Sunday, 31 January 2016

Losing the plot

I’ve set myself the challenge of reading a book a week for a year. I didn't expect it to be easy, but nor did I expect to stumble quite so quickly. And over a short book, too; a meagre 83 pages of a modern classic. 

I thought I would get through A Month in the Country in no time, because the blurb suggested it was going to be just my sort of book. And let’s be honest — there’s a lot to be said for it. It’s beautifully written, it has an evocative setting. I could rip through that in a couple of days.

How wrong can you be? This slender volume, with all its plaudits (‘tender and elegant,’) took me a good two weeks of effort to read. The reason? Nothing happened. 

I can outline the content of a book without a spoiler, because there’s nothing to spoil. In the aftermath of the First World War a traumatised ex-soldier goes to a Yorkshire village to uncover a medieval painting. He meets another ex-soldier, searching for a missing grave. He feels more at home with the Chapel folk than with those of the Church. He falls in love with the local vicar’s wife but never speaks of his feelings. We get a glimpse of the breakdown of his marriage. 

But nothing happens. There is no plot.

As a writer, I sometimes struggle with plot. I spend too long setting things up, creating atmosphere, introducing my character. I’m often told that my stories start slowly but are worth persevering with (I take that as a compliment). There are endless pieces of advice on offer to writers new and old, and many of them focus on pace. If a scene doesn’t take the plot forward, we’re told, then lose it. If a character has a point of view then they must have a story. The protagonist(s) must be in a different place at the end of the story (in character development terms) to where they were at the beginning. And so on and so on.

Maybe as a society we’re getting impatient, but A Month in the Country reinforced the view that something needs to happen. It isn’t enough to write beautiful prose because even readers like me, who don’t feel they need a dead body every chapter and who actually enjoy a few pages of beautifully-written description to vary the pace of a story, feel cheated if they get to the end of the book and nothing has happened.

In the end I think I enjoyed A Month in the Country. I think I’d even recommend it. But not without a health warning: here is a book in which nothing happens. Or maybe I’m missing something…


  1. Interesting review, Jennifer - I haven't read it but might seek it out sometime just to see what you mean!

  2. I rather like the sound of it but good to know in advance what/not to expect, thank you, Jennifer!

  3. Thoughtful insights from you, Jennifer, my brilliant writer-friend. I've the book which I read some 12 years ago. My copy is introduced by Ronald Blythe and I agree with his sentiments. Is yours with an intro by him too? I've always thought that the timing and mood of a reader relate to our reactions. Yea, the almost endless successions and denouements described as "to do" could reduce one's reading appetite. However, I feel that its seemingly simple structure is actually complicated --- and psychological too, as one realises its depths until the very last page. I'll reread it one day (I have piles of readings to do, concurrently reading two, plus back soon to choral singing rehearsals.) and would be interested to find out what I feel by then. Thanks, Jenn, for reminding me to revisit books in my private shelves. This is the second one you've done so; first was Angel by Mason. You know too you're one of my fave writer-friends. I do recommend the book. G'day!

  4. Hi copy has an introduction by Penelope Fitzgerald. I didn't read it before I tackled the book because I like to come to a novel with an open mind (as far as possible). I wonder of I would have had a different experience if I had read it?
    After everything I said, I'd definitely read it again.