In which I read a terrific book but am none the wiser for it…

An illustration for Goethe's 'Faust' by Harry Clarke

Have you ever reached the end of a novel, particularly one over 500 pages long and felt as if you had to flick through the whole story again to work out where you may have failed to pick up a thread? Or come to the final chapter and even though you have enjoyed it, felt slightly cheated at the thought that a sequel must be on the way?

I have, within the last hour, finished ‘The Angel’s Game’ by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, the author of ‘The Shadow of the Wind’, a thrilling novel published about five years ago and much beloved of book groups everywhere. Both novels are mysteries set in the early part of the 20th century in Barcelona, which I have visited just the once and immediately fell in love with. It is a city which oozes artistic purpose, and these two books reflect that, focusing as they do on the nature of writing, truth and storytelling. They are gothic romances with a list of characters that would challenge Dickens. The Angel’s Game’ also owes something to Wilkie Collins and to the legendary Faustian deal with the devil. But essentially Zafon writes pacy and atmospheric thrillers; pageturners in the best sense. Hence my need to understand what I have read, and  preferably without having to read it again.

Children (remembering my own early reading and that of my own two when they were tinies) love the familiarity of the same story read over and over again. The characters become friends and they inhabit the world the author has created for them finding comfort in repetition and satisfaction in learning whole passages off by heart, catching out unwary parents trying to skip a few pages on the sly. But as an adult this does not seem to be what I want from a book that I read, usually before I go to bed at night, as a means of relaxation and pure entertainment. I will happily read a poem many times – repeating the words to myself under my breath (or out loud if I am confident I am completely alone). A history or a biography can be read and re-read so that fact, or what passes for it, can be absorbed and I might be learning something. But a thriller? I could read it again if asked to critique Zafon’s style perhaps but not to discover a missed twist or an untied loose end.  Does this inability to retrace my steps make me a poor reader? Or worse perhaps, potentially less of a writer? Is it a snobbery on my part – I would re-read Dickens so why not Zafon?

I am sure many people would simply come to the end of such a book having enjoyed it and be happy to leave it with a vague sense of mystery hanging over the ending. Many books leave questions unanswered and in some cases it is actually fun to create your own version of how the story really finishes. However ‘The Angel’s Game’ is not fun; as a reader we don’t always like the lead character and at times the bodies seem to pile up a little too quickly (or perhaps I just turned the pages faster…). Is this what all thrillers are like? If I read Len Deighton or James Patterson would I get used to this feeling of hurtling towards an ending that in the end seems to matter less than the journey you have been on to get there?

This wasn’t meant to be a book review. If it was it would be a pretty poor job. I am really interested in what makes a book a ‘satisfying’ read, and to find out the best way for a relatively inexperienced writer to ensure a plot doesn’t get too convoluted, the characters too numerous. As we come up to the 1st of November I am going to be amongst thousands of other aspiring writers who tackle NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). 50,000 words in a month. I completed the challenge last year, but ‘Lavender Larceny’ is still in rewrite, with too many loose ends and no finale. I love crime writing, but maybe I am too emotionally engaged in the fiction to ‘let go’ and just enjoy it.

What do you, as a reader, want most from a book? What annoys or irritates you the most about the way authors bring together the ending? Do the lives of characters exist for you beyond the page so that you imagine how the future maps out for them after you close the book for the last time?

Answers please, on a comment, no later than the 31st October….!

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10 Responses to In which I read a terrific book but am none the wiser for it…

  1. Rin says:

    I definitely like for at least most of the key issues to be brought to some kind of conclusion at the end of a book. It doesn’t have to be the traditional ‘happy ending’, although I do like to know that the characters I care about have resolved their issues, even if that resolution is ‘oh well, life goes on’ (or ‘tomorrow is another day!’).

    The main thing is not o be left feeling cheated or, as you say Suzie, like you’ve missed something along the way. Re-reading old favourites to plumb their depths more fully is one thing, having to go back and see whether or not you missed a key plot point is quite another. Any author worth their salt should guide you through the process skillfully enough that you finish the book understanding everything he or she intended for you to understand.

    PS I’d recommend joining Facebook’s ‘In A Sentence’ game for a few days to prompt ideas for NaNo :)

  2. Lisbeth says:

    I hate long sentences. I hate Victoria Hislop. She writes like a teenager. Flowery crap.

    I like short sentences. I like nice, but troubled characters. Flawed people.

    I forget everything I’ve read as soon as I turn the last page. There are some exceptions but they are rare (Anna Karenina). I re-read books not to enjoy them again, but because I’ve completely forgotten them. This is quite useful as it means that there is always a Graham Greene book that I think I haven’t yet read.

    I like some shagging, or at least the hint of some shagging to come.

  3. Louise says:

    I have to admit I do not like to ‘lose the plot’ and have a need to understand the basic premise of what has and is happening. A little mystic is good but I do like a satisfactory ending, or should I say one that leads me successfully to a resolution.

  4. Dave Urwin says:

    I must say I do like it when there’s a bit of a mystery to the ending of a book. A good example of this is ‘The Girl on the Landing’ by Paul Torday, in which there is an apparently happy ending (despite some truly gruesome events that have taken place leading up to it) but there are enough loose ends to make you wonder what would happen in a sequel. Having said that, ‘Factotum’ by Bukowski had an incredibly vague ending and I wasn’t too impressed with that. I like the novel to come to some kind of conclusion, even if there is room for interpretation.

    My own novel I wrote (yet to be published) has quite an open ending but due to the nature of the story this is purposeful to indicate the fragility of life and the way that no-one knows the future. More on that another time though maybe. The novel The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas I wanted to read again as soon as I’d finished it because it has the most powerful ending to perhaps any novel I have ever read, and had relevance to a set of circumstances in my own life. In short, I’m not really sure I know what I want from a novel but this post has really got me thinking about it. Great post, Suzie.

  5. keatsbabe says:

    The End of Mr Y was one of those books I read in a couple of sittings and now can only vaguely remember. It had black edged pages though – something I am always suspicious of….

  6. Jane Earthy says:

    Isn’t there some housework you could be doing?………..

    • keatsbabe says:

      Oh yes, I forgot. I SO enjoy housework. As do you dear sis. My reading/writing is like your garden, an avoidance technique. And at least I am dry and warm…

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