I’ve read a book that has left me itching to attack it with a red pen, so much so that I’m going to dissect it here and say what I would have done if I had been the book’s editor. This is not to say that I thought the book was all bad – in fact, I really liked its premise and judged it to have a lot of potential. It was the execution of the story and the writing that left me disappointed. So, rather than looking at this as a criticism of what the book was, I’d rather view it as a lament for what it could have been.
Alert No.1: In writing this post, I do not claim to be better than professional editors working in the industry. This is my subjective opinion which stemmed from my reading experience of the book in question.
Alert No.2: To speak about the book’s strengths and shortcomings, I will be revealing much of the storyline. Therefore don’t read on if you’d like to avoid spoilers!
So what’s the book? It’s called So Much Owed by Jean Grainger, a work of historical fiction set in Ireland and spanning a time period from World War One to World War Two. It begins with Dr Richard Buckley, an Irish doctor who served in the British army during WWI, coming home to Cork in the company of his best friend’s widow, a French nurse called Solange. Richard’s wife, Edith, gives birth to twins but has no interest in them and eventually walks out on them all, leaving Solange to raise James and Juliet. As the children grow up, war brews in Europe again and, when WWII breaks out, both twins find it affecting their lives in different ways.
That’s about as much as you’d give away if you were writing the blurb for the back of the book, but it actually covers a good three-quarters of it. The thing is, the best parts of So Much Owed take place after all of the above – the real meat of the story is definitely in the final quarter.
(Reminder: spoiler alert.) Juliet’s storyline is my favourite. She spends some time with her aunt in Belfast, where she falls in love with a Scottish RAF pilot. After he is dispatched to fight the Germans, she finds herself yearning to participate in the war effort too and becomes a recruit with a British spy network. She gets sent to occupied France, where she is obliged to engage in a romantic liaison with a German officer. Despite herself, she begins to have feelings for him which makes it all the more difficult when she receives the order to execute him.
Now, isn’t THAT a good plot?
Then there’s what happens to the other twin. Although living in neutral Ireland, James also gets embroiled in the war because he strikes up a romance with a German girl, not realising that she’s using him to gain familiarity with the terrain around Cork to assist a German invasion. Their relationship becomes complicated when she bears him a child and it is her love for the baby that makes her regret her previous actions. In the end, she sacrifices herself to save the child’s life.
Also an interesting story, right?
But all of these intriguing plot elements with Juliet and James take place in the final 25% of the book. Which means you have to trawl through 75% of it to get to the good stuff. I won’t lie, I was close to giving up on it several times (due to a resolution I made here). The only reason I didn’t was that I felt it had the promise of a good story, if I could only be patient enough to wait for it. It was a LONG time to wait though.
So if I put my editor’s cap on, what would I do differently? The big thing is where to begin it – and to be very honest I think it starts twenty years too early. I would place Chapter 1 just before WWII breaks out, not just after WWI ends. Granted, there are things that happen during those two decades that are pertinent to the plot but they could easily be revealed through backstory, with a few details slipped in here and there to fill in the blanks as the reader goes along. The issue in starting with Richard and Solange’s arrival in Cork is that you are led to believe the book is going to be about them – it’s only as you progress through it that you realise they are secondary characters and the protagonists are really James and Juliet.
This would then give room to expand on the final quarter of the book, which I felt did not capitalise on all the appealing storylines in it. Much of the affair between Juliet and the German officer is glossed over so that it goes from their accidental meeting to her sharing his apartment in pretty much the space of a chapter. This was a missed opportunity to show the growth of their attraction. Not to mention, the execution order had so much more scope to reveal Juliet’s conflicting feelings towards the German officer. She actually hits him on her first shot but if she had missed and he had had a chance to dissuade her from the action, the scene could have been far tenser and more satisfying to read.
For me, the relationship between James and the German girl was not quite as engrossing. I found I didn’t care enough for them either as individuals or as a couple and in fact I felt very little emotion when she sacrificed herself for their child. But better character development could have had me in tears if I had been more invested in them.
Now on to the nitty-gritty of the writing. The biggest flaw here was the sin of telling, not showing. So much of the book consists of narration describing what just happened or what a character just thought without putting the reader into the scene to see it for themselves. I wanted more dialogue, more action, more interaction between the characters – I wanted to observe, not be informed. It made the storytelling feel very slow-moving.
Then, whenever there was dialogue, the author tended to insert massive chunks of it. People do not speak in long monologues to each other. The majority of the time it just didn’t feel like there was a natural flow to the dialogue exchanges. In addition to this, there were parts written in French that weren’t translated or were difficult to interpret from the context. Dialogue is one of the most important devices for connecting with characters and a crucial component of any novel – and would therefore be an essential element to address in the editing of this one.
So that’s my assessment of So Much Owed, a book that held the prospect of being a riveting story set in WWII but meandered slowly across two decades instead. As a reader, it just about held my interest – as an editor, I think it would be an exciting challenge to help it reach its full potential!