Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Shame and the Captives by Thomas Keneally

Autumn 1946
Japan, unspecified prefecture

When they were alone, she said to Aoki, "You were surrounded by those black savages...All that time you had in the jungle..."

I will take all this as the opening line of an unidentified prologue even though it is two lines fused together with a gluttony of ellipses. This line manages to introduce a situation though without a clear conflict in mind, but certainly presents possibilities for a hook.

In the next paragraph we learn that she is asking him if he succumbed to the jungle women, one presumes during WWII, and he answers that he was a soldier, implying that he did not. At this point I sense a massive flashback in which he tells his story of the war. He does, but the great thing is that the story he tells his wife is a lie. The reader is told that he's hiding something and this secret is a hook.

Part 1:

Spring 1943

On an unexpectedly warm day in the second October since her husband's capture, twenty-three-year-old Mrs Alice Herman saw - from the veranda where she sat sewing buttons on one of her father-in-law's shirts -  an army truck pull up in the middle of the rutted clay and gravel road outside the Hermans' place, three miles west of Gawell.

That was very annoying to type out. Reading it is more fun, but when one is forced to type it out, it becomes clear how much of this sentence is unnecessary. I was itching to truncate or delete more than the standard 10%. Short opening lines with character and conflict are the way to go. This line seems to be more interested in creating an idyllic postcard image, that's designed to warn the reader that this story is going to be romantic and epic, like how a TV miniseries would start.

This is what it is really about:

In the second October since her husband's capture, Mrs Alice Herman saw an army truck pull up outside.

Who cares what the temperature is? Who cares that she is sewing? Who cares that the bloody road is of rutted clay. Who cares that she lives three miles west of God knows where? Maybe there will be a reason to care later, but when it's necessary to know later, that is when the writer tells the reader, not overloading the reader with a descriptive dump in the first line. Too many words in the opening line, like weather reports, adjectives, and GPS dumps, etc., have the tendency to lead a reader away from the hook rather than towards it.

Though brief, quite honestly, the weather insertion is annoying. It seems every second book I pick up nowadays begins with weather. There is only so much weather readers can handle before they start to OD on it. I'm at the point now where I have no sympathy and no respect for any writer who begins with weather - the most rampant cliched opening on the market today, so if writers can't be more creative, I feel justified in throwing insolence and ridicule their way while reviewing such openings.

In any case, this line does present context which establishes some conflict into the bargain. Army men coming to a woman whose husband is a POW is probably not a good thing. Is it enough to hook? It does raise some questions, and I must admit I am mildly curious as to what is or will be Mr. Herman's fate, even though I can't say I yet care. I'm more interested in the situation than in the characters.  I care more about the characters in the prologue, but that is a prologue: different people in a different place in a different time. So whatever hook there was in the prologue is wasted on chapter 1.

For reasons mentioned above, I'm so tempted to give this 2.5 stars - the 50/50 meh rating, but there are some questions raised that induce curiosity and the writing isn't bad, so I'll be kind and give this opening a solid 3 stars.

Verdict: Pass

Theodore Moracht

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