This, Maria Donovan’s first novel, is good. I’ve been enjoying reading her short stories ever since I discovered ‘Pumping up Napoleon‘, in Mslexia magazine, some years ago.
If the truth be told, I’ve looked out for her. I’ve not been disappointed. She’s taken me on an interesting range of short, but often resonant, journeys. What I’ve liked is her humour, humanity and inventiveness. Brevity, I’ve thought, was her forte. So when I stumbled onto her blog site, and discovered she had recently written a novel, I wondered what to expect.
I’m always a little nervous when writers shift from one form to another. It’s a long time since I believed that authors who produce short fiction are practising, building up to the moment when they will write their novel, or that novelists turning to the short forms are clear about how they can work.
It’s true there are some shared skills, in the two forms. Could I list them? Certainly, though if I tried to now, you, or I, would immediately name some short story or novel that refuted my proof. Since I’d rather not set myself up to fail, I’ll get back to talking about this novel.
Let’s start with the first line. It should be good. It should interest/intrigue the reader.
The day before the murder, George Bull tried to poison me with a cheese sandwich.
I’m hooked. Apart from the murder, I want to know how anyone can be poisoned using a cheese sandwich. Who is this narrator? Almost as that question is forming, it’s being answered.
Break time he got me in a headlock in the playground, patted my face like he was being friendly, smiled for the cameras and said, ‘Why don’t you and me have a picnic? George Bull: he’s George to the teachers, Georgie to his dad, but to me he is just Bully. He let me nod, and breathe, and walked me off to a corner of the field.
The first page of this novel is a master class in how to deliver information without stepping to one side and entering lecture mode. Our narrator, the voice that we have to decide whether to trust or not, is that of a twelve-year old boy, Michael. Reading him, I was thrown right back to my junior school days again. His interests, his questing connection to the world, even his reminiscences seemed true. Had you forgotten that children have a view of the past too?
Janey’s birthday is in April and mine is October so she started school before me. Sometimes her mum looked after me, and I would curl up in an armchair on rainy afternoons and doze and dream, waiting for Janey to come back in her uniform smelling of pencils. I was happy when I first started school, because I knew Janey would be there.
Creating an authentic child-voice is tricky. The author must hold firmly to the sight and understanding that belongs in the age group. Their vocabulary might be fairly sophisticated, but it cannot imply an adult understanding of all that they see. Though it can ape an adult view, as in Michael’s idyllic description of how his life used to be:
You could knock on anyone’s door, open it, call out hello and just walk in. Sometimes I used to climb through the dog flap in Irma’s kitchen door and help myself to biscuits. If she came home and found me sitting at the kitchen table she didn’t mind. When the dog died she still kept the dog flap and though Janey said it was for the dog’s ghost, so he could come and go, I knew it was for me.
The beauty of using a child narrator is that it forces the reader to become involved. The other day, one of my students was asking about unreliable narrators. This novel is a lovely demonstration of how naivety can create that effect. The view of a child is, generally, limited, not always because of their lack of size. Adults have shaped their world, for good or bad reasons.
Ted is the only thing I have that was my dad’s. Before he met my mum and ‘went to the bad’. I’m not really sure what bad they went to. Nan won’t talk about it.
I’m not going to tell you much more either, in case I give the game away. This is one of those novels that both is, and isn’t, what it seems to be. It’s called The Chicken Soup Murder because there is chicken soup, and Michael believes that a murder has happened. There are moments when lives hang in the balance.
There are also revelations about various types of death and lives and, even, sex. It’s a story about growing up, family, love, grief, friendships and determination. It’s set in 2012, on a Dorset street, and visits Cardiff. There, that should be enough to wet the appetite.