Fiction's coolest trick is convincing readers it's real. It's a temporary illusion - while a really fantastic book is open in your hands, it can draw you in, make you believe it. A killer is after the protagonist? You worry for her. The hero's about to get the girl? You're smiling, you big softy. A character you like is dying? Godamnit, you're crying. You didn't mean to be, but you can't help it, and now people on the bus are looking at you funny. Stupid book.
Not every novel has the ability to make fools of us like that. Many are just stories - flat things on the page that you can leave behind you as soon as you close the cover. Personally, I prefer the ones that trick me. I love getting entrenched in characters' lives like they're real people, and I aim to produce that same worrying, smiling, blubbering-on-the-bus reaction with my own writing. Fiction is at its best when it feels like an experience. The book I just finished reading is among the best I've read at that: The Bone People by Keri Hulme. This book tricked me over and over, and when I finally finished it, I was sad to leave it. I think I've read the ending three times now, just casually revisiting it.
Kerewin is living as a reclusive artist in a tower-shaped house on the New Zealand coast when a mute boy named Simon trespasses into her land. She reluctantly becomes a part of Simon's life, and his father, Joe's, and the three of them begin to form an unusual family bond. Secrets come out, violence erupts, and conflicts must be managed, but the book isn't about plot - it's driven entirely by these three characters and their attachments.
And when I say "entirely," hoo boy, I mean that. This is the single most character-driven book I've ever read. Even the form of the book comes from its characters. And herein lies the most remarkable trick I've had a book pull on me in years: The Bone People's format depends solely on its characters. Conventional formatting be damned, if Kerewin is brooding, the paragraphs are going to bunch up and turn into stream of consciousness, punctuation-free chunks of her mental state. If Simon is the focus, the tense shifts from past to present as he considers his current situation. If Joe's experience is especially important just now, the POV switches to first-person from his perspective. Lines of dialogue bunch together in a paragraph if characters are snipping each others' sentences and spread out when there are awkward pauses. Formatting gives in to character.
Unfortunately, I suspect this remarkable trick is also the element that scares off many readers in the first few pages. The person who recommended The Bone People to me said every time she'd lent out a copy, it had come back unread. Which is a damn shame. Every review on the dust jacket claims this experimental form, though grating at first, grows on you until you come to love it.
Now, you there, shaking your head and thinking, I hate experimental fiction. No way I'm picking up that book. Forget the dust jacket and listen up. I can't stand experimental fiction. I've been known to pitch books across the room and take a hit to my grade rather than read something with dialogue formatting that isn't the norm. I have in fact described lit like this with words like "pretentious," "obnoxious," and "too much fucking work." But.
I loved the form of this book. It begins to feel completely natural after a chapter, it fits the characters perfectly, and the story is absolutely better for having been written this way. For this story, conventional form would not have felt right - because it's a story that focuses on people far and above all else. People interrupt themselves. Their speech stutters and shirks off punctuation. Their thoughts cluster and drift and come in half-sentences. They don't move or act in ordered ways - especially when they become attached to others. People are messy. Fiction is ordered - or at least, usually tries to be. Hulmes's writing is messy in a way that mirrors her characters, and through it, you begin to understand them, relate to them, and become attached yourself.
So, here's my dare for you, reader: open a copy of The Bone People and start reading. The first five pages will make you doubt your choice picking it up, but keep going, and the form will begin to draw you in. By the end of the first chapter, you'll be settling into Kerewin's and Simon's and Joe's heads and feeling at home. Finish the book, and I promise it will make a fool of you.
Which is the best part of reading, if you ask me.