24 September 2010


If I were to pretend to be a reviewer, what would my review of The Confession of Katherine Howard be? Um, first, let's think about the structure of a typical book review.

First, I guess, there's a summary of what the book's about, and a bit of contextualisation - what kind of book has this writer produced before.

With The Confession of Katherine Howard Suzannah Dunn continues her exploration of the troubled and usually shortened lives of the wives of Henry VIII. This time her attention turns to the fifth wife, who rose from obscurity, but whose reign and life ended in allegations of adultery.

Then we might turn to what kind of writing it is.
The story is told by a minor player in the unfolding tragedy. Cat Tilney, largely Dunn's invention, has known the Queen since they were children, and, mostly in flashback, shows how she got to this impossible, untenable position. As with previous books, Dunn brings a modern language to these Tudor characters. Katherine says that she has been questioned about "the matter of who I was fucking before I became queen".

I guess what's happening there is all part of letting the reader know if this is the sort of thing they will like, swearing and all. (Actually, there's very little swearing in the book.) This is where there could be more about Suzannah's style, and some smart-arse quibbling.
One feels that tighter editing might have given the central section of the book more pace. And how can sentences like this survive: "I was happy to let him go, because he wasn’t whom I thought he was"?

In the interests of balance, you'd need to quote some of the very nice writing.
At its best, Dunn's prose is musical and surprises with its imagery. When Cat compares herself with the Queen, she says: "I was narrow-hipped and sharply articulated, and my heart, unlike hers, was diamond."

Then the review needs to establish the reviewer's authority for giving a judgement.
Katherine's story is well-known, and the outcome can be no surprise, so Dunn's task is to maintain our interest despite this.

And some kind of judgement ...
As the novel goes on, one senses that its focus switches from the actions of the Queen to those of the narrator, and their relationship, with its threads of jealousy and ultimately betrayal, moves into the foreground. In its latter part the novel doesn't quite fulfill its initial promise of exploring the motivation of this Queen, but neither does the early part adequately set up the rivalry between the two women, which could, and ought to, intensify the tragic dilemma of the ending.
... without giving too much away.

23 September 2010

Portents and omens

A little note about what I meant by portents and omens.

In The Confession of Katherine Howard the narration covers two broad periods: November 1541, when Katherine's position is coming unstuck; and time before then, from the time the narrator, Cat, first met Katherine, until shortly before the November events.

In the November narrative in particular, Cat uses portents and omens to signify her authorial knowledge of what will happen.

Here's an example of a portent: on page 3 Cat says: "Kate looked to have a lifetime of queenship ahead of her". Obviously, it's the word "looked" that gives it away. Sometimes, they are less subtle. "Little did they [Cat's family] know that there’d come a time when my obscurity was all they’d wish for.” (page 48).

Omens, I think, are a bit different. They refer to things that have happened in the past (relative to the narration). The mere fact that they are mentioned is significant. On page 14 Cat says "It was unimaginable to me that the jocular, twinkly man [Henry VIII] had, within the past five years, exiled one wife to a lonely death and signed an execution order for her successor.”

When I isolate them like this, both portents and omens can seem unsubtle, manipulative. And it's part of the writer's craft to hide the manipulation. A reviewer's job would be to consider how well the writer has done this, presumably by reflecting on their own experience of reading the book, but also by drawing on wider experience. For example, the phrase "Little did they know ..." is a danger sign. Too many of those, and the reader feels manipulated, resentful; or, even worse, any tension is dissipated.

In this book, you could argue, the whole of the second narrative is a collection of omens. Incidents of Kate's past life reveal a character for which the tragic ending comes to seem inevitable. You could argue, but I'm not sure that's right. I think omens have to be incidents that occurred before the surrounding narrative time. So when Cat's telling us about her (and Kate's) teenage years, an omen has to refer to something that happened before then.

22 September 2010

Reading, reviewing, analysis, theory

That title's intended to deter. This post is hardcore literary thinking.

It's clear that there are at least three different approaches to reading a book, specifically a work of fiction.

Reading for pleasure is what most of us do most of the time. Reading to review is what reviewers, including bloggers, do. Reading to theorise is the most specialised form of all. Why do these three kinds of reading seem to use such different language?

I've just read The Confession of Katherine Howard by Suzannah Dunn. I made some notes as I went through it, because it struck me really early that there was an obvious mechanism in use, by which the narrator hinted at what was to come later, and, in effect promised to tell us more later. I called these "portents". At the same time, there was another mechanism by which the narrator referred to past events in a knowing way, aware that we would share her sense of the dramatic irony. I called these "omens". Now, I'm not sure if that's a model that will stand upin the long run: can we characterise a novel's control of information that way? I've also little doubt that the mechanism's been discussed before, though maybe not using those terms. But I was reading the book as a theorist.

As I went on, these devices seemed less prominent, or less obvious. What happens is that early promises (portents) are delivered, and the need for mystery becomes less. The notion of portents and their fulfillment is close to Barthes's S/Z, but I think he sees them as structural, rather that instrumental. This may be because he under-examines the process of reading for pleasure, so I'll move to that.

In the early stages of a novel, you need some incentive to stick around. You haven't yet formed any attachment to the characters. You need the promise that something interesting is going to happen. Portents, then, perform this function, just as the questions Barthes identifies ("Who is Sarrasine?") do. He talks a little dismissively about the possibility of a naive reading, and in the case of Howard that's a valid point. Regular readers of historical fiction will have a pretty good idea how it's going to turn out for her, and even I was able to deduce - applying the "divorced beheaded died divorced beheaded survived" mnemonic - the ending.

But that makes it harder, and the next type of reading - for review - would have to concern itself with how well the book engages the interest. So a reviewer might say things like "Dunn retells a well-known story with a fresh look", or "Although the outcome is never in doubt, Dunn keeps us guessing as to exactly how it will come about".

Reviewers also, inevitably, have to talk about character - a bit of a dubious area for theory. Characters have to be assessed for their believability, and maybe less so for their likeability. (It's usually important to be able to like the narrator.) Long ago, on this blog, I wrote about The Last Man. One of my big objections was that the characters' personalities were implausibly inconsistent. Theory would have difficulty in explaining why that matters. Again, it may be because the process of reading for pleasure isn't adequately considered.

A theorist would need to consider what it means for a character to be consistent; a reviewer would need to point out instances where there had been unreasonable inconsistency, and a reader would perhaps just feel that the novel isn't convincing: "I don't believe she'd do that".

I'll leave this thinking aloud there for now, but I will come back to it. One of the questions I want to look at is the way a poorly written book can be enjoyable when read for theory or, come to that, for criticism.