I couldn’t stop reading these two novels. Here’s why


Do you sometimes read a book and want it to never end? Sometimes I fear that I’ll never find a novel as keep-me-up-all-night good as the one I’m currently reading. It feels like nothing I pick off the shelf will be as absorbing, as transporting. In the last few weeks I’ve had that feeling twice, in one novel after another. The first one was The Rip by Mark Brandi. The second was The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton. I tried to work out why.

What these two magnificent novels have in common (besides being Australian and about characters pushed to extremes) is a first person narrator – the voice of the story is ‘I’. This isn’t uncommon in literature, but both of these novels do it so well.

So how did they keep me hooked?

Neither has a complex plot or a huge cast of characters, but both were irresistible. If I wrote a novel, I thought, this is what I would want to do. So how? How could I possibly draw the reader in so intensely, keep them there, right inside the head of a complex and damaged main character?

It’s all about narrative point of view

In The Rip, the protagonist and narrator is a homeless, drug-addicted young woman, name unknown, living in the parks and streets of inner-city Melbourne. Mark Brandi has used the present tense as well as the first person, making the reading experience both immediate and personal. The Shepherd’s Hut is narrated by Jaxie Clackton, the ‘hardarse the kids run clear of all over the shire’. Tim Winton writes the young man’s voice absolutely authentically, bad grammar and all. So we see the world and hear the story totally from their point of view. They are the main character as well as the narrator. Logically, it may seem that a first-person narrator would be the least engaging, and an omniscient or third-person narrator would add more nuance to the story. In the hands of these first-class writers, the first-person point of view puts us inside the world and the mind of the main character but leaves room for us to wonder how reliable they are. We see what they see, experience their world with them, but also bring to the story our doubts about if the world really is as the character experiences it. Our own imaginations fill in some of the shadows, and foresee where the character is going to end up. Until we don’t.

In the hands of lesser writers first-person narration can be limited and self-indulgent. Both these recent Australian novels are well worth examining for lessons in first-person point of view. But read them first as wonderful stories, masterfully told.

Read more about Mark Brandi in 8 things an award-winning author can teach you about being a writer.

Editing, learning and reading

Editing has taken a back seat for a few months, but now I’m up and running again.

What I’m editing

I’m editing two memoirs: one about grief and loss, and one about a journalist’s experiences of the world at some crucial moments of change. I’ll keep you posted!

I’ve also been doing some legal editing; something I enjoy for it’s technical precision and (to me) always interesting subject matter.

What I’m learning

I’ve almost completed six weeks of the workshop Write your Story with John Hockney at the Mid-Mountains Neighbourhood Centre in Lawson. John is a writer, storyteller and facilitator, and is writing his very interesting life story. One of his brothers is acclaimed artist David Hockney, and his ancestors were some of the founders of the Salvation Army. I’ve learned so much from both him and the group, Perhaps the most important insight is that  EVERYBODY  has an interesting story to tell, and it’s all in the telling. as Dr Seuss said, ‘There is no one alive  who is Youer than you’. It’s been great to reach back into the past and grasp the stories of growing up in apartheid South Africa in the 1960s and 1970s, which I’ll use as background to my novel one day.

quote from Dr Seuss

Wise words from Dr Seuss

What I’m reading

Cooktown by Andreas Heger: ‘It is a brutal and tender tale exploring male identity and toxic masculinity seen through a lens of sexuality, desire and abuse.’  – Thuy On

The Thin Time by Lisa Finn Powell . (To be honest I haven’t started this yet. I went to a fabulous workshop she gave about journalling grief, which will be very useful to me in my editing work. Lisa is an experienced journalist (among so many other things) and  it will be great to see how she tackled her own (rather devastating) story.

Today is Dictionary Day!

Today, 16 October, is Dictionary Day. The date honours Noah Webster, who created the first American dictionary in 1829.  (So I probably should have spelled that ‘honors’.)

Graminaceous: one who devours grammar?

Dictionaries are a vital tool for writers and editors. And they can be heaps of fun for anybody who has the slightest interest in words. Recently I read The Word Detective by John Simpson, who was the chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.  It combines a memoir of his time at the dictionary – which included the move to online – with fascinating historical asides about the history of words in English.  Did you know that balderdash was probably first a foamy drink with its origins in Scandinavia?  Or that we have 97 words for hell?

If entering an eternal hell seems better than reading  a 360-page tome on dictionaries, try celebrating dictionary day like this:

Open your favourite dictionary at random and pick a word you have never read or used before.  Now vow to use it before midnight.

Mine is lacustrine: referring or relating to lakes.

If you don’t like this game, go take a lacustrine leap.