I love that feeling when I open a book and know before the end of the first page that I’m in good hands. The hands of a storyteller, with life lines and heart lines. The hands that shape the air. The hands that speak with confidence. The hands and voice of someone who knows how to pull the poetry out of the language—without it all falling in a heap on the ground.
I get that feeling when I begin to read a novel by Margaret Atwood. She might frighten me for decades, but she will write a good story well. I trust her.
This week, I’ve had that same feeling reading Little Bee, by Chris Cleave.
I know right away the story will have sharp edges and horror. Say Nigerian girl refugee and it’s easy to know that dots will be connected. But Mr. Cleave opens the story with a narrator and a voice that tell me clearly I don’t know how those dots will touch.
The voice—so important—sounds like a real person. I can hear her speaking. And when he changes the point of view (No! Don’t change the point of view), this new narrator sounds just as authentic in her very different person.
Then we have the poetry—striking images that make the language bloom without turning purple, without suffocating either story or voice.
Here is one I can’t get out of my head, in which the narrator describes an Indian woman trying to make a telephone call from a detention center outside of London:
“She was whispering into it some language that sounded like butterflies drowning in honey.”
Like butterflies drowning in honey.
When I read that, I want to write like that. When I read prose like that, I want to write poetry.
It’s such a gift to be able to write like that, and I feel lucky for the gift of reading it.
What books send you to writing?