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Tuesday 13 May 2014

Review: Jane Fallon, Skeletons - and a few remarks on Style

I doubt that men of an age to have liver spots are among the intended readers of this book. Indeed, the book’s Leading Bad Guy  is just such a man. Nonetheless, I read it right through (all 430+ pages) quite easily and wanting  to find out how things would turn out. The story is one which provokes thought, and the telling of it witty and convincing. So there’s a Reader’s Recommendation. And take note that the woman on the front cover is a 43 year old – this is Literature, not chick-lit

But Jane Fallon does need an Editor who will save her from a couple of stylistic tics –  not disastrous ones.

I offer myself as just that Editor.

English contains tense constructions which are not felicitous:

(1)    Jen said, “I have enough haddock” becomes in reported speech
(2)    “Jen said that she had enough haddock”


(3)    Jen said, “I have had enough haddock” becomes in reported speech
(4)    “Jen said that she had had enough haddock”

Write (4) into a novel and you ask to be directed to some more suitable occupation, such as Flower Arranging. 

Oh, it’s grammatical and so on. It’s just awful stylistically and to be avoided at almost all costs. And it can be avoided without changing the meaning. You do it by dropping into what I suppose is a form of Free Indirect Speech / Discourse, losing one of the Hads whenever you see the chance, so:

(5)    “She tried to remember what they had had in common when they first met” (page 276)  becomes
(6)    “She tried to remember what they had in common when they first met”

If you get a taste for this, you could go on to rid yourself not only of Had Hads but even of Hads:

(7)    “In the morning, she had waited to go downstairs for breakfast until …” (p 314)  becomes
(8)    “In the morning, she waited to go downstairs for breakfast until …

But this is not obligatory. One Had is inoffensive; two suggests carelessness.

The same strategy will also rid your text of annoying “that that” constructions which probably originate in English public schools determined to make English more difficult for foreigners and other riff-raff:

“Both she and her mother had always known that that would be out of the question” (p. 207)

The other stylistic tic is really a linked pair of anxieties:  that your reader won’t find you funny enough when you tell your gag, so you immediately embroider it; and, second, that your reader won’t quite understand you, so you spell it out twice:

 “ now she found herself looking at Martin, wondering whether he might be a secret philanderer. Or did he like to dress up in her clothes whenever she went out? Or put a nappy on and get spanked by random strangers when his wife thought he was down the pub?” (p 125)

Advice: Delete all from “when his wife …” 

“You have to get something off your chest, never mind if you’re in the check out queue at Tesco’s and your next-door neighbour is behind you ear-wigging. Hoping to hear some gossip she can pass on” (p 59)

           Advice: Delete second sentence.

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