The Voice of Literature reviews, The Pacifist

8 Aug

http://www.voxlit.co.uk/writers-notes-and-comments.html

 

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AN UNUSUAL WAY TO BUILD A CHARACTER

Name of Book: The Pacifist by Mehreen Ahmed  

The extract: 
Without a dint, the chauffeur dashed off in the direction of the news agency. The men sat quietly yet again. Being unreasonable became Malcolm no less than mourning became Electra. Lips pouted slightly, he avoided Tommy’s gaze. With bated breath, Tommy continued to look for the chauffeur, certain that he would return any time. When he did, Tommy exuded a palpable sigh of relief. So much that Malcolm could not hide a smile on his lips. He leafed through the newspaper with deft, long fingers of manicured nails, cut squarely. In a moment of impulsive munificence, he glared at Tommy’s awkwardness over the newspaper.
“Relax, what’s the matter?”
“What’s the matter? Do you not see how late we are?” Spewed Tommy in short sharp breaths. “You are doing this deliberately, aren’t you? To insult Henna and me.” In a sudden fit of temper, Tommy’s patience snapped; words spat out.
Malcolm paid attention. Out of some unspoken reprisal, he then calmly asked the chauffeur to turn the car around, back to his mansion.

The explanation:
Many novelists ‘create’ their characters by giving a description of their personality. Jane Austen, for example, famously does it in Emma. ‘Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.’

Nowadays this approach doesn’t seem to work. Maybe this style of writing is out of fashion; maybe modern writers just don’t have Miss Austen’s talent, or maybe it is just that readers of today don’t like being told this kind of information and want to make up their own minds. Contemporary novelists tend to fall back on have three basic tools to communicate the personality of their characters: how the character behaves, what the character says and what the character thinks. Done well, this approach allows the reader to assess the character just as they would someone they met in real life.

But in ‘The Pacifist’, Mehreen Ahmed hits on a less frequently used character development tool, and a particularly effective one at that. She shows us what kind of person Malcolm is through the eyes of others.  

Before this extract, Tommy has been trying to get his boss Malcolm to an important event where people are waiting for him, but Malcolm has been dithering and delaying, and Tommy is becoming frustrated, because his relationship with Malcolm doesn’t allow him to say what he feels.

The extract employs the standard methods mentioned above: we are told Malcolm is ‘unreasonable’, we see his supercilious smile, and we hear his remark to Tommy, carefully chosen to annoy him. But the masterstroke is Tommy’s reaction, towards which the author had been building all through the chapter. It lifts Malcolm’s character right off the page and into our emotions: he makes us angry,  the arrogant bastard.

The coup de grace of the extract is the last sentence, though.  Malcolm reacts to Tommy’s worries by yet another detour and delay, thereby underlining the nastiness in his personality: he’s a real selfish arrogant bastard in factIt’s a brilliant piece of writing and a lesson for all authors.

The technique is not unique, for example Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby portrays all the characters through the eyes of the narrator Nick Carraway. But this extract from The Pacifist is a fine example from a talented young writer that is well worth bringing to the attention of our readers.

The Review:
James Gault reviews The Pacifist by Mehreen Ahmed 

On one level, the Pacifist is a historical novel set in late 19th and early 20th century  Australia. It’s rag-to-riches story of the climb from poverty and oppression to wealth and power. It illuminates aspects of troubling themes like institutional child abuse, racism, corruption, mental health, relevant then and still relevant today. All of this is in the novel, but it is not the novel.

This is above all a book about people: the story of two generations of a family and how the sins of the father are visited on the son. In the beginning we are introduced to Malcolm, a successful businessman about whom we would say, euphemistically, that he is not a nice person.  But how can a person become so ‘not nice’? Is he just a rich spoiled brat, or is there more to it than that? Is there a dark family secret somewhere?

Well, of course there is. Several of them. They’re hidden in a mysterious red folder. We are taken back to revisit the life story of Malcolm’s mother Rose and his father Peter and to discover how and why the red folder came to be created. As the story unfolds, we begin at least to understand Malcolm, even if we can’t quite bring ourselves to forgive him.  Peter is the victim of the hard circumstances of the times and Malcolm is in some sense a victim of Peter, and therefore a victim too of the misfortunate and injustices his parents faced. It reminds us that effects of oppression extend down the generations.

This is a really well written story, especially in the way the characters are brought to life. The one thing I didn’t like was that, while the story centred on the father Peter, the author had built a much more powerful picture of the son. I was left hungering for more about Malcolm.

That aside, the book is a fascinating read. It’s an Australian novel with what seems to me an authentic Australian feel, but the story and themes are universal. 

Contributed by James Gault

 

 

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