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….!