Sunday, August 25, 2013

The power of positive thinking

This blog has given me a venue to expose grammar gaffes and pet peeves, but with the start of the new school year, I'd like to recognize excellent writing and writers. As the old saying goes, you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Perhaps by sharing beautiful prose (and explaining why I like it), you will want to both embrace and emulate it.

A friend gave me a copy of The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman, and I fell in love with the prose, the story, and its universality. It's a lovely novel set in post-World War I Australia. The main characters are a lighthouse keeper and his beautiful wife. You may ask, "How in the world is a story about an Australian lighthouse keeper universal?" It is universal in love the couple shares, the hardships they face, and their struggle to overcome hardship.

Stedman's writing brings these characters to life almost as certainly as the midwives helped usher my children into the world. Isabel and Tom are with me a month after finishing the book. The story begins...

   "On the day of the miracle, Isabel was kneeling at the cliff's edge, tending the small, newly-made driftwood cross. A single fat cloud snailed above the late-April sky, which stretched above the island in a mirror of the ocean below. Isabel sprinkled more water and patted down the soil around the rosemary bush she just planted.
   "'...and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,' she whispered.
   "For just a moment, her mind tricked her into hearing an infant's cry. She dismissed the illusion instead drawn by a pod of whales weaving their way up the coast to calve in warmer waters, emerging now and then with a fluke of their tails like needles through tapestry. She heard the cry again, louder this time on the early morning breeze. Impossible."

This passage begins with a certain attention grabber, "On the day of the miracle." Stedman does not question miracles, nor does she immediately explain the miracle in question. The last sentence of this passage is a fragment, "Impossible." It is separated from the word miracle, but it is close enough for a careful reader to see the connection that miracles are impossible.

It is not just a cross that Isabel tends, but a "small, newly-made driftwood cross." The carefully selected adjectives introduce us to Isabel's grief but spares the reader a maudlin explanation. Her word choice is exquisite--the cloud "snailed"  describes its movement with precision. She uses alliteration to capture the movement of the whales, and the repetition of the sound of the initial consonant of the mammals being described is both elegant and whimsical. Stedman introduces this biological fact that the whales know enough to move to warmer waters to calve before she tells us about Isabel's loss.

Stedman sets this introduction in late-April, a month that TS Eliot describes as "the cruelest month," a month where Chaucer's pilgrims begin their journey. Is she alluding to these writers? Who knows? But a writer should make every decision count, and by choosing April, Stedman allows us the opportunity to consider the connection to these writers, as well as to remember that April is the harbinger of spring, of new life. The fact that she is tending a rosemary bush near a newly-made cross is ironic. And if Stedman did not want us to consider allusions, why plant a rosemary bush? ("Rosemary for remembrance," you might remember, is spoken by Ophelia in Hamlet.) April is often associated with rain, but Isabel is sprinkling the rosemary bush with water, suggesting that nature is perverse in Isabel's world.

The second paragraph is from The Lord's Prayer, but Stedman elects to include only the last line. The reader is forced to ask, what temptation? What evil?

In three short paragraphs, Stedman introduces and denies a miracle. She juxtaposes a recent death with whales getting ready to calve. She alludes to Chaucer and Eliot and Shakespeare but introduces these allusions lightly, with no particular demands on the reader except to make him or her want to learn more about Isabel and her world.

I will not spoil this book by telling you more, but you can expect a story that will keep you engaged and prose that will make you wish the book will never end.