I’d like to recommend Elizabeth Jane Howard.

elizabeth jane howardThe Long View is a novel told in reverse.  It begins with a portrait of the marriage of Antonia and Conrad Fleming in 1950, when their son is getting engaged, and then steps back through various key moments in the adult life of Antonia.  Hmm, I thought, turning the novel over, shall I: shan’t I?

Could I care about the domestic angst of an upper-middle-class, middle-aged woman in the 1950s?  I tried the first page, ‘This, then, was the situation.

I do like beginnings in media res, a technical term that translates to ‘into the middle of things’.  Clearly this is not a high-octane action sequence, it’s something much more juicy.  ‘Want a bit of gossip?’ the narrator is saying, leaning in close over our coffee cups.  ‘I’m going to share secrets.’

This, then, was the situation.  Eight people were to dine that evening in the house at Campden Hill Square.  Mrs Fleming had arranged the party (it was the kind of unoriginal thought expected of her, and she sank obediently to the occasion) to celebrate her son’s engagement to June Stoker.

Then there’s that lovely piece of subtlety, ‘she sank obediently to the occasion’.  Lovely, a narrator who will leave me room to work things out.  I was hooked. Time to step back from the stereotyping and residual prejudices, and see what a skilled writer can do with a domestic situation.

On arrival the men would be politely wrenched from their overcoats, their hats, umbrellas, evening papers, and any other more personal outdoor effects by the invaluable Dorothy, until reduced to the uniformity of their dinner jackets…

Remember I said this is a story told in reverse?  It isn’t flashback, with the narrator balancing the pressures and consequences of previous events against an on-going development, this is an exact reversal of time.  Once we have gathered what the situation is in 1950, that segment closes and we step into 1942.

That’s a tricky game to play.  In a novel I’m expecting some sense of continuity, of development.  There are five segments to this story, taking us back in uneven stages to 1926.  Each requires us to begin again with setting, situation and characters, and go forward for a while, getting to know a younger Antonia.  How will she do it, maintain my interest, my belief in the wholeness of this concept?

Well, one trick is repetition.  Here’s the beginning for 1942:

‘The situation is perfectly simple.  All you have to do is to meet me from the 7.38 at Euston.’

Thus Mr Fleming on a trunk call from the previous night from goodness knows where.  Indeed, put like that, what could be simpler?  With the world at war, meticulously grinding vast cities exceeding small; with such catastrophes as Singapore and Dunkirk behind one..’

Reassuringly the same tone, and style, but now neatly, economically, creating setting and, did you see it?  SITUATION.

Each of the other three sections open with a reference to situation, but with a fresh take, a subtle re-setting of tone.  All build up to a domestic event that will impact on Antonia, and in so doing, reveal other layers of story and backstory.

Gradually, my picture of Antonia is rounding out.  I learn something about why, at the outset, she is expected to be unoriginal, and why she might sink ‘obediently to the expectation’.  More importantly, I think I understand how this process has evolved.

Elizabeth Jane Howard 2Told chronologically, it’s a novel that might easily be defined as a saga.  Told in reverse, with economy, it becomes an intriguing and sophisticated exploration of character. Read this, and you might never make easy assumptions about a marriage again.

Read this, and you might be tempted to try out some of these strategies in your own writing.