I'm not a big fan of "How to write" checklists; they're usually far too prescriptive, and very negative (a list of don'ts). However, I found myself wanting to shriek "Show, don't tell" every few pages. I kept reading only because I had time on my hands and thought it could only get better (it didn't).
PLOT BY NUMBERS
Hannah is a good(ish), 26-year old Christian girl, whose only vice is secretly making beautiful, slightly immodest, clothes, that she only wears in secret. The story opens as she wakes after having an illegal abortion (all abortions are illegal), having been recoloured as part of her punishment.
The story is a daisy-chain of clichés: a fertility pandemic ("superclap"!), an illicit affair (view spoiler)[ with a married priest (hide spoiler)] that's horribly Mills & Boon (at least, I think it is- I don't actually read M&B), an unwanted pregnancy, theocratically inspired police-state, bizarre and extreme punishment, Big Brother monitoring, imprisonment (loads more clichés there), brainwashing, a dash of nanotech, (view spoiler)[escape, on the run, survival, kindness/danger of strangers, (hide spoiler)] who to trust, an arbitrary deadline that is then forgotten about, and half a dozen others.
The only original idea, which has potential, is melachroming as a punishment. Prison is expensive, and recidivism high, so instead, offenders have their skin coloured (the colour relating to the type of crime) for the period of their sentence, and are released to an unwelcoming society, after a month of incarceration on 24/7 reality TV, like Big Brother. They usually end up homeless, jobless and ultimately lifeless.
Making colour the focus of the story also has potential for interesting parallels with racism, but there aren't really any, other than a passing observation that racism still exists, but that Chromes suffer far greater stigma than ethnic minorities.
SHOW, DON'T TELL
If only. It was painfully banal, spelling out everything in crassly obvious ways, rather that letting the reader interpret what isn't a particularly difficult story.
Maybe it would work better as a film?
For example, a cold, unpleasant woman called Bridget is nicknamed Fridget. Fine. But just in case you can't work out why, Jordan has to spell it out, "The woman's an iceberg". I could pick out more examples, but it's the relentless and cumulative effect of so many of them that I found so infuriating. But here are a couple more, mainly for my future reference: (view spoiler)["Had being a Red given her an extra sense, a knowledge of the hidden desires and evil in others?". Hannah misses her sister, but talk about over-explaining: "Hannah felt Becca's absence keenly. As different as they were they'd always been close. Now, Hannah had no one with whom she could share her inner life." (hide spoiler)]
The sledgehammer approach applies to metaphors as well: "Their attraction grew slowly... like a pregnancy during which they were both waiting, with equal degrees of excitement and trepidation, for the inevitable emergence of the new thing they were creating between them." Ugh. When locked in a car boot/trunk "She lay in the blackness, stroking her friend's warm hand, waiting to be born". And it's not just pregnancy metaphors; there are Christian themes, so when (view spoiler)[on the run and (hide spoiler)]having her hear washed, "Warm water streamed from the crown of Hannah's head down her scalp. What a strange baptism, she thought."
It's worst of all with the bloody boxes. It's clear enough that they're a recurring theme (literal and metaphorical), but lest you miss it, there's a handy list of them on page 268 and a couple of other explicit references to not wanting to be boxed in again.
Language is important in the abortion debate. For instance, the appropriation of the term "pro-life" creates a problem for those who dislike abortion, but think it should be an option. Using emotive terms like "murder", rather than clinical ones like "procedure" have weight and bias, too. These issues are touched on a couple of times, but it's like sociology or linguistics 101.
LIBERAL OR SECRETLY CONSERVATIVE?
By tackling the horrors that can arise from strict prohibition of abortion, I expected this to be a liberal-minded book, and although I can see why Jordan wouldn't want to alienate more ambivalent readers by coming across as pro-abortion (not that I think anyone is actually PRO-abortion), this sits very oddly with the discomfort I felt at the way homosexuality and possibly transvestism were tackled.
Homosexuality Hannah's church thinks homosexuality is a sin (though not all the churches in her world do), and it's a while before Hannah questions that. When she does, it's very sudden and unconvincing: (view spoiler)[ on page 277, she's horrified at the thought of being alone with a lesbian, but moments/6 pages later, she is seduces said lesbian! (hide spoiler)]. I see sexual attraction as a spectrum, rather than two or three fixed categories, but it just didn't ring true for me.
Related to that, sex seems to be a magical cure for past abuses, (view spoiler)[but straight sex is more curative than gay sex (hide spoiler)]. Ugh.
Transvestism Analogy? Hannah's impetus for making her secret clothes is described in ways I've often heard transvestites describe their cross-dressing. This felt rather strange and maybe inappropriate: "Though she'd known she could never wear them openly, the mere fact of their existence, their prodigal beauty, had buoyed her". " For myself... I have to make them, or I'll explode", and he understands, "They're an essential part of you. A part you can't express any other way."
It's a patriarchal society, so, at least in church families, the dress codes for women are quite strict, but not for men (as you'd expect), but again, we are told, not shown. Inevitably, all the blame and punishment for abortions falls on the women and abortionists; the fathers may be named and fined, but I don't think they become Chromes.
FAITH - IN CHURCH OR GOD
One positive message is the idea that there are different ways to God, even to a Christian God, and this is presented even-handedly, and left open-ended.
LINKS WITH LITERATURE
There are many, which means Jordan must be reasonably well-read, which makes the fact this is so poorly written harder to understand.
At one point, Hannah finds a few lines of a poem about Menelaus and Helen of Troy carved under some furniture, but unlike almost everything else in the story, this isn't explained. (It's never referred to again, either.)
Like The Handmaid's Tale, this is set in the near future, in north America, when fertility has been damaged, so strict religion is used to limit women's sexual freedom and fertility. However, in this society, not everyone in religious; for instance, Hannah's colleague is open about her promiscuity. As long as she never tries to get an abortion, it's apparently OK.
In Handmaid, no specific religion is named; in this, it refers explicitly to Christians, except once, when Mormons are mentioned (I know they describe themselves as Christians, but many other denominations don't agree) and the fact that Utah "was the nexus of the conservative backlash". I don't know if it's intended as a specific attack on Mormons or not.
As in Handmaid, colours and clothes are highly significant, and instead of tulips, there are a couple of orchids.
Jane Austen gets an explicit mention as the name of one of her characters is used as a code name.
The resistance use code names that are all the names of famous 20th century feminists.
There's a sinister character whose name is nearly the same as a dodgy Dickens character (Billy Sykes), but as he's just a fleeting appearance, I wonder if it's just a gimmick, as with Austen.
There were a few phrases that worked well, or raised a (probably unintended) smile:
* "The quintessential minister's wife: demure and gracious, pretty without being beautiful enough to cause resentment."
* "A voice like honey poured thinly over granite."
* Chromes have to use the Drive-Thru; the server is careful not to touch her, but "he did, however, remember to thank her and wish her a McWonderful day."
* "Parenthesis appeared at the corner of his mouth, bracketing a sad little smile."
* Percussion used like this? "His heart, which was beating in wild contrapuntal percussion to the hard steady cadence of her own."
* Someone has "lambent" eyelashes, which is a bit of a weird image (later, someone else has lambent eyes, so I guess it's an editing oversight). Another editing failure is the French Canadian who speaks perfect English at first, but later, it's distinctly unidiomatic and stilted.
And if you're ever on the run and want to plan a route, try this: "Show quickest route... avoiding all known checkpoints". Oh well, at least it made me laugh. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
A short novella, told like a story, but its increasing surreality makes it increasingly like a very long dream, which confused me at first as I didn'tA short novella, told like a story, but its increasing surreality makes it increasingly like a very long dream, which confused me at first as I didn't know it was that sort of book. I expect its fans think it very profound, but it said nothing to me.
It is the sort of pretentious and poorly written thing I might have produced in my late teens, and whilst I might have been proud of it at the time, I would be relieved as an adult if it had never been published.
Even ignoring the absence of speech marks (which I find annoying, but concede is a valid stylistic trait), I still think the writing is bad. There are too many self-conscious mentions of light, railway tracks and mist that are ultimately empty.
It tries too hard to be "poetic", which leads to bizarre metaphors such as, "the almond green of her eyes" (though later he is more conventional and describes his own eyes as almond-shaped) and "the scent, which seemed to hang in the air like figures of eight". After lines like that, I couldn't decide whether "I touched my finger off the sundial" was a typo or deliberate, and if deliberate, what it was meant to mean.
At other times, it could do with a little more variety. He hears the "hissing of sprinklers" twice in the space of only 3 sparsely worded pages. However, as the same word is used for sprinklers on several other occasions, it's obviously deliberate, but it jarred with me.
As for the small amount of sex, it should surely be considered for the annual literary Bad Sex award.
Overall, the only person I would recommend this to would be a budding author wanting a case study of what not to do.
Oh dear. This is unquestionably the worst-written book I can remember reading, even allowing for my only foray into modern chick lit (a Sophie KinsellOh dear. This is unquestionably the worst-written book I can remember reading, even allowing for my only foray into modern chick lit (a Sophie Kinsella).
Connolly has written a biography of PG Wodehouse, and a reviewer in The Times likened this book to one of PGW's (I can only assume the reviewer had never read any PGW), but there are no wonderful Wodehousian metaphors and I couldn't detect any similarity of characterisation or plotting.
I only got to page twenty something as I was keener to get out a blue pencil and rewrite and correct it than actually to read the story, so I never reach any of the (allegedly) really funny sections.
I rarely give up on a book and have certainly never given up on one after so few pages, but it was too dire to waste any more time; I read for pleasure, not to get cross!
Casual and even incoherent language can work in direct speech and even, if done skilfully, in narrative, but the rambling, impossibly punctuated sentences with surplus words in a random order is continuous and infuriating. ...more