a Carol award tonight at the ACFW convention.

The last time I read a book that seemed so real that I had to keep reminding myself that it was ‘only a novel’, was back in grade school.  Normally, I don’t like to be reminded that I’m reading a novel (literary alienation); however, I would have welcomed a little ‘alienation’ while reading, “They Almost Always Come Home”.  

Experimental Emotionalism and POV

As I read, “They Almost Always Come Home,” I found it was almost impossible not to ‘feel’ that the story was actually happening!  The novel has an ‘experimental’ quality to it. In addition to the immediacy of using the first person point of view, the author’s poetic writing style tends to create the same emotional state in the reader that the character in the novel is experiencing. I had to keep telling myself to ‘calm down’ – that this was just a story and was not really happening.  This reaction was so strong that it deserves further analysis

From ‘Telling’ to ‘Showing’ to ‘Being’

Writers have long been instructed to ‘show’ their stories rather than ‘tell’ them. For example, instead of writing, “Mary left the room angrily,” the writer is advised to show Mary’s anger by writing something like, “Mary left the room, slamming the door so forcefully that a picture fell off the wall shattering the glass into  a thousand noisy pieces.”  In both these cases, the reader can conclude that Mary was angry; however, the reader may still not ‘feel’ Mary’s anger.  This is because creating a feeling or ‘state of being’ in the reader is more in the realm of poetry.

Poetry & Being

There is a state beyond ‘telling’ and ‘showing’ that I would call ‘being’. This is the state poets often exploit when their words make the reader feel what the poet was feeling as the poem was being written. Mystical poetry is perhaps the best example of this. Saint Teresa, for instance, didn’t tell the reader that she was in a state of ecstasy nor did she show herself to be in a state of ecstasy. What St. Teresa did was select words that could create the same emotional state in the reader that she was feeling. That is, as long as the reader was receptive to the experience.

Music & CDs

I think the best analogy for this would be a music CD. The CD does not ‘tell’ or ‘show’ the music -- it recreates the music itself. This experience requires an audio playing device and a listener. The same applies to poetic writing: the author needs a receptive reader to allow the words to stimulate the corresponding emotions.  This is especially hard to do in prose writing. I’m not sure it can even be taught. However, when such writing is experienced, it is very powerful.

A Unique Reading Experience

As I read, “They Almost Always Come Home,” I found myself experiencing the same emotions that I would have felt if the story were actually happening to me. To better understand this experience I’m will provide some quotes that demonstrate the phenomenon. First, however, I need to setup the story.

The Story

As the story opens, the heroine’s husband has gone missing. He is a very experienced outdoorsman who left on a two week trip to the Canadian wilderness. However, this trip is different. It is the first such trip he has taken by himself. A solo trip to this remote location is a very dangerous undertaking even in the best of conditions. As time goes by, he is assumed missing. Moreover, the heroine has good reason to believe he has actually left her. Why? Because she has been planning the same thing. She was emotionally at the point of leaving her husband even before he left on the trip. She has good reasons for this. The questions for both the reader and the heroine are these:  is he dead, injured, or in a motel room with another woman? The reader is trapped in the poor woman’s mind and must consequently go through the hour-by-hour torments with her.


“Do dead people wear shoes? In the casket, I mean. Seems a waste. Then again, no outfit is complete without shoes”.


Policeman:   “Many times, in these cases –”
Oh, just say it!
“—an unhappy husband takes advantage of an opportunity to walk away.”


I smooth the collar of the jacket and stir up the scent of Aspen for Men. The boa constrictor around my throat flexes its muscles.


Greg? Walk Away?
Not only is he too annoyingly faithful for that, but if anyone has a right to walk away, it’s me.


Moving from our old queen-size mattress to this king represented distance rather than comfort. For me, anyway. I needed a few more inches between us. A few feet. I guess I got my wish.


The sweat in my palm reconstituted the bread crumbs during the call. Wastebasket. That’s what one does with crumbs.
How long will it take me to figure out what to do with the crumbs of my life?
And where will I find a basket large enough for the pieces?


The view from our bedroom window is of a normal world. It stings my eyes. The neighborhood, green and flourishing, sounds noisy already with lawn mowers and kids on skateboards. I clamp one hand over my mouth to suppress my rant against normal.


A bird sings from one of the trees in the backyard. I want to shoot it from its sassy perch.


How does one go about inducing a therapeutic coma? Is it so wrong to want to sleep through this?  I’ll deal with it eventually, whatever the outcome. But could I skip this middle part? The not knowing. The wait-torture. M


I believe the above quotes have the power to generate feelings much more directly than the words could be said to ‘show’ what a character is feeling. When I read, “A bird sings from one of the trees in the backyard. I want to shoot it from its sassy perch”, I don’t stop to think about what the character might be feeling. I feel it instantaneously.  This emotive style is very powerful writing which goes on for chapter after chapter. There is very little let up in “They Almost Always Come Home”. Then, as if the story were not intense enough, the point of view switches to third person just in time to deliver a knock-out blow.

Readers Will Love It

While readers will love, “They Almost Always Come Home,” I believe writers will appreciate it even more. It’s fresh. It’s daring. It’s unique.  I expect “They Almost Always Come Home,” to win many awards. It is certainly as good as anything being written today. A marvelous achievement!

Breakthrough Novel – My Choice for Book of the Year!

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