13 February 2014

Review: The Painted Table by Suzanne Field

It should have been excellent ...

In 1858, a tree is felled that will become a table. In 1921, widowed immigrant Knute Kirkeborg is trying to eke out a living farming the harsh North Dakota prairie, supporting seven daughters and two sons. Daughter Joann hides under the huge kitchen table as she mourns her mother, who died in a Hospital for the Insane.

In 1943, Joann is left at home with her toddler, Sapphire Eve, while husband Nels serves in the navy, yet Joann has no idea how to be a mother, because her own mother was always too busy with the baby. Her parenting style is detached to the point of emotional neglect, because she never learned otherwise. As a result, Saffee doesn’t learn either.

There’s a rule in modern writing that fiction it shouldn’t be written in omniscient point of view. That’s the first thing I noticed about The Painted Table: it doesn’t obey this dictum. But it works, somehow, at least at first. This could be because the book is written in present tense, which gives it a sense of immediacy, as though perhaps we are not in omniscient point of view at all, but are reading the ramblings of a mad woman, someone who thinks of herself in the third person.

The other rule of modern fiction is that writers should show, not tell. We want to see the story in pictures, to see the characters and their emotions, not be told (she said vehemently). The Painted Table does show, but it’s not showing everything. Rather, it is selecting vignettes through Joann and Saffee’s lives that show the family story. As a result, at times it feels as though nothing is happening.

It’s a curious technique, more literary than genre and not helped by the fact that it’s difficult to tell whether the main character in the story is Joann, Saffee, or mental illness. This lack of clarity around plot and character did mean the story dragged in places, as I was wondering when something was going to happen.

Each scene seems to show one of three things. It either shows Joann’s descent into mental illness (the first quarter of the book), it shows Saffee watching her mother’s descent into mental illness (the second quarter), or it shows Saffee struggling to not become her mother (a valid worry, as the reader knows—although Saffee doesn’t—that Joann has followed her own mother into mental illness).

At first this was an interesting way to tell a story. But it got old. I wasn’t exactly sure why I wasn’t enjoying it, then I read a Writer Unboxed blog post about layering, by Dave King (yes, Mr Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. That Dave King). His point is that every element of a story has to work on different layers. He says in the comments:
“The danger is including elements of your story that only mean one thing … If you have enough of those one-purpose elements, your story starts to feel a little contrived”.
He’s nailed it. That’s exactly how I felt. I’m not trying to diminish mental illness or those who suffer from it. It’s a real and growing problem, especially with our ageing population. Nor am I saying that Christian novels shouldn’t be addressing mental illness. They should. What I am saying is that the book still has to have a plot. It has to have characters that go though some kind of change. And while it has to have a theme, the theme should be layered into the plot, not the primary focus of every scene.

My other problem with this book is the blurb. It’s not acting as a teaser to the story: it’s telling the entire story in a few sentences:
“The Norwegian table, a century-old heirloom ingrained with family memory, has become a totem of a life Saffee would rather forget—a childhood disrupted by her mother’s mental illness. 
Saffee does not want the table. By the time she inherits the object of her mother’s obsession, the surface is thick with haphazard layers of paint and heavy with unsettling memories.”
Saffee doesn’t inherit the table until around three-quarters of the way through the story. If this is the central plot, then the first 75% of the story was all backstory—which will explain why it dragged so much.

I wanted to like The Painted Table. The writing is different to what we normally see in Christian fiction, and part of me wanted to like the more literary style. And I wanted to like it because it’s different, not the typical western or Amish romance that makes up so much of Christian fiction. I wanted something that was a little more challenging, but that I would find ultimately rewarding. It had good points, especially the way Nels loved and supported Joann, but in the end I didn’t enjoy it because there was too little plot, too little character development, and too much theme.

Thanks to Thomas Nelson and Booksneeze for providing a free ebook for review.

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