Friday, 7 January 2011

The Curse of Flashback

In my Christmas stocking was a copy of Gemma Bovary by Posy Simmonds.  Now, I love her work and Literary Life never fails to make me laugh, so I had high hopes as I settled down to read.  Oh dear.  Practically the first thing I learned was that Gemma B was dead, and the story is told through extracts from her diary as read by nosy neighbour Joubert.  In other words - it's flashback!

But it was also Posy Simmonds so, initial disappointment aside, I read on.  And of course it's well written and beautifully illustrated, but I couldn't get into the story.  It was hard to invest in a character I knew was going to die, a bit like being introduced to someone at a party who then tells you they're moving to the other side of the country next week.  And there wasn't enough of a mystery about her demise to keep me intrigued.

In The Secret History by Donna Tartt we know from the start that one of the friends is going to die, killed by another but the novel shifts into the narrative present and the mystery of who dunnit and why sustains the story.  Sadly, this doesn't happen in Gemma Bovary which is always framed by Joubert's backwards looking narrative. I read to the end feeling slightly disappointed throughout.

I'm not saying you should never use flashback but you have to work so much harder as a writer to engage the reader, even if you're as brilliantly talented as Posy Simmonds undoubtedly is. Most of the time a straightforward narrative will work just as well so why make life difficult for yourself?

6 comments:

badas2010 said...

Couldn't agree more.
I hate films and TV dramas where they start with the ending - and then tell the story, even though you know what's going to happen.
Grrrr!

Sarah Duncan said...

It can work - The Pilot's Wife by Anita Shreeve is a good example - but it's a very risky strategy.

debutnovelist said...

Hi Sarah
I've started reading Skippy Dies (lots of plaudits). S'pose I thought the title was some kind of metaphor, but no Skippy, a real person, dies on page 1! And yes, we are now going back in time ....
Have decided to carry on, but agree it's hard to pull off something like this. So much easier to do recount things in the order they actually happen.
Read something else recently of this ilk. Oh yes - Joseph O'Connor Ghostlight. Everyone loves it apparently, but there was no plot tension at all, as we knew the ending right from the start. (Feeling a blog post of my own coming on!) AliB

Sarah Duncan said...

I haven't read either - Joseph O'Connor lost me with Star of the Sea which I couldn't/wouldn't finish, got so fed up with the characters.

'What's going to happen next?' is such a powerful force in story telling that it seems wilful to throw it away.

Jill Mansell said...

I was FURIOUS with Baz Luhrmann for making Ewen McGregor tell us at the very beginning of Moulin Rouge that Satine died. Still don't understand why he did it. Would have been so much better if we hadn't known in advance.

Sarah Duncan said...

Must admit I haven't watch Moulin Rouge because I am one of few women on the planet who finds Euan McGregor irritating rather than attractive and Nicole Kidman can be pretty irritating too. But now I shall have to watch, just to see what I think.