Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Learning from Literature: A Swift Pure Cry

Ugh. This book. I have a love/hate relationship with it. The subject matter is hard to stomach, but the writing is so beautiful, I'm compelled to keep reading.

There are times when I stumble onto a passage that showcases Author Siobhan Dowd's genius. I call it genius because it takes a special knowledge (or a lot of practice) to know exactly when to leave a scene alone, and exactly how much to say without ruining a feeling.

I thought I'd give two examples of Dowd's genius in this post.

(1) When to Leave a Scene Alone

Knowing when to end a chapter can be tough. I find myself prone to ramble. Siobhan Dowd doesn't. Without spoiling too much, here's a chapter ending from A Swift Pure Cry that impressed me:

The jacket hung open now; the shirt was two days old. He was looking at Trix and Jimmy, running across the top of the back field, heading for the copse, perhaps trying to get away from him. She saw her dad's shoulders sag, his head droop. Father Carroll's car vanished around the turn.

"Shell," he called. She could tell he wasn't in good humor. But he wasn't drunk either.

She switched on an electric ring to warm the pan.

Notice how she doesn't need to go into the conversation between the MC and the father. We can guess what will follow. We fill it all in with our imaginations. She finishes that chapter and moves on with the story in the next chapter. I love that brevity, that trust in the reader to be able to fill in the blanks. It's elegant.

(2) Knowing Exactly How Much to Say

I love the way Dowd handled this particular scene. It's a fragile one: the MC is planning to run away (for reasons I won't tell you).

She rounded the copse, then sat on the fallen tree to look down on the fold of slope a last time. She stared at the church steeple, the slate roofs, the swaying elms, the tired fields. She dumped the bag down at her feet. She took the money and ran her hands over the notes.

The ghost had followed her.

She remembered Mam's voice, singing to her that Easter night from beyond the grave.

She thought of Nellie Quirke, the dog, and the way Jimmy had been when he was sick last spring, with the white freckles standing out on his narrow face, asking for a spade.

She thought of Trix, with her paper dollies and strange chants, cuddling up for another Angie Goodie adventure.

They won't know to bolt the bedroom door at night ...

The morning ticked by.

At the end of it, she picked up her bag. The Angelus started ringing again, like a broken record. She didn't bother to count the peals. She trudged back down the back field to the house and unpacked all her things. She undid the piano, replaced the money in the caddy and put the piano back together again.

She ate the sandwich she'd made. Then she turned the oven on and started on some scones.

That's the end of this particular chapter (another fantastic ending). Isn't it amazing how Dowd doesn't tell us anything? She doesn't tell us the MC has changed her mind and decided to stay. We know through the MC's memories, her thought-process, and then her actions that she'll stay, but Dowd never has to say it outright. We're allowed to enter into the MC's feelings and that's how we know. Beautifully done, don't you think?

Like I said, A Swift Pure Cry is painful to read because it's so full of suffering. But Dowd is incredible. I love learning from her.

What books have you loved and learned from?


  1. I've learned millions from Gillian Flynn. Love her work, particularly DARK PLACES.

    Am off to buy this -- have never read any of her stuff before.

  2. Oh Weronika, I think you'll love it! Hope you do. Let me know. I'll have to look up Gillian Flynn.


  3. Those are the kinds of books that either inspire me to be a better writer (if I'm in a good mood), or convince me that I'll never, ever publish - ever (if I'm in a bad mood:) ).

    I read BOG CHILD after you recommended it, and the writing was so spare and yet so lyrical. Definitely a worthwhile read. Thanks for recommending it (and for recommending this one, too).

  4. Thanks Amy...sounds like a good book. I like how you reviewed it as a writer...not just the storyline, but the way it was written.

  5. Very beautiful. I never would have thought to end a chapter where she did, but it works. Amazing!

    J.K. Rowling always amazes me. She makes it seem so simple.


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