There were two books that I had to stop reading today. One featured an act so unbelievably brutal that I found myself in what I can only describe as emotional shock, and I felt I needed some time to recover. The other was a novel with which I’ve persevered for a while but had to set aside due to the fact that the entire plot centres on the prolonged manipulation and deceit of innocent people, and to be honest it got to the point today where I’d had enough. One of these books I’ll definitely return to very soon; the other I may well not.
My experience with these books got me thinking. Bad things happen to good people in almost every novel you’ll ever read; so what makes some acts of malice or unpleasant characters more palatable than others? If you’ve followed my blog for a while you’ll know I’m not a huge fan of the cupcakes and glitter worldview – lovely as life would be if we all knew that we were guaranteed to find happiness at the end of our allocated three-hundred pages, in truth reality is very far removed from that, something I feel the very best stories will acknowledge at some point. So if I can read and love the utterly tragic “The Mayor of Casterbridge” or the emotional portrait of mental illness that is “The Shock of the Fall”, why is it that I balk at novels like the ones I cast aside today?
One thing I do appreciate – in fiction as in life – is a sense of justice being done. There are some authors who have the ability to write about the most atrocious things while maintaining a feeling of reassurance that karma will eventually do its thing. Ken Follett’s magnificent books “The Pillars of the Earth” and “World without End” would probably win the top prize for this. There are some truly poisonous, boo-hiss villains in these novels, but much as you’re repulsed by them as they go about their business of raping and murdering, you’re also quietly confident that at some point they’ll be stabbed, get trampled by a horse, succumb to the plague or meet some other grisly demise thoroughly in keeping with their wicked deeds. Follett is by no means afraid to kill off his heroes, but he will never let a villain win the day.
Yet my enjoyment of a book can’t just be about securing an appropriate ending for each character based on their moral standing; after all, does Casterbridge’s Michael Henchard really deserve the fate that Hardy chooses to allocate him? And actually, at this moment in time, the novel I broke off reading because of its brutality doesn’t look like offering any guarantees of retribution, divine or otherwise – yet out of the two I mentioned at the start of this post, this is the one to which I will undoubtedly be returning. There’s only one conclusion I can draw, then, as to what it is that’s rescued this novel from being added to the charity shop pile while the fate of the other one is as yet undecided. For me, there simply has to be a spark of hope in humanity visible throughout a novel even if at some times it’s fainter than at others. Despite the dreadful event that has occurred, there is enough warmth in the heart of so many of the characters, and such a deep sense of compassion for people that emanates from the author through her writing that I have the confidence to carry on. Whatever happens, I believe that behind this book lies an intention to celebrate the things that bring us together as human beings as well as the hideous things we are capable of doing to one another. The problem I think I have is with unrelenting unkindness, and prolonged abuse or cruelty with nothing to counteract it. If at some point I decide to revisit my second half-finished novel, I may well find that by the end my faith in humanity is restored – but is it worth several hundred pages of unremitting spite and deceit to get there? Maybe not for me.
As a footnote I’d like to explain that I deliberately didn’t name the two books in question – I may review them in the future when I’m able to pass judgement on them in their entirety!