Over at Tales from the Reading Room, Litlove has posted an interesting and informative interview with author Deborah Lawrenson. I enjoyed reading the interview yesterday, not just because Lawrenson reveals herself to be a thoughtful and dedicated writer but because in her responses she actually addresses some of the questions I had in reaction to my recent reading of her novel Songs of Blue and Gold.
For those of you who haven’t read the novel, Songs of Blue and Gold is a quiet but serious book. It tells two stories, the first following Melissa Quiller as she searches for answers related to her mother’s past while experiencing a difficult passage in her own marriage, while the second tells the story of Melissa’s mother, Elizabeth, and her relationship with a renowned writer, Julian Adie. Melissa moves between Greece and England and France hunting for clues to a past she didn’t know her mother had and hoping to understand, through that process, what decisions she might have to take in her own life. The two stories communicate on several levels – how is trust built between two individuals, how do men and women need and use one another, how do we define ourselves in relation to our parents, what does it mean to be generous in love, how do we manage the shifting details of our parents lives as we grow to understand and appreciate them as people in their own right, separate from our relationship with them as our parents.
On the one hand, the book follows closely the mystery of Elizabeth’s past and Melissa’s quest for information and understanding. She investigates, talks to people, searches for clues. In this sense, it has the aesthetic of a more conventional, plotted novel with an equally conventional emotional structure and writing. On the other hand, there is a consistent and compelling element of unique, specific description and careful interior exploration.
These two elements of the novel meant that my reaction to Songs of Blue and Gold became a little complicated. Readers read for different things. My particular reading bias means that most often I could honestly care less about plot because I’m looking for sentences and words put together in a new way, for scenes and dialogue that reveal exactly how complicated human beings really are. I certainly won’t accept incoherence or the complete absence of plot but I’m more interested in an emotional or philosophical movement within a story, than a specific or logical series of events.
So my experience with Songs of Blue and Gold was that I would get happily lost in a section of brilliant writing, in looking at Melissa or Elizabeth’s particular interior processing and then suddenly be brought up a little short by a reminder that there was a larger story at work that needed to be brought to conclusion. But I struggled with that reaction because it reminded me why I dislike literary criticism that attempts to label fiction as either good or bad. Ignoring extreme examples, fiction must exist outside simple qualifiers like good or bad. If we are to let fiction work its magic, we have to recognize that fiction is experienced one person at a time. A novel creates a one-of-a-kind relationship with an individual reader. And then goes on to create another, different relationship with another reader.
This doesn’t mean criticism, even the kind that revels in its definitive judgments, isn’t useful or interesting or worthwhile. Criticism provides a particular critic’s exploded view of the inner mechanics or hidden meaning of a work of fiction, and often to the benefit of the reader. But what it does mean is that my immediate knee-jerk reaction of wanting to dismiss or ignore the more commercial elements in Songs of Blue and Gold is flawed. It’s based on my accepting a bit too easily the rigid categories defined by someone else for me.
In Lawrenson’s interview with Litlove, she mentions that it was difficult to place her fourth book, The Art of Falling, with a publisher because it didn’t fit into either of the generally accepted categories of commercial or literary fiction. I haven’t read The Art of Falling but I would say that Songs of Blue and Gold also walks that line – although I felt it leaned decidedly further over the literary side of the fence. But this isn’t what should define the book, even if I was slow to come around to that understanding. A novel shouldn’t have to be one or the other. Readers are much more intelligent and nuanced than this.
Lawrenson has written a thoughtful, lovely, well-researched and interesting book that draws on elements of journalism, mystery writing, real-life inspiration and literary fiction. That unique blend meant I engaged with it on a variety of levels. I fell in love with certain passages, I got caught up in the vivid descriptions of the novel’s geography, I experienced a few minor frustrations, I was confronted with a number of questions and I was engaged, as a writer, to study Lawrenson’s technical choices.
I look forward to reading The Art of Falling and I will certainly be on the lookout for Lawrenson’s next book.