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04 August 2010

Suzannah Dunn

Can one careless word put you off a book? Looks like it.

One of the books I got at the Blackheath Book Fair was Suzannah Dunn's latest, The Confession of Katherine Howard. And today I started reading it.

I met Suzannah Dunn at the launch of Louise Doughty's first novel; they had been students together on the creative writing course at UEA. She was pretty, modest, quite shy, but chatty, and - inevitably, for she is a creative writer - I fell a bit in love with her. I've never met her since, which is fortunate because I suppose I'd have to say what I thought about her books, and the honest response would be that I pretty much hated them, although I kept on buying them. She writes beautifully, but all the early books seemed overloaded by an unresolved hostility towards mothers. Of course, I've no idea if that stemmed from anything in her life, or if it was just a theme she found too-fascinating, but every book seemed to revert to an examination of the way a mother restricted and dominated a daughter.

Also, in a more technical sense, although the writing, the sentences, were finely crafted, there was a short-breathedness about the writing on a bigger scale - too many double line-breaks, which annoyingly broke the flow of the narrative.

So, I was hoping that those two tendencies might have disappeared by now. Suzannah is writing historical fiction these days, and the change of subject may have changed the techniques. But, on the second page of the new book we get this:

Life was never so much for the young as on the day that was soon to dawn and we in the queen's retinue were so much younger than everyone else at the palace, which the king and his company had acknowledged, leaving us to our dancing.
By around eleven o'clock we were reeling. Only a handful of us remained with the queen, having retreated to at her invitation to her gorgeous private chamber, where we reclined on cushions around her vast, gold-canopied chair.

Can you see my problem? It's not that first line, with its awkward run of monosyllables. I can take that as a kind of emblem of naivety in the narrator. It's that word "reeling", and the ambiguity of it: does it mean that they were still dancing (reels) or staggering tiredly? The context shows it means the latter, so it looks as if this might be a joke (at 8 we were dancing; by 11 we were reeling) but I don't think it is. I think it's just careless, and a competent editor should have sorted it out.

I'm probably being too picky, I know, and I should overlook this and read on, but I'm proper discouraged.

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