Most journalism students learn to write a news story as if describing an event to a friend. Start with the most important part, and that should be the first paragraph.
However, in reviewing books I have found that this approach is useless, not just because it gives everything away at once, but also because sometimes it is hard to pinpoint the book’s big event. After all, in some stories, nothing very momentous happens. There is no sudden, earth-moving shock at the heart of the story. No disaster, no great upheaval.
In these stories, it is not an event, but the characters, the relationships, or the settings that become the story; the pattern of life and the small interactions between people are enough to create a vivid and fascinating narrative.
This was clear in reading Transit by Rachel Cusk, a book that follows Faye if as she navigates city life, and an ill-fated renovation. Her prose is insightful and crisp, as this detailed story evolves.
If asked what happened in the book, it would be hard to define. There were many little moments of interest and significances, but no big event at the centre of the story. It is about a person and a life, rather than an event.
In Tim Winton’s book, Eyrie, it is the place, relationships and the character that create the story. While Keely might have undergone a life change, this is at a remove from the story, before it started. It is not unusual for place to be at the heart of Winton’s books, playing a role as great as any of the characters and events. Often, it is the coastal environment he evokes that is the most memorable part of the book, while the plot might be lost.
After reading Elizabeth Strout’s remarkable Olive Kitteridge, I struggled to recount what it was about, although I found it atmospheric and illuminating. Strout perfectly illustrated the small disappointments and the personal shortcomings experienced in everyday life, but forever unmentionable.
In a way, these books reflect a life, in which there might be a few big events, but many smaller ones that actually have a great impact; a misjudged word, a minor but fateful decision. And often, rather than a grand theme, it is the moments of clarity, truth or pain that are the most moving and illuminating for the reader – the thinly veiled bitterness in an exchange between husband and wife in Revolutionary Road or a child’s observation in Commonwealth. Here, they might perfectly capture a mood or a relationship, or even a broader social attitude.
Sometimes it is the little senses of loss, failure, joy and disappointment that build a character and dictate their future. The sense was captured in Rob Thomas’s song “Small Wonders”, which refers to the less dramatic or obvious moments of life that really matter.
Much of the impact of The Hate Race lay in Maxine Beneba Clarke’s account of the everyday of a child, set against the racism that she faced. It is clear that ill-judged or cruel words of teachers, peers or their parents were of great significance in the midst of a more widely racist culture.
Even in books in which a significant event occurs and the plot can be explained in a few words, it can be the smaller observations that make a book memorable. This was the case for me with Anna Funder’s All That I Am, the story of a group of pacifists in Nazi Germany. However, it was the beauty of Funder’s writing and her skill at capturing a personality or moment that made this book one of my all-time favourites. For me, the plot was a vehicle for carrying those thoughts and observations, rather than the most notable element of the novel.
Similarly, in Charlotte Gray, also set in Nazi Germany, and in All the Light We Cannot See, it is the characters who are at the heart of the novel, far more than the war.
And in books, as in life, it is not always the big pronouncements and great upheavals, but also the small, everyday moments, that can have leave a lasting impression.