Monday, August 29, 2011

A Point of View Challenge

One of my mentors from the Loft Literary Center teaches an entire graduate course on point of view, and I can see why. It’s one of the big challenges my students in fiction deal with. If we are reading a story through Anna’s point of view—say it’s first person, meaning we’re reading a lot of “I”—we would expect to hear her thoughts, her physical and emotional reactions. If we suddenly get a paragraph of Johnny’s thoughts, and there aren’t two narrators in the story, then that’s a slip in point of view.

Philippa Gregory does this in all three of the novels I’ve read. I know, I bashed The White Queen pretty thoroughly, but I was waiting for other books to come in at the library, and the historical period was so interesting, that I picked up The Red Queen. I liked it better. The narrator is a childish, devout woman who spends much of her life separated from court and lives with the singular conviction that she is right: God is on her side: and that means the House of Lancaster, for which her only son is heir, must be king. There are fewer characters to keep track of, and those characters have more space to be developed. Dialogue is more natural, and the huge span of years that weighed down the White Queen for me, works here, because we are forever waiting for the great crowning of her son.

But, Ms. Gregory has a fascinating point of view challenge. She is writing history through the point of view of the famous women who lived it, whose voices we so rarely hear. Through their eyes, we are perfectly placed for court intrigue, scheming, secret messages, and all that great behind-the-scenes stuff. But, the ultimate test of who would be king is determined on the battle field, where the women could not go. This is why we hear so little of their voices in general. They did not fight. They did not publicly advise the king, if they did at all. They were not allowed to be involved in any of the important processes we focus on in history, other than producing sons. Both of the female narrators spend large portions of their stories in hiding; one has sought sanctuary in the church, and the other is under house arrest. We have messengers, yes, but how on earth does one write the battle scenes from their point of view?

If they can’t witness the battle, then in order to stay within first person point of view, the women have to either imagine the battle, which takes away the historical accuracy, or be told about it. But who would tell a woman an account of the battle, in the kind of detail we want to hear? And even if someone did, he could only tell what he saw. We would not get the strategy of troop movement that is so fascinating. Other than breaking the laws of history and placing them on the battlefield, there is no way to keep the women’s point of view and describe the battle scenes, which are my favorite parts. Her solution? Switch point of view to omnipotent for those chapters only. Structurally, it seems kind of an unfortunate decision, but how can we blame the author when what binds her are the unfair rules that bound women throughout history?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Emily recommends

I have a new book on my must-read list. Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is one of the best books I have read in a long time. I read it in three delicious gulps, then wandered around for two days complaining of being bookless and wishing for more. It’s an epistolary novel, not a form you see often now, and the author pulls it off beautifully. The story begins in 1945 in a bombed-out London, recovering from the Great War. Juliet, who has written a lively, morale-building column all through the war, is looking for a new topic. She receives a letter from a man named Dawsey on the island of Guernsey, who obtained one of her old books from a used book store and is writing to say how much it cheered his heart during the occupation. I did not know that England owned a series of islands in the English channel, close enough to see northern France on a clear day. Said islands were occupied for five years by the Germans. Dawsey mentions the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which a group of islanders founded to keep themselves sane during the occupation. Intrigued, Juliet asks to learn more, and she soon begins a correspondence with a number of the members. This is a delightful, heart-warming book about the joys of reading, and each of the characters is unique and wonderful and fully real. Part of what kept me reading is that, as the letters continue, you learn more and more about the occupation: the lack of food, the small defiances, the forced laborers brought from Poland, the intricacies of life on a small island where one sees the occupiers daily and not all of them are bad. Those who love history and literature will love this book, and as the story continues I spy I hint of Pride and Prejudice in there. But what keeps me thinking about this one, a week and a full book later, is the sense that I have seen full, real lives lived out in this book, and I miss hearing their voices now.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

book review

I picked up Philippa Gregory’s novel The Other Boleyn Girl for some light summer reading. I’m quite drawn to the current trend of retelling history from the perspectives of women who lived them, though I wasn’t sure how historical this would be, and how much it might be, well, a bodice-ripper, as they say. I was very pleasantly surprised. Ms. Gregory is known for her historical research—she has a PhD—and it was clear that great study had gone into realizing the food, dress, and landscape of England. The story was hard to put down. We know of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of King Henry VIII, mother of Queen Elizabeth, beheaded to make way for wife #3 (of 6). Less known is that Anne’s sister Mary was the king’s lover first. Mary had two children by the king, one of them a boy. Ms. Gregory delves into this story of intrigue as the family schemes to capture and keep the heart (and power) of the king. The sisters are a tenuous alliance, often pitted against each other but tied by the bond of blood. At any given moment in time, either of them might be reduced to being the Other Boleyn girl, as the title so aptly names them. The political backdrop is fascinating, as is the decadent life of court. I found myself, out for Korean food with my husband, expounding on the fascinating details of the Tudor court. An example: Anne Boleyn began to fall out of favor with her husband the king when they had been married for a few years sans son. Anne always dressed in the French style, having grown up at French court, with a particular headpiece to match. The king’s new favorite was Jane Seymour (daughter of another powerful scheming household, who would eventually be queen and die in childbirth giving him a sickly son.) Jane adopted the religious house-shaped hat that the former Spanish Queen Katharine had worn. And so now the ladies in waiting were torn: which style to choose? The style of hat indicated loyalty, and loyalty would be rewarded or punished based on which woman won out. Fascinating.

I have to say, her first book of the next series on the Plantagenets, The White Queen, is nowhere near as good. The political backdrop remains fascinating: the book is set during the war of the Roses, when cousins battled for kingship while England suffered. Beginning in 1464, the novel is written in the voice of Elizabeth Woodward, who married secretly across battle lines and wound up queen of England when her husband won. She is best known—and this is the most interesting part of the book—as the mother of the two princes who disappeared from the Tower of London—a mystery that has never been solved. But, 20-year time period that the book spans results in a slow middle, and this book lacks that emotional center and tension of The Other Boleyn Girl’s battling sisters. The writing itself is not very strong. It’s rather repetitive, as though Ms. Gregory is afraid the reader has forgotten what happened two chapters ago. Some of the repetitiveness is necessary: there seems to have been about 5 male names spread among all the characters. Elizabeth had TWO sons, a brother, and a brother-in-law all named Richard. (Yikes!) To keep us on track, Ms. Gregory wisely always refers to characters by their relationship and title, but given that no one would ever say to her mother “my brother-in-law George of Clarence,” the dialogue is (for this and other reasons) stilted, even fake. I do have to say that I still read the whole book, and after doing so I certainly want to look up this fascinating historical period that the author has imagined so well.

Ah, the joy of books.