It was in an impassioned conversation with Miss Angela Meyer on the floor of a particular writers’ festival venue, relishing the taste of ginger beer, that I expressed my love for the sparsity of Chloe Hooper’s writing in The Tall Man. Angela and I continued to chat about those writers who have an understated way of inciting emotion and I remembered being affected by the withheld tone in Alice Sebold’s Lucky (Aus, US), in much the same way that I had been when reading The Tall Man.
With Sebold’s novel The Lovely Bones soon to be released as a feature film it seemed a fine excuse to shine my desk lamp on the lesser known Lucky and the prose that just … got me.
I first fell in love with Lucky years back when stranded between European airports. The dignity in the writing left me red-faced and puffy-eyed, I must have looked like some forlorn woman—the kind who’s left a lover behind in some other city. Sebold’s dignified yet blatant and honest style of writing had me looking most undignified.
There is a difference between emotive and emotional writing. Sebold wins with the former. She delivers some brutal and confronting memories relaying the story of her own teenage rape and the aftermath, without a shred of self-indulgence. She has an ability to get the reader by the guts. But what I was most curious about, when I picked up the book for a second read, is why?
In an interview with the The Book Show (Sky Arts UK) Sebold talks about taking the time to really find the character who will tell a particular story. In taking this time she says, ‘their voice finally runs clear … there is no fat on it and they’ve got a story to tell and they see no reason to slowly introduce you to their sofa and their pets and their house. They’re in a certain situation and they begin their story.’
Lucky was a slow broil for Sebold. Published eighteen years after her rape there had been time for her own voice to run clear. She has a sparse and measured way of sharing her memories. While lacking in overt emotion, her storytelling is rich with insinuation, integrity and strength. There is so little fat on her story that what’s left feels like bare bone is exposed—it’s grotesquely beautiful at times. I love that what she leaves us with are the bits that matter most.
Sebold is a woman who wields the short sentence and a three word paragraph like a master. They bring contrast to her longer descriptions. The result feels like a visceral punch that gets right to the heart of her pain without describing it with the sorts of flowery analogies and explanations I’m not so fond of.
Sebold avoids gratuitousness in many ways but there is just one curious switch from first person to second that piqued my attention. It happens to be the only switch in the book and it works so well to avoid any notion of ‘poor me’.
‘What you have after that is a family. Your sister has a dorm room for you to see. Your mother a panic attack to attend. Your father, well, he’s being ignorant, and you can shoulder the burden of educating him. It’s not all blacks, you will begin. These are the things you do instead of collapsing in the bright sun …’
It was on my second read of Lucky that I noted how much dialogue is used to drive the story. Fourteen years had passed between Sebold’s rape and her starting to write Lucky so memories of specific conversations would be vague. Yet I didn’t doubt their authenticity as I read. It occurred to me that Alice Sebold is what I like to call a reliable/unreliable narrator.
From the beginning of the piece as memories are relayed, she gently hints that her memory might be fuzzy in places, that she’s not entirely reliable: ‘I can’t remember how it first came up but …’ ‘My memories of my family that day are splotchy.’ Sebold occasionally drops in a rhetorical question to the effect of could that have been the case? Her admissions of did I remember correctly? are never blatant and might easily be skimmed over but it’s this subtle reminder of fallibility that has her ‘quoting’ aged conversations with our trust entirely on board; she’s been honest with us from the opening.
Sebold doesn’t always offer what the reader might be comfortable with. Her admissions, confessions and anecdotes, coupled with her delivery are not honey-coated. While her ‘characters’ are fleshed out and lovable, she does push buttons with an unapologetic delivery at times and she doesn’t justify herself. But she shows vulnerability in bucket-loads (in what she doesn’t say as much as in what she does). She delivers facts and makes them feel like fiction. Lucky is a page turner. Despite the sparse terrain of her writing it is gut-wrenching and emotive. And it’s difficult not to love her all the more for it.