Have you ever devoured a novel so fast you couldn’t put it down? You finish the novel, slightly dazed by the speed at which the author tumbled you along the character’s journey, and wonder how she did it. How did she keep you gripped from Page 1 all the way to the end?
Just as a builder will build a house, brick by brick, interweaving them for strength and cementing them together with neat little twists of his trowel, so an author will carefully build a novel, scene by scene, each scene interwoven with those on either side of it and cemented together with neat little twists of conflict.
Like the sturdy brick, scenes have a job to do: they must either advance the story or illuminate a character.
Sometimes, when you don’t enjoy a novel, it helps to go back and unpack each scene.
Louise Erdrich is one of my favourite authors. Her voice, her language, her topics speak to me on a level that very few modern authors do. So I was sadly disappointed when I read her latest novel “Shadow Tag”…until I looked more closely at the conflict that drove a few of the scenes.
Here are the three scenes I analysed:
Characters: Irene and Louise
Conflict: The overt conflict was the build-up to Louise’s confession that she is Irene’s half-sister (they shared the same father) The more subtle conflict was the contrast between the two women’s childhoods and how that affected who they are today. Louise’s mother married a good man, and Louise had a stable childhood in the city. She’s at ease with her sexuality and is in a stable, loving lesbian relationship. Irene’s childhood was shameful, with a womanising father and a promiscuous mother; she was cut off from her sense of Native American identity and sense of family by her parents’ actions; an alcoholic, and promiscuous, she’s in an unstable and destructive relationship with her artist husband Gil.
Characters: Irene and her youngest child, Stoney
Conflict: How does shame and humiliation affect a child? Stoney’s actions in teasing a disabled child (in his childish innocence he didn’t realise the child was disabled) resulted in him being shamed and humiliated by the teacher. His intense desire to escape his shame and humiliation by becoming an animal on some level reflects Irene’s escape into alcoholism, which is how she deals with the shame and humiliation of her childhood (as a reservation Native American in a white world, and as the daughter of disreputable parents) as well as the shame and humiliation that she experiences as the model for Gil (her husband’s) disturbing paintings of her (which symbolise the humiliation of the Native American by the white settlers, note references to George Caitlin, the white 19th century artist who made his name using Native Americans models)
Characters: Gil, Irene, their three children and two dogs
Conflict: To an outsider this scene – a family gambolling in the snow playing the game shadow tag – would be idyllic. The conflict lies in the falseness of the scene. The preceding scenes strip away the family dynamics to their essential dysfunction. The poignancy of the scene lies in the desire of all the family for this moment of family togetherness and simple happiness to be real. But the veneer of love and normality is too thin; it’s as elusive as the shadows they chase. Gil, his destructive genius controlled for once, ‘hides his shadow tightly’, but the scene ends where he leaps out from his hiding place to catch his laughing family and ‘his shadow sprang across the field’, highlighting how close to the surface the family’s final disintegration is.
By analysing these scenes, I realised that, in my first reading of the novel, I had seen only the ugliness of the characters Irene and Gil and not the conflict that motivated that darkness they reflect. Irene, in particular, represents the tragic loss of the Native American soul. After this realisation, the story took on a whole new meaning for me.
The next time you read a book that you dislike, try to unpack it brick by brick. You don’t need to break it down to its foundations: take only a few scenes that you think may be critical. Look at the characters; look at the conflict that drives the scene; and look at how the scene links back and forward to other scenes.
And, as you close the book, you may be surprised at what secrets the author has revealed to you as she carefully set each scene that tumbled you along page by page.