Saturday, July 16, 2011

Reading Faster to Find Out!

The new novel by Geraldine Brooks, CALEB'S CROSSING, is set primarily on Martha’s Vineyard and in Cambridge, MA., during the 17th century.

Bethia Mayfield, the protagonist, is an intelligent, thoughtful, restless spirit. She and a native Indian boy defy society’s norms by secretly becoming close friends.

The first portion of the book takes place in 1660. When Bethia’s mother dies in childbirth, she must raise the infant, Solace, in addition to the usual household chores. But she escapes the household drudgery occasionally to enjoy the beauty of the island she loves with its “briny air, its ever changing light . . . the clean and glassy breakers breaking on the sands, the clay cliffs flaring russet and purple each sunset.”

The second section of the book begins in 1661, only one year later, but the reader is immediately dismayed at the change in Bethia’s life. What happened? Where is her sister Solace? Her father?

She’s living in Cambridge, with the “flat fens and dung-strewn pastures” surrounding an “unlovely town” with houses “pressed tight together on narrow lots that have formed a barrier to the drainage of the land behind, so that in foul weather all turns swamp and mire.”
“Since the townsfolk do not trouble where they tip their slops, the air reeks, and everywhere the middens rise, rotting in steaming piles of clutter and muck. The creek is brackish . . . since the town uses it as a drain.”

In this detestable atmosphere, Bethia’s now both cook and housekeeper to Master Corlett’s boy students. I read faster and faster to find out why. I had to wait thirty-two pages to find out about her sister Solace. And forty-four pages to find out what happened to her father and why she's now an indentured servant.

Geraldine Brooks played with my curiosity, but I kept reading. Does the author risk losing readers by withholding information too long? When does this trick work? When does it fail?


  1. Oh, boy, that jump in time would make me bonkers. In general, I prefer linear storytelling. Always have, always will. On the other hand, just from reading these excerpts, her prose seems so masterful, I think I'd have not choice but to stick with the book, just to read her words I guess that's what does it for me. If the writing's too good to abandon, I'll deal with the (usually annoying!) time-jump and read on. Now I have to go pick up this book, so I can find out what happened!

  2. J.L. I've decided that to make this time gap trick successful, yes, you need excellent writing, but even more important,the reader has to care about the characters.

  3. I would guess the backstory or other plot points were moving forward to carrying your interest for all those pages? The time gap is not my favorite technique to read, but done well, it can be very engaging because it brings up so many questions. If it is done poorly, the author does lose me, as I skip ahead or put it down for good.

  4. Funny. I was going to bring up the subject of withholding information at our next meeting. Three of the books I've recently read employed withholding information to varying degrees: A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick, Little Bee by Chris Cleave, and the Interrogation of Gabriel James by Charlie Price. Not necessarily by a time jump, but by making it abundantly clear that the character knew what happened, but not the reader...yet.

    In reading all three books, I felt intrigued and annoyed simultaneously. It was like a friend told me she had a secret, but wouldn't tell me what it was.

    I love a good surprise and a good plot twist takes my breath away. But the author had better have a good reason for withholding information, or the big reveal won't really work for me.