Reasons to love a novel: issues and empathy

When I was writing the novel that eventually was published as The Sinkings (2008), I used to become anxious whenever anyone asked me that dreaded question What’s it about? It wasn’t that I was trying to keep it a secret, nor that I was lacking in focus. But I believe it can be creatively disastrous to talk too much about a work still in development; that it can have the effect of closing off what is, and should remain for some time, an open question. My novel was ‘about’ many things, and I didn’t have a neat one-sentence answer handy. (Come to think of it, I still need more than one sentence to describe The Sinkings!)

I remember, one time, mumbling, Oh, it’s about a convict. And, another time, mentioning intersex. In the latter case, the person I was talking to responded, Oh, so it’s an issues novel.

An issues novel. I don’t think I’d heard that term before, but I immediately understood what my friend meant. I’d read novels that position a medical condition or a current controversy or a matter of social justice front and centre, with everything else—characters, relationships, place, dramatic arc—almost incidental to that, there merely as a vehicle for the big ‘about’.

The Sinkings isn’t like that. But it does—among other things—explore the black, white and many greys of an ‘issue’, and that kind of exploration is one of the things that inspire me as a writer. And I realise, too, that it’s something I find compelling as a reader.

I love the capacity of fiction to spirit us, emotionally and intellectually, into the skin of other characters, to worry for the impossible situations writers have put them in, to feel their dilemmas for ourselves, to wonder: Why did this happen? What if I were that person, in that time, that place, that situation… would I have done that? What would I do?

The experience of falling into the universe of a book, and into the skin of the other, can help us to understand, to think, to feel, and when people do that they are far less likely to fear or to denigrate. In other words, it can engender empathy.

My reading in 2013 brought me to several impressive books that did exactly that. In this post I’m highlighting two of them.

In her hugely successful debut novel, Fractured, Dawn Barker gives a compassionate portrayal of a family pulled to pieces by a young woman’s severe postpartum mental illness. The beauty of the way Fractured is structured, moving forwards and backwards from a pivotal event, is that cause and effect are kept in suspension, layering the reader’s means of understanding the how and the why. Similarly, the narrative point of view is continually shifting, so that we see what is happening through the eyes of the young mother, Anna, her husband, Tony, her parents-in-law and her mother—a strategy that tends to keep the reader’s allegiances also shifting, making judgment impossible. This extract is from Anna’s point of view.

fractured coverAs soon as Anna sat down in the waiting room, Jack began to cry. Just give me a break, she wanted to shout. Just shut up for five minutes. I can’t do this. But, of course, she didn’t shout. She stood up and pushed the pram back and forward, back and forward. The lady sitting across from her was trying to catch her eye; Anna felt obliged to meet it.

‘Aww, he’s so little! How old is he?’ The woman leaned over to see into the pram.

‘He’s four weeks,’ she said with a slight smile, then turned away.

‘He’s so beautiful.’ Now the woman’s head was right inside the pram. ‘Hello, gorgeous boy. What’s the matter with you? Are you hungry?’

‘No, he’s not,’ she said. ‘He’s just crying. That’s what babies do.’

The stranger raised her eyebrows and went back to her magazine.

‘Sorry,’ Anna mumbled. Her face burned. She didn’t want to cry, not here, in front of everyone. She sat down and took a deep breath, but she couldn’t get enough air. Her lips and fingers tingled. That woman was staring at her, but her face was blurred around the edges and white flashes exploded in front of Anna’s eyes. Was the woman laughing at her? She gripped the arms of her chair with her numb fingers and hoped she was smiling.

—Dawn Barker, Fractured (Hachette, 2013)

Kirsten Krauth’s just_a_girl—also a debut—is one of the most confronting novels I’ve read in a while, plunging me into what is now an alien world, but which of course was once (a long time ago!) my world: that of an adolescent girl. Fourteen-year-old Layla is an impressively drawn character—intelligent, sexually precocious, terribly vulnerable. Her story is given nuance and context by those of two adult characters—her mother, Margot, who is struggling with lonely middle age, and an unrelated Japanese man, Tadashi, who has a disturbing sexual fetish. just_a_girl is a powerful, and often uncomfortable, look at contemporary culture, with Layla at the heart of it, as subject and object, as confirmation and contradiction. Living, for the duration of the novel, in Layla’s skin made me reflect that it has possibly always been so with teenage girls, and to feel compassion for both the girl beneath the armour and the armour itself.

Here is part of the opening passage:

justagirl_web_mainEdnThe guy formerly known as youamizz told me he’d be wearing a red Strokes t-shirt. I see him from the train as it pulls in at Newcastle. He’s not bad enough to make me run away. But he’s older than I thought. Old enough to be my … maybe. He looks average but also kinda sweet when he spots me. He’s got a pretty hot bod. His smile lights me up. I can feel him framing me. Sizing me up as I swing towards him. I’m in my poxy school uniform. As I always am when mum drops me off at the station heading to granny’s. Mum doesn’t handle change. She gets suspicious. I went to put on my jeans and boots in the train toilet. But I opened the door to the puddles and stench and just thought, fuck it. At least he already knows.

He takes my hand. Kisses me on the cheek. Laughs and we’re away. He’s just as funny in real life. I relax and sit on the wharf and he buys me hot chips. We check into a hotel down on the water at Honeysuckle. The concierge asks if he requires an extra trundle bed for me.

—Kirsten Krauth, just_a_girl (UWA Publishing, 2013)

Fractured was one of the most reviewed novels in the 2013 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Lisa Hill has just posted an excellent review of just_a_girl.


Filed under Reasons to love a novel

33 responses to “Reasons to love a novel: issues and empathy

  1. *blush* Thank you:)
    It’s an unforgettable book, yes indeed…

  2. marlish glorie

    Just from the opening passage – although extremely well written – it seems like quite a confronting read, not sure if I could handle it.

  3. I thought it was just me who was unable to tell people what my book was about! I used to hate telling people I was writing a book when I was writing my first because I used to hate answering that question: What is it about? I just wasn’t good at articulating anything sensible about it. Partly because some of the issues were held off in the plot so I didn’t want to give it all away by telling people, but partly because, as you’ve said, a book is about so many things. I’ve become much better at being reductive about my books and narrowing them down to a snappy one sentence summary but I don’t know if it really helps anyone understand what the book is actually about!

  4. marlish glorie

    What a brilliant reply! I must remember that one. And I agree with Natasha and yourself, Amanda. A novel is about many things, and trying to condense it to a pithy one-liner is near impossible. x

  5. marlish glorie

    LOL! 🙂 Didn’t you know that Sea Dog is a Tender Love Story…well that’s what I’ve been telling everybody. Oh, and that I had to get a ghost writer on board to write the sex scenes, as I’m reasonably coy in that department.

  6. Thanks so much for highlighting Fractured, Amanda! I read and reviewed just_a_girl recently and loved it.
    I also find it difficult to describe what I’m writing, especially when I discuss Fractured as I don’t want to give too much away, and also worry about scaring people off! I did once have someone at a writers festival tell me that I spoke in a very amusing way (!!) and whether Fractured was a comedy. I quickly denied it!

    • My pleasure, Dawn. I didn’t want to give away too much in describing Fractured, either! It’s difficult to find a balance between taster and spoiler.
      Obviously you need to try your hand at comedy next, since you’re such an amusing speaker! 🙂

  7. Oh, I love that comment about the capacity of fiction to spirit us into the skin of the characters. That’s it exactly, I too, love that and Sinkings did that for me. I was torn, anxious, moved and ultimately glad. I will put these two books on my list to read now. Also can’t describe what I’m writing in a sentence 🙂 It changes everytime I’m asked!

  8. I too find it hard to distil just_a_girl into a sentence or two, although perhaps the whole novel really is down to the title, in essence! Thanks for this wonderful comparison. In terms of confronting, certainly, many of the scenarios in the book are not outlandish; pretty much all of them have been documented in media reports or on Dr Phil:-) Girls, 14 to 16, are doing this kind of stuff (boys too). Dawn Barker and I reviewed each other’s work too, if this grabs any of your readers, seeing the similarities in our novels.

  9. I loved this post so I have reblogged it over at my Wild Colonial Girl site. Thanks, Amanda!

  10. Thanks for such a great review and for the conversation. I have been thinking about what I “learned” from the Global Women of Color books I have been reading. It’s not what I learned about their lives, but more the kind of getting inside the authors’/characters’ skin that you describe–the skin of women who are externally very different from myself. The experience has been being expansive for me and I feel a new compassion that doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not we agree on anything.

    • Oh, that’s absolutely wonderful to hear, mdbrady (sorry, I don’t know your first name!). Exactly why reading should be encouraged in young people, don’t you think?—the potential for developing compassion, empathy, understanding. We could all do with more of that!.
      Thanks for checking in 🙂

  11. Thanks for writing this post, Amanda, and for reblogging, Kirsten. I too am using a contemporary romance to explore “issues” for which few of us receive empathy!

    Glazed eyes and impatient tapping of feet are some of the better responses I’ve received to my “elevator pitch”, which used to centre around increasing understanding of the world of PTSD and its debilitating symptoms. However, I’ve learned to lead with “love story”, “celebrities” and “the music world”, which at least attracts people’s attention.

    I agree with your summation of just_a_girl, which I really enjoyed. Now I have to add The Sinkings and Fractured to my long list! I’m currently halfway through Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas, which is absolutely riddled with issues and empathy too!!

  12. Katie Elderfield

    Thank you for these reveiws!! I have read & re read Fractured and it has become one of my most favourite novels. I haven’t read just a girl as yet but it certainly does so intriguing!!
    Thanks again!! 😊

  13. ‘The experience of falling into the universe of a book, and into the skin of the other, can help us to understand, to think, to feel, and when people do that they are far less likely to fear or to denigrate. In other words, it can engender empathy.’ So beautifully put, Amanda. I’m going to have to quote you!

  14. annabelsmith

    Wow, this post certainly got everyone talking. I love a novel that explores an ‘issue’ – especially one that allows me to see it from a different perspective and therefore understand it better. Also, the fictional context somehow makes difficult subjects more accessible.

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