Describing people

Just started (what I assume) is the latest lnspector Sejer novel* by Karin Fossum. Normally, I love her books, but I’m struggling to get into this one, mostly because for the first time I’m noticing the mechanics of the story, the stuff that, when you’re swept away by the writing, goes undetected.

There’s an excruciating passage on page 5 where she’s trying to flesh out two minor characters, a couple who are about to discover a dead body (lucky them!). She writes:

She brushed her long hair away from her cheeks and forehead. It was thick and brown with auburn streaks. She was petite, her face was small with a high domed forehead and round cheeks. She had tiny hand and feet, and indeed her husband would in more affectionate moments call her his ‘doll’. Reinhardt, too, ran his fingers through his hair. A short, sandy-coloured tuft stuck up at the front, it looked like a shark’s fin.

Why doesn’t this work (for me anyhow)? The answer: it’s too obvious that she’s describing people. It feels to me as if Kristine (that’s the woman’s name) and Reinhardt are messing with their hair for no other reason than to give Fossum an excuse to remark on it – and in Kristine’s case to tell us just about everything else she can think of about her appearance. Making it worse, this occurs in what feels like an interminable passage in which our two protagonists do almost nothing but stand by a lake while we hear all about their troubled marriage, Reinhardt’s domineering and childish personality, Kristine’s lack of self-confidence – when all we really want is the body that we know is waiting for us out there somewhere! Sorry if this sounds callous, but this is crime fiction after all.

I think that the only time that a writer can normally get away with extended descriptive writing is at the beginning of a scene, when we have not yet focused in on specific people, specific perspectives, but are peering at the scene as a whole, watching it come into view. I’d compare this to the kind of sequence you get at the start of some movies, where the camera pans around the setting for a while, before dropping down into the story itself. Once we enter the characters’ world, descriptive writing only feels natural if there’s a reason – a convincing reason – for one of the characters to notice the attribute being remarked on.

For example if characters Smith and Jones have never met before, it’s quite believable that they might notice something striking about one another’s appearance. A third character, MacDonald, who accompanies Smith but doesn’t join in the conversation might conceivably notice even more: this does tend to be the case when we are observing rather than participating. But if Smith and Jones are alone, know each other well and nothing in particular is happening – and yet the novelist starts describing one or the other of them in detail, the information feels incongruous. Who is noticing these details? You might get away with it in the kind of story where there is an intentionally intrusive narrator, but if the storytelling style is naturalistic then this kind of descriptive ‘anomaly’ will quickly undermine its authenticity.

* The Water’s Edge (ISBN 9781846551703)

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Tin can cookers and bakewell tart

On Saturday I went to my boss’s house for lunch. Arriving in the neighbourhood where my boss lives, my friend and I couldn’t help laughing at what her reaction might be if she ever came out to those where we live. My neck of the woods is bleak, 60s concrete; while M’s area is going for the early 20th Century grotty look. In no time at all M had devised a brand new detective duo: step forward Ed Bleak and Sandra Grotty, private eyes* in search of a story. Alas, we reached the house before we’d had a chance to take the project much further.

We were late (my fault) and so most of the other guests had already arrived. There is nothing like the sensation of walking into a party midway through. Everyone seems to have found their place. People you don’t recognise are chatting easily to people you do, which always induces in me an irrational feeling that the latter have ‘gone over to the other side’. Still we had come armed: we brandished our contribution to the food at our hostess and got a drink in return. Then came the real ordeal – entering the circle of the already arrived. I always dread this moment, not least because in making my way round to shake hands and introduce myself, i inevitably step on someone’s foot or knock their drink over**.

Yet it actually went quite smoothly. What’s more, once i got over my discomfort at seeing my colleagues, especially my boss, outside of their every day roles, i found i was really enjoying myself. It was fascinating to see people’s partners: so often referred to in conversation but never before glimpsed. Most interesting of all though was to get to chat with individuals that i rarely talk to at work, as our roles are so separate.

For example, one of my colleagues, S, is from a Somali background. At work she’s very quiet, so it was a real surprise to encounter her sociable off-duty alter ego. We got into a conversation about her family and how they came to live in the UK: they went into exile in Dubai in the 70s before moving to England in the 80s. Her mother, who appeared to be the head of the household, had begun her life as a nomad, living a traditional existence in the desert. Imagine making the transition from that culture to life in modern Britain!

S went over to Somalia when she was eighteen. She experienced first hand what it’s like to use a perforated tin can as a cooker and to bury a hot coal in the remains of the fire so that you’ll be able to relight it the next day. The first night she was there she didn’t realise what she was supposed to do and had to go round the neighbours in the morning to beg a piece of coal from them.

I was shocked. As a student i’d stayed in a village in India where life was very basic, but in comparison with what S was describing that place was a world of comfort. More than that though i was surprised to realise how many assumptions i had internalised about Somali women. Without even being aware of it i had formed a picture of them as essentially silent and passive, which is not how S portrayed her mother at all. Religious, conservative: yes. But also a woman of strong opinions and considerable pragmatism. A survivor.

Good food at that lunch too, especially another colleague’s bakewell tart. We definitely need to do it again. But in the meantime, does anyone have any suggestions for the adventures of Bleak & Grotty? Ed’s character needs a bit of fleshing out for a start: he’s a bit too ‘enigmatic’ for my liking right now. And Sandra seems to be getting all the best lines…

* We always imagine ourselves as private eyes. It would take too long to explain why here!
** Indeed, i have an earlier post on this very topic