This is another of my posts on how a successful author hooks the reader at the start of the story, what information she feels is necessary at this point and how she approaches things like POV, character and voice (other first chapter I’ve analysed can be found here: Chapter One Analyses).
I chose The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling partly because it’s in the news, but also because it was a good opportunity to see how an author goes about winning over readers who might be sceptical or wary of her attempt at a new genre.
I should point out I haven’t read the whole book and my only aim is to look at the opening on a technical level, with a view to taking it apart to see what works, what doesn’t (and how she got round that), which conventions are used well, and which are broken to good effect. I will not be passing judgement on the novel in terms of content or its place in literature.
Barry Fairweather did not want to go out to dinner.
The books starts with a prologue wherein Barry, somewhat reluctantly, takes his wife out for an anniversary dinner. He gets as far as the golf club car park and promptly drops dead of a brain aneurysm.
This is the inciting incident that sets things in motion for the rest of the book, so it’s important. In terms of how it’s presented, it’s fairly direct and underplayed. His death isn’t dramatic or sensational in any way. Just one of those things.
There is one moment of blunt foreshadowing: They were watching television when he said good-bye to them for the last time, and only Declan, the youngest, turned to look at him, and raised his hand in farewell.
That ‘for the last time’ tells us in advance that daddy won’t be coming home. This sets up a feeling of anticipation, I guess.
The POV starts off in third person, close to Barry. His thoughts, his attitudes, his emotions. But it ends up being omniscient, a POV not all that popular these days (or so we’re told). More on this later.
The next chapter (chapter one proper) is about Miles and Samantha, a well to-do couple, very middle-class, who were in the car park when Barry keeled over. The main action here is Miles phoning his father to tell him Barry’s dead, while Samantha thinks snippy things about her husband, his parents and life in general.
The idea that Barry’s death is a big deal to this community comes across strongly (it’s pretty much central to everything).
The POV is now very definitely omniscient. We get a lot of what Samantha is thinking, but the observation on what she looks like is presented from a less than flattering outsider’s view. Her fading good looks and leathery over-tanned skin are mentioned repeatedly.
The difference between omni and head-hopping (where we jump from one character’s perspective to another’s) is that omni is presented from a singular perspective, that of the author’s.
Here, there is a very definite judgemental view of these people. You aren’t supposed to like them and the author isn’t shy about informing you of that fact.
Up to this point I was having a hard time figuring out why anyone would care about these people. Not likeable and not much going n, is how it felt. The chapters are quite short so I decided to read the next one, which is where I started to see things more clearly.
Next we shift to another family at breakfast. The news here is also about Barry, but events are more focused on familial problems, mainly that one of the children has been caught smoking in the garden shed and the father is very angry. This escalates to the point where he becomes threatening to the wife and there is an indication he has been physically abusive in the past and that the family live in fear of him.
Most of this comes through the thoughts of the eldest son, who hates his father. There is also an extreme amount of swearing in this chapter; fuck, cunt, shit, all the big guns.
So now I start to get it. First, the short chapters linking a large cast of characters through Barry’s death are present in mosaic fashion. You may not see the purpose of this scene now, but watch the ripples expand and collide.
This is a difficult thing for a new writer to attempt, since slow, seemingly inconsequential events could lead somewhere but often don’t. For JK, she can afford to test her readers’ patience a little, and if it works out it will be seen as an ambitious approach (and what other approach would you expect from her?).
She also creates tension in scenes not through direct conflict (although that may happen later in the book) but by having two contrasting views of each scene: what we see happening, and what the characters are really thinking about it.
I can’t be sure she does this for the whole book, but so far she chooses one character in each scene and tells us what they really think, which isn’t how things appear on the surface.
This is an unusual POV choice. It isn’t Limited 3rd POV where you stick with one character’s perception, the narrative here tells us lots of things the main character can’t know. After Barry dies, for example, we continue to get information about what’s happening even though we were seeing events from his perspective until then.
But we also get the inner thoughts of one character in the scene which offers a contrast to how things seem to be happening, and that character can be anyone. Which adds to the mosaic feel of things.
This clash of external and internal provides the tension. I don’t know if the whole book is in that style, but it’s an interesting way to present a story, where no one’s being honest about their feelings, because of fear, embarrassment, manners, middle-class repression and a host of other reasons.
The short chapters help keep things moving, although they do lend the characters are slight caricature vibe, middle-class people who belong to the golf club and have the vicar round for tea, and turn out to be swingers.That may not be a fair assessment of the book as a whole, I'm sure depth is added as the sory goes on, but that's the immediate impression.
There’s also a very strong sense of the author telling you who to like and who to scoff at in mocking fashion. Not subtle.
That kind of spoonfeeding the reader is a little more acceptable in children’s books where the bad guy killed your parents, but I can see it getting people’s backs up it they don’t share the same views about such people (or if they are such people).
Overall, though, the key technique used to lure readers in, I think, is the dual POV. The objective overview of what people are doing (well, objective with a dash of judgemental derision), contrasted with the inner (often vitriolic) thoughts of one of the characters caught up in the scenario.
While I don’t think most new writers will be afforded the chance of such a long, slow build up, I do think that approach of showing things not to be how you might think is an interesting alternative to direct confrontation.
You can find more Chapter One Analyses for books across many genres (YA, MG, Romance, Crime, Horror, Thriller, Sci-Fi and Fantasy) here.
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