If you’ve been following the rambling consideration of the relationship of story to plot (as in this post) you’ll remember I was looking for examples of good stories that are compromised by weak plots. And now I’ve got one. This isn’t so much a review as it is a discussion of a particular set of craft issues, so I’ve decided to post this here rather than in the recs blog.
[asa book]0553381768[/asa] Last month a couple of people who comment regularly recommended a historical novel called A Singular Hostage. I’ve read it now, and my conclusion is that there is an excellent story here, but the plot doesn’t do it justice, and in fact, it gets in the way.
If you’ll remember, the idea behind a good plot is to take the facts of what happened and rearrange them into a dramatic whole. That means (often) telling the story out of order. In this novel, Ali carefully gives us the background on the two major characters: a little boy, about a year and a half old who is being held hostage by the Maharajah; and an unmarried young English woman of good family, sent to India to find a husband. It is the relationship between these two, who are both hostages in their own way, which is the heart of the story. Unfortunately, Ali takes half the novel to get us to the point where they actually meet.
She does this because she wants to make sure we understand the context, social, personal, cultural, in which the two must function, and yes, of course we must. It’s all very interesting material, but it’s not as important to the way the story flows as Ali seems to think. This novel frustrated me, because it spends so much energy in the first hundred pages chasing people around. The boy’s family tries to get him back from the Maharajah; the girl is moving across India with a delegation from the embassy.
The novel does start well with the death of the boy’s mother, but then Ali sacrifices dramatic tension in her quest to give us the background first, and that works against the whole. I’m not an impatient reader in general, but here I found my goodwill stretched right to the breaking point.
The novel is worth reading if you are interested in Indian in the colonial period, because Ali really does know India and her research on this period is excellent. I wish I could recommend it more highly.