Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Mrs. Quent and the Magicians

Sometimes I worry that good storytelling is dead.

So often, I find that gimmicks have replaced well-crafted plots, and that characters all display the bland plasticity of Ken and Barbie Doll. But then I read Galen Beckett's wonderful novel, The Magicians and Mrs. Quent.

Although it takes place in an alternate world, Mrs. Quent is written with a Victorian flourish. Characters such as Ivy, Mr. Rafferdy, and Mr. Quent might well have stepped directly from the pages of a Bronte novel. The language and dialogue are delightful, full of those sensibilities that made readers like myself fall in love with Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre.

Not that this book is simply a magical retelling of those novels. No, Mrs. Quent is definitely its own story set in its own peculiar world. The plot is intricate, weaving together three narratives from three main characters. And though the novel's social structure is reminiscent of Victorian England, Altania (the country in which the novel takes place) is as unique as Narnia.

Although the book doesn't shy away from the grimmer aspects of its plot, it manages to remain genteel throughout. For someone like me who does not enjoy reading about brutality and torture, Mrs. Quent offers a refreshing change. The book is engrossing enough for an adult to read, but mild enough for a preteen to enjoy.

If I have any quibbles with this novel, it is with its pacing. The book is divided into thirds with the first and final sections written in third person. The middle portion, written as a letter from the main character, Ivy, to her mentally ill father is interesting enough, but it chops up the narrative so much that the impact of the book's final chapters is significantly lessened. (Think of reading the first half of Sense and Sensibility, then switching to the Turn of the Screw, and finally finishing up the Austen novel.)

The Magicians and Mrs. Quent is one of those wonderful novels in which the reader can plunge herself into a whole new world and befriend the characters she finds there. I am rarely an on-the-edge-of-my-seat kind of reader, but I couldn't put this book down.

Yes, Mrs. Quent harks back to the days of the Victorian novel, and I have a feeling that - somewhere - the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen are smiling.

And I'm smiling, too.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Second Person

One day, my twelve-year-old son told me that his junior high English teacher had been explaining the difference between first person and third person points of view. When my son asked about second person, she said that there was no such thing (much to his outrage).

Yes, the rumors are true...there is a second person voice.

It reads something like this:

You opened the refrigerator and saw that your roommate had once again drunk all of your beer. Outraged, you pounded on his bedroom door, demanding an explanation. He kept his eyes on the video game he was playing and refused to answer. You stormed away, hating him.

Sounds weird, doesn't it? But while this type of writing defies convention, there are some writers who use it. One notable example is A Prayer for the Dying by Stuart O'Nan. This book is not only written in second person, it is also written in present tense which is doubly strange. Although I believe that this voice would be difficult to tolerate in a long work, A Prayer for the Dying is short. Additionally, the second-person present tense gives the story a powerful impact that it might not otherwise have had. If you haven't read this book, I highly recommend it. (Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney is another example. I have yet to read that one, though.)

In the book Story Matters by Margaret-love Denman and Barbara Shoup, second person POV is also discussed. Story Matters, an outstanding resource for writers, quotes writer Pam Houston who says, "[A second-person] point of view is always about a 'narrator who's ashamed of herself, afraid to say I'." Story Matters goes on to say, "Using the second person washes a layer of shame over the story without the narrator ever having to admit it."

After reading that, I decided to try writing a story from the second-person POV. My story, The Scarlet Wristband, involved a young, teen aged boy who had to choose between telling the truth and saving his mother. Although the piece was successfully published in All Possible Worlds, when it was reviewed, my use of the second-person POV was criticized because it placed too much distance between the reader.

Personally, I enjoy reading the second-person POV (in small amounts). I think it can lend some interesting angles to a narrative. But it can also fail miserably. Like so many unique narrative structures (such as diary entries), however, second-person POV is another tool in the writer's kit.