Thursday, 6 March 2014

Book Review: The Painted Table by Suzanne Field

By Iola Goulton

In 1858, a tree is felled that will become a table. In 1921, widowed immigrant Knute Kirkeborg is trying to eke out a living farming the harsh North Dakota prairie, supporting seven daughters and two sons. Daughter Joann hides under the huge kitchen table as she mourns her mother, who died in a Hospital for the Insane.

In 1943, Joann is left at home with her toddler, Sapphire Eve, while husband Nels serves in the navy, yet Joann has no idea how to be a mother, because her own mother was always too busy with the baby. Her parenting style is detached to the point of emotional neglect, because she never learned otherwise. As a result, Saffee doesn’t learn either.

There’s a rule in modern writing that fiction it shouldn’t be written in omniscient point of view. That’s the first thing I noticed about The Painted Table: it doesn’t obey this dictum. But it works, somehow, at least at first. This could be because the book is written in present tense, which gives it a sense of immediacy, as though perhaps we are not in omniscient point of view at all, but are reading the ramblings of a mad woman, someone who thinks of herself in the third person.

The other rule of modern fiction is that writers should show, not tell. We want to see the story in pictures, to see the characters and their emotions, not be told (she said vehemently). The Painted Table does show, but it’s not showing everything. Rather, it is selecting vignettes through Joann and Saffee’s lives that show the family story. As a result, at times it feels as though nothing is happening.

It’s a curious technique, more literary than genre and not helped by the fact that it’s difficult to tell whether the main character in the story is Joann, Saffee, or mental illness. This lack of clarity around plot and character did mean the story dragged in places, as I was wondering when something was going to happen.

Each scene seems to show one of three things. It either shows Joann’s descent into mental illness (the first quarter of the book), it shows Saffee watching her mother’s descent into mental illness (the second quarter), or it shows Saffee struggling to not become her mother (a valid worry, as the reader knows—although Saffee doesn’t—that Joann has followed her own mother into mental illness).

At first this was an interesting way to tell a story. But it got old. I wasn’t exactly sure why I wasn’t enjoying it, then I read a Writer Unboxed blog post about layering, by Dave King (yes, Mr Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. That Dave King). His point is that every element of a story has to work on different layers. He says in the comments:

“The danger is including elements of your story that only mean one thing … If you have enough of those one-purpose elements, your story starts to feel a little contrived”.
He’s nailed it. That’s exactly how I felt. I’m not trying to diminish mental illness or those who suffer from it. It’s a real and growing problem, especially with our ageing population. Nor am I saying that Christian novels shouldn’t be addressing mental illness. They should. What I am saying is that the book still has to have a plot. It has to have characters that go though some kind of change. And while it has to have a theme, the theme should be layered into the plot, not the primary focus of every scene.

My other problem with this book is the blurb. It’s not acting as a teaser to the story: it’s telling the entire story in a few sentences:
“The Norwegian table, a century-old heirloom ingrained with family memory, has become a totem of a life Saffee would rather forget—a childhood disrupted by her mother’s mental illness. 
Saffee does not want the table. By the time she inherits the object of her mother’s obsession, the surface is thick with haphazard layers of paint and heavy with unsettling memories.”
Saffee doesn’t inherit the table until around three-quarters of the way through the story. If this is the central plot, then the first 75% of the story was all backstory—which will explain why it dragged so much. This style would have made an excellent memoir, but it was lacking as a novel.

I wanted to like The Painted Table. The writing is different to what we normally see in Christian fiction, and part of me wanted to like the more literary style. And I wanted to like it because it’s different, not the typical western or Amish romance that makes up so much of Christian fiction. I wanted something that was a little more challenging, but that I would find ultimately rewarding. It had good points, especially the way Nels loved and supported Joann, but in the end I didn’t enjoy it because there was too little plot, too little character development, and too much theme.

Thanks to Thomas Nelson and Booksneeze for providing a free ebook for review.

By Iola Goulton. I am a freelance editor specialising in Christian fiction, and you can find out more about my services at my website (www.christianediting.co.nz), or follow me on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/christianediting), Twitter (@IolaGoulton) or Pinterest (http://pinterest.com/iolasreads).

I love reading, and read and review around 150 Christian books each year on my blog (www.christianreads.blogspot.com). I'm a Top 25 Reviewer at Christian Book, in the Top 1% of reviewers at Goodreads, and have an Amazon Reviewer Rank that floats around 2600.

11 comments:

  1. Thanks for the review Iola. Even though you didn't enjoy the book, I find your examination of its execution very interesting. Another reminder to ensure we use layering.

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    1. It took me a long time to work out why I wasn't enjoying it. The concept was intriguing, which is why I selected it for review. But the execution didn't work for me, partly because it became an epic (it covered from 1920 until the present day), and this wasn't indicated by the blurb. I prefer novels which take place over a shorter timeframe.

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  2. Interesting review, Iola. Especially about the techniques. I often think that the rules of modern fiction - especially the point of view rule and 'show don't tell' - are there to make it easier for the average author to write a satisfying story. Positively brilliant writers can make the story work while breaking the rules and writing from an omniscient perspective and even showing, rather than telling. Ultimately it's about what works... and clearly this didn't quite work for you.

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    1. I'd love to read a novel that broke all the 'rules', yet was still compelling reading. Part of the reason I selected this for review is I thought it might manage it. I know some reviewers have loved it - but I didn't.

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  3. Thanks again for your informative review Iola. I can see why you didn't like it but it does sound like an insightful book re mental illness and one I'd find interesting.

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    1. I'm sure you would find it interesting, Carol. Parts are quite awkward to read, as Joann and Saffee take family disfunction to a whole new level.

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  4. An unusual book by the sound of things. Has the author written anything else? Be interesting to find out what style she used if she has. Love the concept of the table being handed down, and it's significance. What a shame the book didn't deliver as well as you had hoped.

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    1. This is her debut novel, Andrea. And while this novel didn't deliver for me, I'd certainly be interested in reading more of her work to see how she develops as a writer.

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  5. This was a really interesting take on this novel, Iola. It's also interesting that Thomas Nelson published it! They are super sensitive about sticking with the "rules". Maybe like you they thought a literary style might be a chance worth taking. Or maybe they just plain enjoyed the whole concept. Who knows what goes on in publishers' heads?

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  6. Iola, thanks for your detailed and insightful review. It's interesting that you've mentioned the theme has taken centre stage over the plot and character arcs. I don't read a lot of literary fiction, which tends to have a stronger emphasis on theme than genre fiction.

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  7. You have an understanding of writing that always makes your reviews interesting, Iola. I'm not good at explaining why I enjoy or don't enjoy a story. So as I think back over this novel, I agree with everything you're saying, yet I loved it. I think the story just grabbed me emotionally, and then I loved the ending.

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