New Fiction June 2006

A Close Read

What makes good writing good
“The riverbank seemed to undergo a change of air. The old man’s face closed down into its creases of shadow. His hand reached around and got the curved wooden club from the string round his waist. The younger man took a step forward, the spear up in his hand, poised on the balls of his feet, his face grim. From the trees Thornhill heard the scrape of wood on wood and knew it to be the sound of spears being fitted by invisible hands along spear-throwers. He heard Sal give a squashed cry as she heard it too, and a wail from Johnny cut short with her hand over his mouth.”
—from The Secret River, by Kate Grenville (Canongate)

This paragraph, with the word poised at its center, depicts anticipation perfectly. Every sentence pulses with an active verb—seemed, closed, reached and got, took, and heard—while at the same time the specificity of detail forces the scene into slow motion. The club doesn’t suddenly appear in the old man’s hand, but is systematically retrieved in a sentence that indirectly—with the words around, curved, and round—suggests the menace of circling. Although the description of the young man is as taut as the man himself— a series of discrete observations crisply separated by commas—it is also thorough. Grenville allows time to examine him up and down, from hand to feet to face. The spear fitting, too, is drawn out: first comes the sound, then the interpretation. The suspense builds as it shifts from the metaphorical in the initial two sentences to the real, and continues to crescendo as Grenville moves from the old man, whose threat may be mainly gestural, to the young man, whose spear could certainly kill Thornhill, to the invisible hands that could easily wipe out all of Thornhill’s family, to the poignant representatives of that family—his wife and infant son—whose very cries are “squashed” and muffled, so as not to upset the exquisite balance of this moment and cause the spears to fly.

Christina Schwarz is the author of the novels Drowning Ruth and All Is Vanity.
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