Saturday, 23 August 2008

How not to start a novel - The Kite Runner

One of the writing craft issues I've been thinking about of late is what constitutes a good novel opening. A couple of weeks back, one of the blog-workshops looked at the first 200 words; and on the retreat last weekend we looked at first chapters.

Issues that came up included limiting the amount of setting and backstory, the posing of story questions and hooks (does it make you want to keep reading?), and likability of main characters.

I raise this now, because I started listening to the audiobook of The Kite Runner today, and it seems to me that it does everything wrong. And I say this not as a critical writer-reader obsessing about craft and theory, but as a reader who was completely bored by the opening of this novel!

The opening chapter, a mere two pages long, starts in the current day and does pose one main story question . . . we know that something happened in the narrator's childhood that impacted him severely. (On analysis, these two pages now seem to me extremely schmaltzy, carefully calculated and rather contrived, but that's not my main point.)

But then we go into flashback mode, and it's the kind of distant narrative flashback, with lots of 'telling', that I despise. We get two pages of description of the house, we get descriptions of every character you can think of. Boring boring boring. Then we start getting anecdotes of this and that. And I don't really have any idea of where this story is going -- except for repeated references to the dramatic, disastrous event that's going to happen.

I've decided I really don't like first person narrative when it's bookended by 'current day' events. It seems to give the author too much liberty to cast veiled references to what's going to happen. I despise this mode of storytelling. It's cheap and contrived. Why not build up tension through events as they happen? There are ways of building up to a devastating event without portentous statements.

Then there's character likability. I'm afraid I don't much like Amir so far. Are we supposed to find his weaknesses OK because, as the narrator, he admits them? And then there are his actions (or lack thereof) at the devastating event. At that point the book lost me. I simply cannot forgive what happened here. I'm sure he will grow and find redemption, but I'm simply not that interested. I'm afraid I have no desire to read on or even get the movie out now.

Problem is, I feel obliged to continue, since this is our Page Turners book for this month!

It highlights for me the importance of the opening. I know this book is a global best-seller, and I'm sure there must be a reason for this, so I hold hope that I will find it more enjoyable and less boring as I read on. However, I admit I have my doubts. I don't actually much like the style with which the novel is written -- right down to the use of metaphor, which feels really heavy-handed.

Contrast this with Jane Eyre, which I have also started listening to as an audiobook in the last few days. I was expecting to be bored at the beginning of this, because I know it takes forever for Jane to get to Thornfield. But instead I have been riveted by the trauma of Jane's childhood, first with her relatives at Gateshead and then at Lowood Institution. Why? Because there is so much passion in young Jane and even though it too is written clearly by adult Jane, the action is in the here and now, rather than having the feeling of a distant recount. And then there is the magnificent language. Charlotte Bronte truly had a masterful way with words. Her writing is simply beautiful.


  1. your comment that you 'feel obliged to continue, since this is our Page Turners book for this month' is something that I have thought about before. Should one read a book they don't like, just for the sake of the reading group? In my opinion, it depends on how you approach reading the books for reading groups. I think that this is a topic that I will perhaps try to post about on the Page Turners blog.

  2. Yeah - I feel a bit bad about being so negative before everyone has read the book, which is why I posted here and not on the PT blog. But the reason I posted was mainly to comment from a craft/theory point of view as to all the things I think the book does wrong. I've become a very analytical reader, and it interests me to pull things apart like this.

    I think your discussion post on the PT site sounds like a great idea!

    I'm still in two minds whether to continue, or whether to just get the movie out!

  3. I watched the movie while reading the book (which I finished a few weeks ago) and found the movie to be quite an acurate representation of the book. So you can easily cheat and watch the movie.a

  4. Ha ha ha! But what are your emotions? Total apathy? Or something more?
    Hugs, A