At a dangerous corner of the stairs, the cat got under my feet and I had to grab the bannister. Most of the books I was carrying, I dropped. Only one was within reach when I sank down on the stairs to recover my balance. It was Marina Lewycka’s ‘A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian’ and so I read the opening paragraph and it struck me as a particularly good example of both comic writing and the art of the opening paragraph.
“Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blonde Ukrainian divorcée. He was eighty-four and she was thirty-six. She exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade, churning up the murky water, bringing to the surface a sludge of sloughed-off memories, giving the family ghosts a kick up the backside.”
Despite a huge amount of bookish writing on-line, there is surprisingly little analysis of contemporary novelists’ style, so I’m making my own small contribution here.
So, why is this good writing?
Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blonde Ukrainian divorcée.
Statement – short, pithy and attention-grabbing. A little odd, quirky, something different, eccentric even. Humorous. Comic – cleverly so – with understatement. Personal. Sadness in the background.
He was eighty-four and she was thirty-six.
Bald statement, no elaboration about the shock of age difference. Leaves that up to the Reader. Conversational, gossipy tone infers writer’s confessional pact with the Reader, understanding, invites empathy, complicity.
She exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade, churning up the murky water, bringing to the surface a sludge of sloughed-off memories, giving the family ghosts a kick up the backside.
The ‘fluffy pink’ would have been a clichéd bunch of qualifying adjectives if it weren’t for the incongruity of their use with ‘grenade’. Fluffy pink grenade is a great image. ‘churning up the murky water‘ is ominous and darkly promising of foul revelations to come. At least the Reader hopes so. But the image of the murky water is developed with the idea of things coming to the surface ‘a sludge of sloughed-off memories’ – makes you think of dirty domestic things like a ring around the bath. These sordid memories had been ‘sloughed off’ like dead skin in the murky bathwater of family life, they had been in some sense, washed away, though the ‘sludge’ remained. The figurative language raises the narrator’s game as far as style is concerned, and then the colloquial ‘kick up the backside’ brings a nicely robust comic touch. This is not the style of a writer who is going to stand on ceremony. The family ghosts get a good kicking. The fact that there are ‘family ghosts’ is a good start too. There are things to uncover here.
6 Comments Add yours
What a brilliant observational piece… and you’re so right, pulling off comic writing is a fine balance. For me the more subtle and less panto is often what has me chuckle audibly…
… and I do hope no books (or cats) were hurt in the making of this post!
Thank you very much! And all books and cats are doing well.
I find myself agreeing with everything you say – though would just add that “comic novel” makes my heart sink almost as much as “chick lit”, suggesting tediously flat characters floundering around in contrived situations. I just wish there were more properly funny books around, so should be grateful if you would write one soon, please.
Thank you for the encouragement. And re: the words ‘comic novel’ making your heart sink. I’d never thought about it as a heart-sink phrase but I certainly take your point. I object to blurbs that say a novel as ‘hysterically, laugh-out-loud funny’ because I know there’s nothing more likely to make me determined to keep a straight face throughout. I’ve dumped the ‘author of comic novels’ from my profile and replaced it with ‘novelist’. I’d better finish the hopefully funny story I’m working on.
Loved the ‘fluffy pink grenade’ image, reminds me of one of my favourite lines from the TV show Frasier (I have many, lol), where Frasier asks his brother Niles to fill in for him on his talk radio show, Niles sees Frasier as a bit of a sell out, so he quips, ‘Oh I could never presume to fill your big floppy red shoes.’
It is a great image, the ‘fluffy pink grenade’ and thanks for your comment. And I do like your Frasier quote. One of the best!
LikeLiked by 1 person