How does the structure of a novel help to build our understanding and appreciation of its characters? Does its construction support a particular kind of storytelling? I’ve just finished reading a beautifully crafted novel – ‘A Perfectly Good Man’ by Patrick Gale, which has an unusual construction, but one that undoubtedly gets the best out of its subject matter.
Gale takes his time introducing each of the main characters, giving them space to develop independently by writing each chapter from a single character’s viewpoint. This way we hear their thoughts and experience their feelings at first hand, without the intrusion of a narrator’s voice. This forges an intimate connection through which the reader gets to know each character as their relationship with the rest of the cast is gradually revealed.
Each chapter begins with a character’s name and their age at that point in the story. It soon becomes apparent that the central character’s life story is being told in reverse whilst those of the supporting characters are told in traditional chronological order. Gale calls this structure a double helix, with the main thread of the story set against a secondary spiral of surrounding viewpoints.
At various points in the characters’ common history their stories intersect and this is the marvel of Gale’s storytelling – it’s impossible to tell the story of the main character without considering the stories of the people he interacts with. By presenting each chapter from a different viewpoint and at a different point in time we see snapshots of each character’s life and how their actions impact on the lives of the other characters. This requires some effort, as the reader is the only person who sees the whole picture. The characters can only present their particular versions of the truth, which are only parts of the story.
Gale wants us to involve ourselves more deeply in the story as we discover how the pieces fit together. He wants the reader to work a little harder than we would need to if he had written the story in a more conventional linear fashion. He gets deeply depressed when people tell him they read to relax. ‘Reading should never be relaxing,’ he says. ‘Reading should stir us up, unsettle us and leave us, at least temporarily, transformed.’
I couldn’t have put it better myself.
Okay, that structure sounds more complicated than I could handle, either reading or writing. I love multiple POVs—I can’t seem to write even a short story from a single character’s perspective. But from multiple timelines and directions? Hmm.
I enjoy being challenged as a reader. But there’s a fine balance between pushing the reader to accept/do more and losing him because reading becomes too much like work!
The beauty of Gale’s writing is that it isn’t an effort to read and understand. Each chapter is signposted and the way his characters interact with each other makes for a natural progression. After the first couple of chapters the reader gets into the rhythm – there isn’t a vast array of characters to confuse us and we trust him to unfold the tale at a manageable pace. It’s given me some ideas for my next novel, though I’m not sure I’ll pull it off!
There are different reasons for reading, and it follows that there are different reasons for writing.
I’m shaken up by things all the time – things in the real world. I don’t necessarily want to be shaken up by what I read, although I do like to find truth in it.
I think he just gives us a different view of things that we may not have considered. I like to learn, even when I’m reading fiction.