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Saturday, 18 April 2015 06:54

Mentor's Critique - Missed Stitch

Clive, the quiet tone of your story led me into an erroneous first impression that little happens in the first thirty pages of Missed Stitch. Indeed, in your synopsis you say dryly that not much goes on in the town of Rockdale—except life and death. In fact, incidents do occur in the lives of the women you introduce to us.

 


The first concerns quilting and needlework. The main protagonist, Beth, is tempted from her usual sewing club to join a breakaway group led by a woman who lives in a mid-town area, Alice. In the neighbourhood politics of Rockdale this is a big event, but you do not record any resentment from Monica, the bossiest member of the first group—how does she feel about being abandoned without notice, especially when a classy newcomer, Nadine, also leaves? Perhaps you are saving a nasty confrontation for later in the story.

 

The second is the flash flood, which exposes the local journalist, Mary, as a stirrer, who likes to sensationalise the district 'news' and doesn't always wait to get her facts right. Her histrionics briefly jeopardise the job of Martin, the Emergency Services manager, but when he faces her with the truth there are hints she may change her approach in the future.

Thirdly there is the confidence that Alice shares with Beth (see the extract). Beth has a supportive husband, a grown-up daughter and a job in insurance where she feels she can do some good, but she is shy and discontented with herself, and there is a dark secret in her life that she has not yet shared with anyone. Listening to Alice's childhood tragedy shakes her up.

You have handled reader expectations very cleverly at the beginning of your novel. If any of these people are going to change and develop, it will not be because of a shattering external event. Their situation, their feelings and their lives are affected only by those close by: family, friends and neighbours. You show that people can be damaged by these relationships—and you hint that they may also be healed.

Women's fiction in particular abounds in stories where life's adventures are played out in outwardly undramatic circumstances, and where the emphasis is instead on people's inner lives. Other stories remain in the domestic sphere but are enlivened by an extra element, such as humour, a romance, a crime, a law suit, an adoption dispute ... Others again are dominated by family quarrels. Missed Stitch does not sit squarely beside any of these novels, because it does not appear to be structured around a central conflict. From now on, you seem to intend the reader to turn the pages because of curiosity about Beth's secret.

Your writing is accomplished, readable and immediate. Your prose is strongly kinaesthetic (using language that evokes movement and the sense of touch). This gives a fluidity to your narrative, which moves smoothly from action (eg Beth's arrival at the Emergency Management meeting) to her observant and often ironical or self-deprecating inner commentary: 'Her developing skill in needleturn would not be a helpful contribution.' This keeps the reader with Beth and ensures our sympathy. There are many reasons to suppose we'll stay with her until the end.

I would encourage you to take the same care in handling the reader's curiosity as you have with your characters' development so far. Do not overstretch it. If Beth's dark secret can be guessed well before the end, allow the reader to do so. Many otherwise good writers run the awful risk of tormenting the reader over a secret that turns out to be guessable, or trivial, or implausible, or all these at once. Sometimes the reader actually wearies of a character who is obsessing about a central secret, and simply cannot care about the final revelation! Two novels that have seriously disappointed me in this way were Julian Barnes's The Sense of an Ending and Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go.

Clive, your book is gentle and unpretentious—deliberately so—but it has strengths. I would suggest that you continue to use your talents for character development, for well-selected detail, for the fluid depiction of thought and feeling, to move the story forward. And be confident that we are already interested in Beth, whatever her past may hold.

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