Friday, 06 February 2015 23:32

Mentor's critique - A Small Death

Hannah, I hesitated a little before choosing to comment on this work but decided to write a critique for two reasons: it's the first erotic novel I've displayed on FLM and your narrative technique intrigues me.

From the moment I saw your title I was expecting a novel about sex: as you know, the Elizabethans called sexual consummation 'the little death'. And indeed it is: your characters fall first in lust, not love.

(You may also be aware of the recent comedy film about ordinary people's secret sex lives called The Little Death.) As early as page 25 in your novel we get a sensuously detailed sex scene as Rachel masturbates in a prolonged fantasy encounter with David. This is a strong hint to the reader: once these two do get together, there will be regular episodes of climactic coupling. I'm not an expert on erotic novels so I can't comment on whether yours would be stiff enough competition for something like Fifty Shades of Grey. But I can register that the woman is neither a dominatrix (she simply has a strong will and rampant desires) nor the kind of girl who's likely to submit to bondage. I suspect she's refreshingly different from the norm in erotic novels, and you are set to explore her sexuality in original ways.

Narrative Voice(s)
You use two distinct forms of narration. With one narrative thread there are clear, often detailed descriptions of the setting, the characters and their actions. With the other, the language draws the reader into what can only be called a stream of consciousness – usually Rachel's, but there is one instance when we're immersed in David's. This inner flow of sensation is conveyed metaphorically, the two dominant sets of imagery being natural (the sea, water, cloudy or starry skies) and supernatural (the slowing or stopping of time; paradoxes, as in a scene which is both coloured and not coloured; living beings turning into ghosts; David and Rachel 'knowing' each other as though by telepathy).

Both are evident in the extract on display: we might call one 'pragmatic' and the other 'mystical'. There is something just a little old-fashioned about their intermingling. The effect is reminiscent of DH Lawrence's prose in Lady Chatterley's Lover, where there's a contrast between Mellors's blunt explanations of how he likes his sex, and the ecstatic flights of verbosity while he's having it. Your mystical passages are also quite poetic, deliberately so, I'm sure. So you can see why your narrative voices intrigue me.

Will they intrigue the general reader, throughout a whole novel? I think they may, provided you use them not just to advance the plot but to explore character. If we're fascinated by Rachel and David as people, we'll be more willing to be voyeurs of their sexual adventure.

Your pragmatic narration in the first thirty pages briskly summarises Rachel as protagonist. Unproblematic upbringing, widowed with two children, no money worries, very beautiful, an important figure in her little Cornish village, practically runs the Catholic parish. Seeing her in action we note that she is vain (she has the habit of playing with her hair to get attention), irritable (she destroys the charm of the opening scene, in bed with her kids one morning, by snapping at them), and an inverted snob (she despises all the wealthy guests at the luxury hotel where she works, including the occasional royal). She is hard-working, an efficient mother, and she does have friends, though she is sulky and unconfiding with her best friend at this early stage of her colossal attraction to David. From her back story we find that she likes to take charge of her sexual relationships. It seems David won't have much chance of fending her off, since she already sees him as a 'child'.

This categorical introduction to Rachel gives us the impression that there's not much left to know about her, but I'm sure that as a writer you believe there is, and you want to reveal it in your novel. One way to develop Rachel further would be to explore her emotions. We have plentiful details about her daily life, interspersed with mystical evocations of sexual yearning, but how she feels emotionally is unclear. Yet she's a vulnerable person: when she lost her husband she went into shock. Meeting David seems to be just as powerful: it virtually puts her into flight. Learning how Rachel feels (for instance, is she capable of love?) and watching her advance emotionally will help us feel for her and cause us to read on.

The story of a seductive woman tempting a pious man away from his calling and into sin is an old and popular one. The Scarlet Letter and The Thorn Birds come to mind. In the 21st century most of the sinful priests exposed to the public eye are paedophiles. By association, no matter what the denomination of the church, any sexual contact between a priest and a member of his parish is these days seen as abusive. This is a reader prejudice that you must counter if David is to be attractive as the hero of your story. As with Rachel, I think your best approach is to explore his emotions. He's young and virile: why has he chosen a celibate life? And what makes him wide-open to sexual temptation on the very first day of contact with his very first parishioners? Questions that can only be answered if we know what David's deepest feelings are, about himself, his dreams and the people in his life.

Hannah, your narrative method is distinctive and I find it original that you don't expect us to like Rachel instantly. Your story's best potential lies in the growth of its characters.

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