Sunday, October 19, 2008

The power of a strong narrative voice

Regular readers of this blog know I hit a wall a week or so ago in my reading schedule. Strangely enough, it was the most unlikely of novels that got me moving again: a violent, bleak urban tale in which nobody finds an even remotely hopeful ending.

Bulletproof Suzy, by British writer Ian Brotherhood, was not uplifting stuff, but it definitely got me thinking about a few things.

First and foremost, this novel has one of the most distinctive narrative voices I’ve read for a while.

The narrative character (actually called Francine, but referred to by all and sundry – including herself – by her street moniker, Suzy) is a tough young woman in a not-too-distant future Britain, living in a cold, poverty-stricken concrete jungle dominated by thugs and violence.

She and her team of “little ladies” are what are known as “Liaison Officers for the Commissioner’s Office”, government-sanctioned stand-over merchants who collect rates on behalf of the local council.

In this future, rates go so high there’s little chance anyone will willingly pay them. “Operation Community Responsibility” is launched – a system where one household is responsible for collecting the rates of another. It invariably fails, and non-government “teams” are recruited to do the dirty work. (Given my current line of professional communication work, I found the concept deeply ironic.)

Suzy’s world is brutal, but she’s adapted to it and is relatively comfortable with her place in it. Unfortunately, things take a turn for the worse when her less violent and best friend Joanne is cruelly murdered and Suzy finds herself the prime suspect.

The majority of the story is set over about 48 hours, during which Suzy and her crew try to get to the bottom of Joanne’s murder and then exact revenge.

The story, even with its bleakness, drew me in thanks to Suzy’s take on the world and her observations of those in it. She’s uncompromising, rarely sentimental, and relentlessly tough in the face of danger. A dark sense of humour helps.

Brotherhood writes like Suzi thinks, making the novel essentially a long monologue, but once you get her rhythm, it’s easy to follow. Her observations are full of profanity and slang (cops are the roz, rozzlings, rozzloiders; a gang from an apartment block called the Cherry basket are Cherroids; certain sensitive body parts are “jarlers”).

Here’s a taste:
The door starts going at all hours – this one from the first floor, all sweaty and crimson what with just having rubbed up against Shuggs and his merry cherries, or else one of the other CO teams now operating, that one struck dumb with fear, bearing the tell-tale odour of involuntarily released bodily fluids. Sometimes, if the client has actually suffered physical damage, we’ll be straight out there and then to find those responsible, Shuggs more often than not, and he’s usually to be found with his raggle-taggle collection of buff-fluffed Cherroids in the favoured Maxwell’s Lounge by the river, and it’ll be a few shouts at the door and they’ll be out, swinging whatever is at hand and making light of our being the opposite sex or whatever.

Hardly traditional punctuation, but it works perfectly in this type of story.

Plot-wise, there are muddy politics belying the situation Suzy finds herself neck-deep in, but these are far less interesting than the way she interacts with those around her, and her observations of the deteriorating situation.

This engaging narrative voice is almost enough to get me past my disappointment with book’s ending.

It’s not that I was expecting a happy ending (there’s no hope in sight for these poverty-stricken characters locked into lives of violence), and the story’s bleak resolution certainly fits the tone of the rest of the book.

I think it’s the fact the story suddenly fast-forwards a few years and all those characters who were such a strong part of the rest of the book have all but faded into the background. But then, I guess, that too fits with the transitory nature of Suzy’s world…

Maybe I liked Suzy so much I wanted her to have some level of victory. But maybe her lack of self pity is a victory in itself?

Definitely not a book for Bec…


the ink-stained toe-poker said...

I might huv a wee shotta that off ye Paula sounds like I'd enjoy it.

oh and I've added a comment to last week's blog as well.

Quality stuff though westie, enjoyed your take on it.

Gustav said...


Once again I enjoyed your balanced and insightful prose into a great story.

There are so many inspiring tales to read, yet I know that each of us has a great story inside of us to reveal.

How do you balance your time between being a creator of great stories and reading great stories?

At some point will you pour yourself into creation or will you always keep a toe into new stories by others?

Paula Weston said...

Inky - absolutely you can have a read. You gave it to me in the first place! (And I really do think you'll like it).

Gustav - I will always want to explore new stories by others. I think my world would get far too narrow if I just focused on my own stories. As for how I balance my time between reading and creating? That's a question I'm still working out the answer to, but I will admit that - given my limited time for writing - I tend to prioritise it over reading. Reading, of course, can be done in short bursts (which is why I tend to have a book on me at all times, in case I have 10 mintues to spare with a coffee somewhere) - whereas writing needs larger chunks of times. So I guess I just answered your question! If I have at least an hour, I'll write. If I have smaller chunks or time, or it's too late to get my brain working to create, I read. Sorry, long-winded answer...

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