Yesterday, around teatime, I started reading a book I’d been sent for review. I finished it at 11 this morning, and I made dinner and watched television and slept in between. It was called These Things Hidden by Heather Gudenkauf, who apparently did well with her first novel, The Weight of Silence (it was a TV Bookclub book). But it could equally have been written by Diane Chamberlain or Jodie Picoult, or one of a number of interchangeable authors gracing the shelves of my local supermarket. It was one of those family skeletons in the closet/moral dilemma type books that come with book club questions printed out in the back and are obliged to feature small children in peril.
This particular novel begins with 21-year-old Allison Glenn being released from prison after serving five years for a dreadful crime. Her parents don’t want to know her any more, and her sister, Brynn, who is somehow mixed up in the crime, is refusing to return her calls. Allison finds shelter in a halfway house, although the inhabitants, knowing what she did, taunt her initially. But she starts the long process of rehabilitation by getting a job with Claire, who owns a bookstore and frets over her adopted son, Joshua, a child whose existence will turn out to have all kinds of implications for Allison. This is a four-handed tale, the narrative switching in a series of extremely short chapters between Allison, Brynn, Claire and another young woman, Charm, who is caring for her fatally ill stepfather, and who is mysteriously attracted to the bookstore and its inhabitants. I won’t give much away, as the book relies on a gradual revelation of events to hold the reader hooked. And I was hooked. I read it swiftly, without ever a thought of giving it up, and I wanted to know what happened.
But – and this is the start of a series of pretty big buts – there were a number of things about the book that I recognised as fashionable and popular in contemporary commercial fiction but which annoy me. The first is the sensationalism intrinsic to the story. This is not a story about anything likely to happen to me or to anyone I know; it contains very little that is real or profound, instead it relies for its effect on pushing easy-to-reach emotional buttons. This is fine at first, but after a while I feel the way you do when you are tired of being tickled, and what began as delightful ends up as someone scrabbling away at your skin. There’s a relentless atmosphere of mild, unfocussed menace, like made-for-tv movies or celebrity magazines that rely for their effect on being full of suggestions of awful things that never really matter. In this case, the narrative is based on wholly implausible events, the biggest one being (and here comes a spoiler, so skip to the next paragraph if you need to) that a tall, slim star of the soccer field and straight-A student could carry twins to term and no one at school or at home would notice. That demands a level of inattention that is quite spectacular. And how can Claire fret so fiercely about losing Joshua to his real mother when she has adopted him? I thought that adoption was a legal procedure that had no come back for natural parents. By three-quarters of the way through the book I was thinking that the reading speed at which such stories can be consumed is essential to their purposes; if you stopped to think for a moment you might start to wonder how any of it could have actually happened.
But I did read this book to the end, and at no point did I feel I would abandon it unfinished.
When I belonged to an online writing community, this is the kind of book that most people were trying to write (actually, I tell a lie; most people were trying to write a fantasy that involved dragons, angels, or dystopian futures on other planets, this was the second most popular category). Strunk & White were the rulers of the online writing world, and Heather Gudenkauf’s novel would have them cheering with joy. No fears here of tripping over an adverb, or bumping into the passive voice. Style is indeed the absence of any kind of style, just a pure, simple transparency of language. The effect is like the moving walkway at an airport: you glide along somehow faster than is quite natural, and effortlessly. It doesn’t matter that there are four narrators here and they all sound the same. Or that their characters are somewhat two-dimensional because back story or extraneous detail might clutter up that smooth walkway of narrative. Or that nothing is expressed that will remain with you for more than five minutes after closing the book.
But I did read this book to the end and I wanted to know what happened.
This is the ambivalence I feel about ‘bestselling’ commercial novels. I will read anything, and I appreciate variety because for me books do many things. They enlighten and illuminate, but they also entertain and provide necessary escapism. On many occasions, when I’ve been tired or worried or under the weather, I’ve been grateful for a simple read that asks nothing of me and that provides pleasant distraction. But…but I still think that even commercial fiction ought to aim a little higher than just gripping the reader to the end of a hyperbolic tale. I wish there were more novels that have something to say about life as I know it, not this hyperreality based on a fantasy world whose good parts look like commercials and whose bad parts look like sensational events on the late night news, and I want some scintillating dialogue, and some nice observations on character and situation. This is a perfectly competent novel, not bad one, but if I were Heather Gudenkauf, I’d want to write a third novel that sounded distinct, that made the reader remember my name, not be reminded of a handful of similar authors and books. And I’d want that reader hooked to the narrative, not just out of the basest form of curiosity and need-to-know, but because each step of the way to the conclusion was worth taking in itself. Ross Macdonald achieved it with his popular commercial fiction, why shouldn’t we hold out for quality now?