Phew, it’s been a busy few weeks trying to cram in all my reviews of first the Bailey’s Prize and then the Man Booker International Prize shortlists. I’ve still got a pile of books from spring waiting to be written about, but I think the sensible thing might be to pause and catch my breath before I attempt to catch up with myself.
Or, maybe I should re-phrase that first sentence:
It is a busy few weeks trying to cram in all my reviews of the recent prize shortlists.
I’m afraid I still prefer my first version. Even when blogging I can’t deny my bias against the past tense. And things only get more dogmatic when it comes to my reading choices. Writing in the first tense is one of those things that can move a book straight off the to-be-read pile. I can’t describe how much I struggled with ‘Wolf Hall,’ but can vividly recall how I felt when I finally put my finger on what was bugging me so much about the lauded epic.
All this is by way of introduction, you see I really enjoyed my reading for the Man Booker International Prize, but I can’t quite get over the fact that three of the six books selected were written in the present tense. ‘Mirror, Shoulder, Signal,’ ‘The Unseen‘ and even my favourite ‘Fever Dream‘ all took me more or less off-guard. I didn’t want to mention it in my reviews (because I realise not everyone gets as hung up on these issues as I do), but it has got me thinking about how I really feel about this stylistic choice.
The fact is, I find reading stories in the present tense an odd experience. It jars me out of my comfort zone and the fact that it is uncommon for literary fiction means I end up reading more slowly as a result. I don’t think all books can take this meditative pace, especially not compounded with the arch knowingness that seems to come with such a provocative choice on the part of the author. On the other hand, if I’m honest with myself, some of my favourite novels use this style to magical effect. In ‘The Night Circus‘ my favourite moments, the timeless passages in which we are invited into the circus itself, are all in the present tense. In Italo Calvino’s ‘If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller’ the present tense second person sections, all about the joys of reading, make me smile from ear to ear. In ‘Fever Dream’ the delirious chronicling demands the immediacy of Amanda’s deeply personal present tense narration.
I suppose the two factors here are intention and brevity. It seems I can adore present tense narration for up to (but not over) 150 pages. It has to be used to create a somewhat magical or out-of-body experience, with the awareness that this is an unusual literary choice and so only fit for very unusual books or topics. The success of ‘Fever Dream’ however also shows that I should try not to be so restrictive in my acknowledged tastes. I’m not sure I’m quite ready to try ‘Bringing up the Bodies,’ but will try to be more open-minded in the future when it comes to authors’ stylistic choices. As a bit of honest soul-searching has shown, going beyond my comfort zone has already given me my top prize read of the year and possibly one of my favourite books from 2017.