There’s a new book released today – on World Book Day, no less! – called Jessica’s Ghost, by Andrew Norriss. It’s a book which you should buy for any young people you know, but also read it first yourself before you give it to them, so that you get to read it before they do. It’s the Book of the Week over at Books for Keeps, and hey, I’ve just decided it’s Book of the Week right here at Cubik’s Rube as well. That’s two major plaudits in one paragraph! The buzz around this thing is electrifying.
It’s the latest book from a successful and long-standing children’s author with an impressively hefty back catalogue, who’s won various awards for his writing over the years, but more importantly is also really good at it.
(Any resemblance between his surname and my own is purely non-coincidental.)
So, here’s the thing about books and stories and film and Art in general: it’s supposed to make you feel something. Whether that something is “elated and blissful”, or “upset and thoughtful”, or “appalled and revolutionary”, or even just “pleasantly diverted from the botherances of life for a few moments”, it ought to be doing something to you.
And sometimes, the people making the art have a clear idea about what feelings they want it to make you feel, and are trying really hard to make sure you feel those feelings.
Now, this isn’t an unreasonable goal at all. Art tends to be about the real world in one way or another, and things that happen in the real world often make you feel things really hard, so good art probably wants to have a similar impact. Our everyday experiences of the universe can be strongly emotional. They give rise to all sorts of colourful and evocative metaphors, about floating on air or hearts skipping beats or being swallowed up by the earth, as we try to communicate to each other the potency of what we’re feeling. We are emotional creatures, and the world is a place full of feels.
Some art tries to represent the parts of the world that are the most emotionally fraught and full of feelings. Some art tries deeply and effortfully with all of its might to make you feel things just as hard as the real world makes you feel things.
But some art just gets on with it and lets you figure out for yourself how you should feel about it.
I read a book a while ago called Looking for Alaska, the first novel from a guy the internet seems to quite like called John Green. I enjoyed it, it’s a pretty good book, and this isn’t at all about knocking John Green as a writer. That’d be especially petty and fruitless, given the blockbuster success he’s had, as well as the sorry state of the half-drafted scraps of semi-chapters littering my own computer.
John Green’s debut felt a touch adolescent in some of its tone – he was 28 when it was published, and I would’ve guessed it had come from someone a little younger – but it was a solid first book, from someone who might come up with some really good work once they’d matured a little more, and learned a little more, and grown into themselves a bit. That probably sounds harsher than intended; I honestly mean it all as qualified praise. It’s really not bad.
But boy does it seem to want you to feel how the people in the book are feeling, and to experience sympathetic emotions along with the protagonist.
And it’s not like it fails in that aim. I read it and felt at least some of the things the author wanted me to; it’s a moving story. It’s not like it’s a harsh and damning criticism of a writer to say that I suspect him of wanting the reader to empathise with his characters. But…
The word “histrionic” has been dancing round in my head for the last couple of paragraphs, trying to tempt my fingertips into typing it. I’m holding it back, because it wouldn’t be a fair comment. Except that the point of this article is to talk about Jessica’s Ghost, and comparing Jessica’s Ghost to Looking for Alaska can’t help but highlight certain stark contrasts, not least in the two books’ differing approaches to inducing emotion in the reader.
It’s not really appropriate to draw too much of a parallel between the two – they’re not that similar in many ways, and Jessica’s Ghost is certainly written for a younger audience – but there’s a reason the contrast occurred to me while reading it. A notable thing about Jessica’s Ghost in any context – about my dad’s books generally, in fact – is how cleanly pared-down the storytelling is, how economical with its verbiage. You don’t get many “long descriptions of trees and things“, as one fan pointed out – and you also don’t get long descriptions of the characters’ emotions and overwrought treatises on why these emotions are so fantastically profound and important. You get what you need to understand the setting and the people and the things the story’s about, and then it gets on with it.
It’s common for people discussing literature to conflate those “long descriptions of trees and things” with writing which effectively draws the reader into the written world. To assume that “good” writing, or “grown-up” writing, has to have things like lengthy and complex passages of scene-setting, if it’s going to be allowed to be about serious emotions and strongly felt feelings. To believe that, if a book’s going to be about death and loss and loneliness and serious things like that, it also has to be elaborate and full of flowery metaphors and packed with individual turns of phrase that you can point to and call deeply poignant.
And of course good writing absolutely can be like that. It’s by no means an unforgivably bad thing if you read something and consciously notice such things. You haven’t undermined the whole creative process if you can sometimes say “Ah, I bet this author wrote that bunch of words there to make me feel sad/happy/scared/relieved for the main character”. Trying to make you feel feelings is a thing that art does; so long as it’s not hitting you too violently over the head with it, it’s not wrong of it to want you to feel certain things and to try to use writerly tricks to get you there.
But another way to write good writing is to just get on with the story. To let people figure out for themselves how they feel about the things they’re reading about, and find their own empathy with the characters and their plight.
I’m worried some of this sounds like a backhanded series of compliments. Like I’m saying that Jessica’s Ghost is simple, or simplistic, or doesn’t have beautiful and deeply poignant writing in it, or that the sentences aren’t all elegantly put together in a way that makes it read like a dream, or like it’s failed in some way to be a proper grown-up book about serious things. If that’s the impression you’re getting, that’s only because I’m not a good writer myself.
I read this book in a weekend, I loved it, it stayed with me. It’s one of the best things I could think of for any young people to read, particularly if they’re still learning things about the feelings that life makes us all feel. The compassion and humanism behind it is consistently remarkable.
It’s released in hardback today, and available all over the place, and it’s World Book Day so if you don’t buy it then you basically hate literacy. Especially after you read a sample chapter (PDF), which is a much better way of deciding what you think of it than all my not-remotely-impartial wittering on. Go and read.
Brief personal addendum: I really might have a house to live in quite soon now. For really reals this time, not like all those other times when we thought it was all about to be great but then it was terrible instead. As ever, I’ll keep you posted.