The World According to Renee

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Musings: Caroline Overington novels

Recently I read Matilda is Missing, a novel by Caroline Overington. I’ve also previously read I Came to Say Goodbye and I’ve just started Ghost Child. In the Reader’s Group questions for Matilda is Missing, it is asked why Barry is chosen as the narrator to tell Matilda’s story when he has nothing to do with the family or the case? It’s not only this novel which employs this particular form of narrative, Ms Overington’s other novels do the same; have other people tell the story.

I have my own theory about this. Ms Overington is a journalist. Journalists are supposed to remain disassociated from their subjects and present a broad and unbiased view. Perhaps this is the reason she chooses unrelated characters to narrate? In both I Came to Say Goodbye and Matilda is Missing, the story is told through the eyes of men in their 60s who are only vaguely related to the narrative they tell. Ghost Child is different; the narrative is presented through the eyes of several characters, none of whom are central to the story. It’s an interesting device because it keeps the story in perspective by allowing each character their own versions of the story. We all know the old adage There’s three sides to every story: your side, my side and the Truth. This novel really presents itself as showing a 3D view of the central story; a child has died. The narrators range from the sister of the child to a police officer on the scene, foster carer, doctor and others not directly related to the family. In this way, a broad view is formed of the central plot and each character brings their own bias, so the reader is left to decipher The Truth.

Using unrelated characters to tell another’s story also allows the reader to make their own judgments. I wrote earlier about The Sense of An Ending which leaves the reader wondering if the narrative is actually correct or if the novel is a game to trick the mind. The novels of Caroline Overington could be construed in the same way- is the plot being read what is actually happening or could it be the narrator is messing with our minds to garner sympathy for their plight?

The best way, in my opinion, to view these novels is to remember the journalism beginnings of the author. She’s used to writing from a perspective not of the subject but someone witnessing the event/s and reporting as a bystander. Either this habit is hard to break, or serves the purpose of continuing to present a different opinion from someone unrelated. Either way, I like the style of writing as it adds depth and a ‘humanness’ to the narrative.

When speaking of Caroline Overington’s novels, I also have to mention the names chosen for characters. Years ago, I read a How-To guide for writers. One of the Things You Must Never Do was to create characters with similar names, yet Ms Overington does this a lot. For example, Matilda is Missing has characters named Pat Harrison and Pam Harris, Garry and Barry. Ghost ChildĀ  has two children named Harley and Hayley. Now, while the reader isn’t confused by these characters (unless they are reading while very tired), it strikes me as odd. When asked via Twitter why this naming was important, Ms Overington replied, “Don’t you find life is like that sometimes?” Well, no, not in my experience. Giving similar names to characters can confuse the reader as well as look for hidden meaning and coincidences that simply aren’t there or require no thought- they just are. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with it; Stephen King often has the same name for different people in different novels. Maybe having similar names is a common thread between people who have no other similarities yet find themselves intertwined through no fault or cause of their own?

In any case, these novels are inherently about humans and the complexities of The System in which we live and operate under. Life can’t always be planned and Ms Overington’s novels show Aussies as we really are, warts and all. In the end, we’re all in the same boat.

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November 14, 2011 Posted by | Thoughts & Reflections | Leave a comment

The Sense of An Ending

Warning: Contains Spoilers.

There are two ways to look at Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize-winning novella The Sense of An Ending: a story about four friends, a girl and a mystery or, a mind-tease involving hints and clues but not telling the full (or correct) story. Either way, it’s probably the best book I’ve read this year.

The narrator is a sixty-something year old man named Tony who says “what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you saw”. Memory sets the tone for the rest of the story; the first part tells of Tony’s schooldays when he and his friends met Adrian Finn- a smart kid who likes to mess with your mind. But, like any mind-game played by true genius, you only realise it is a mind-game once you’re out of it.

Three friends and a girl named Veronica make up the narrative of Part 1. Their story becomes deeper entwined in Part 2, where Tony is now in his sixties, divorced and retired. He is told of a bequest, a strange ending to a life he knew nothing about. On a journey to find the purpose of the bequest, Tony finds out much more than he was supposed to know- the biggest mind-game he’s ever been involved in.

However, only the reader knows it’s a mind game, and only after the last page has been turned. Or is it?

(Here’s where the spoilers start.)

Once upon a time, Tony and Veronica were together. Around the time they broke up, they slept together. Tony later discovers his friend Adrian is now with Veronica, until the time Adrian kills himself in a melodramatic show of philosophy. Believing one cannot choose to begin life but one can choose when to end it, Adrian’s death becomes the background to the rest of the story. Years later, when Veronica’s mother dies, she leave a sum of money to Tony along with Adrian’s diary (now in the hands of Veronica). In the attempt to get the diary which is “rightfully” his, Tony becomes part of Veronica’s own mind-games once again.

Therein lies the beauty of the story. Tony is smart, but holds less than the full story (if indeed, his memory can be relied upon). The ending is perhaps not the bombshell promised; I made the mistake of putting the book down and coming back to it later, during which time the ending had already occurred to me. Still, the ending seems nice and tight, until you start reflecting on it and the entire novella starts unravelling itself again.

Tony discovers there is a child connected to Veronica. The ‘child’ is now about 50 years old and mentally handicapped. The narrative tells the reader that the man is named Adrian, looks like the Adrian of Tony’s memory, calls Veronica his sister and his mother recently passed away. Here is when the mind game starts: could Veronica actually be the mother and her pregnancy is the catalyst for Adrian’s suicide (echoing an earlier scene in the story from their schooldays?) Was the affair with Veronica’s mother and her pregnancy the final straw? Or is Tony misremembering both his own dalliance with Veronica and actually, the child is his? Or worse, the child is actually his but with Veronica’s mother?

Time and memory are themes in the novella; the opening paragraphs talk about time and how memory distorts and warps it. By the end of the narrative, it could be as straightforward as it seems or it could be that all the players have been part of Adrian’s mind-games.

Either way, it’s brilliantly written, a story for writers (Atonement by Ian McEwan is another written-for-writers novel) with quotes I would love to highlight and share in regular conversation. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to read it again…

November 9, 2011 Posted by | Reviews | , , , | 1 Comment