If you’re trying to find a way of structuring your novel take a look at The Other Hand by Chris Cleave, which was shortlisted for the 2008 COSTA Novel Award. It is a compelling story about two very different women. Their first meeting is brief and takes place before the story begins but two years later their lives collide again.
Point of view in the book alternates, a chapter at a time, between these two main protagonists. Each character’s version of events deals with the present day and also includes flashbacks over the previous two years. But the really clever bit in this book is the way author drip feeds information to the reader – just as we think we know the history of these two women, another surprise is dropped in.
Chris talks about the structure of the book on his website and the difficulties that he encountered. He says, “Using two narrators is difficult though. To differentiate their vocabulary, grammar and idioms is quite straightforward if you make an effort to understand and inhabit the characters, but the hard thing is how you handle the overlaps and the gaps in the characters’ knowledge. When both narrators have witnessed an event, which one will you choose to recount it? Or will you let both of them tell it, and play with their different perspectives on what they’ve seen?”
Chris’s difficulties are compounded by the fact that he is a man trying to get inside the minds of two women from very different backgrounds. But Chris sees that as an advantage – because he must concentrate so hard to become a character so different from himself, there is no danger of him accidentally using his own voice instead of that of his characters.
He describes a novel as an intricate engine and says, “if you change one little piece here, it can throw the whole thing out of equilibrium way over there.”
The terrible events in this book haunt the reader because they are probably happening to someone, somewhere, right now. I’d love to tell you more about the story itself but the blurb on the back of the book reads, “once you have read it, you’ll want to tell your friends about it. When you do please don’t tell them what happens. The magic is in how it unfolds.”
And how the story unfolds is all down to the clever structure – something the Telegraph describes as “a feat of literary engineering.”
It’s a book well worth reading (if you’re in the US, this book is available there with the title ‘Little Bee’).
And if you fancy some free books to read don’t forget the easy to enter prize draw running on this blog. Click here for more details.
#1 by Helen Yendall on January 10, 2011 - 2:15 pm
Sally, I’d never heard of this book (to my shame!) but it sounds fascinating and I’m definitely going to add it to my pile to read! thanks for the recommendation. I love books that teach us something about writing too (well, I suppose they all do but this one sounds particulary good!)
#2 by Christine Coleman on February 12, 2011 - 9:02 pm
Following your message to me about using the cover of my book (yes, please feel free to copy the image) I’ve just dropped in on your very informative blog –
I enjoyed reading your review of The Other Hand – I find reviews quite difficult to write, but you seem to have the knack.
I was a bit put-off by the blurb,and the editor’s intro, which seemed a bit pretentious to me, but thought it was a brilliantly written novel, for all the reasons you give above. I love the quote from the Telegraph – “a feat of literary engineering.”
#3 by Sally Jenkins on February 13, 2011 - 10:41 am
Christine – thanks for dropping by. Glad to hear that you too enjoyed The Other Hand – few people that I’ve spoken to have heard of it, so we’ll have to spread the word!