To say this year has involved reading lots of awesome books is an understatement. Seriously, it’s getting to the point where the cumulative impact of reading successively brilliant novels is radically upgrading my concepts of narrative, storytelling, character, world-building and language on an almost daily basis. The ironically twinfold upshots of this are that:
(a) I’ve had more viable, full-fledged ideas in the past six months than the past six years, but
(b) have grown steadily too intimidated by other people’s talents to work on them.
This is a species of problem, in that I haven’t written anything more strenuous than outlines, poetry, email and blogs for nigh on four months, but also a good problem, in that reading so many jaw-dropping stories is proving roughly equivalent to tripling the size of your car’s fuel tank while simultaneously filling it with delicious, premium petrols. I’ve always worked to a peaks-and-valleys schema when it comes to writing – on when I’m on, off when I’m off – and with each book devoured, I’m once more nudging closer to that brain-full, word-hungry state of ecstatic madness that inevitably precipitates a writing binge. To which I say: woo!
But until then, I’m going to keep reading – and, occasionally, talking about what I’ve read. Which brings me to one of the many awesome books to have crossed my paths in recent months: Karen Healey’s The Shattering.
Seventeen-year-old Keri likes to plan for every possibility. She knows what to do if you break an arm, or get caught in an earthquake or fire. But she wasn’t prepared for her brother’s suicide, and his death has left her shattered with grief. When her childhood friend Janna tells her it was murder, not suicide, Keri wants to believe her. After all, Janna’s brother died under similar circumstances years ago, and Janna insists a visiting tourist, Sione, who also lost a brother to apparent suicide that year, has helped her find some answers.
As the three dig deeper, disturbing facts begin to pile up: one boy killed every year; all older brothers; all had spent New Year’s Eve in the idyllic town of Summerton. But when their search for the serial killer takes an unexpected turn, suspicion is cast on those they trust the most.
As secrets shatter around them, can they save the next victim? Or will they become victims themselves?
– summary from Goodreads
Full disclosure: Karen and I are friends. However! This does not make her writing any less awesome, nor my awe of it any less genuine. I thought her first book, Guardian of the Dead, was wonderful, but The Shattering absolutely blew it – and me – away.
Here is the thing about protagonists: they are characters, which is to say participants in a linear narrative, which translates, by and large – although not without notable and significant exception – to good guys. Particularly in YA, protagonists are, more often than not, meant to be sympathetic and likeable. Pause your thought-chain, though, because I’m not taking this where you think I am. Healey’s trio of protagonists – Keri, Sione and Janna – are both of these things, though in markedly different ways (which is closer to what I’m getting at, but wait).
Because here is the thing about people: they are human, which is to say complicated, which translates, by and large – although not without notable and significant exception – to being flawed. Unless we’re completely oblivious or narcissistic, we can all acknowledge our own imperfections; but acknowledging the truth isn’t quite the same as believing it. Whenever called upon to provide a bio, there’s a reason my default self-description starts with the phrase bipedal mammal with delusions of immortality – which is, simply, that even though I know I’ll die one day (hopefully in bed, aged 109, surrounded by heaving piles of my published works and the occasional loving family member) a part of me can’t quite believe it. Or at least, I can’t believe it all the time, or else I’d end up completely depressed and paranoid. And the same thing goes for flaws, too: because even though I can acknowledge their existence on a factual, intellectual level, it’s only comparatively rarely (or during moments of deep self-consciousness) that I can perceive them as a whole. This condition is not particular to me, and what it means is that, moment to moment, human self-perception tends to skew towards believing ourselves to be kinder, better versions of the people we actually are.
And here, finally, is the thing about authors: we are people, too. Which is to say that, when we sit down to write sympathetic characters, we have a tendency to forget their flaws in much the same way that we mentally block awareness of our own. This doesn’t mean the default state of authorhood is to write perfect characters – far from it. But we do, however, have a tendency to neatly align the emergence of flaws with plot-points rather than writing them in as constant facets of a protagonist’s personality; and while there are certainly times when doing so falls under the purview of the Law of Conservation of Detail, this isn’t always the case. Specifically: if we want a character to be sympathetic and likeable, then it’s easy to shy away from giving them flaws that aren’t addressed or overcome as part of the narrative proper. This is not unrealistic characterisation per se, because most readers immersed in a protagonist’s thought processes find it similarly easy to extend their heroes and heroines the same flaw-obscuring courtesies they habitually extend themselves. Most of the time, in fact, we pick up a book with an eye to liking the main character, because the vast bulk stories we’ve grown up with have taught us that this is what we’re meant to do (which is a different issue in and of itself). We identify with and view as normative such flaw-free and unobnoxious characters because, unless we’re in the habit of actively critiquing our own behaviour, that’s who we think we are, too. And while the practise doesn’t actually constitute bad writing – or at least, not by itself – it does lead to characters who are, perhaps, a little thinner and a little more idealised than actual humans, in much the same way that their destinies are more cathartic and their luck more strongly abetted by the presence of plot armour.
Karen Healey, however, does not do this – which is why The Shattering’s Keri, Sione and Janna are among the most concrete, fully-fledged characters I have ever encountered.
It’s more than just their flaws, of course. I can picture all three easily – faces, bodies, expressions, movement. I can hear their speech patterns in the dialogue, the different intonations and word-choice setting them all apart. I can even hear their accents, which I’d swear is unprecedented, and I can see the setting of Summerton like a place I’ve actually visited: the light, the sounds, the houses. The prose style contrives to be simultaneously clean and crisp, yet evocative and lush; the plot is simple, but expertly orchestrated, with not a single misplaced or unnecessary emphasis. The action is gripping, the magic and danger both menacing and believable – but it’s the humanity, the sheer strength and purpose of the characters, that makes it an absolute winner. With the chapter framework alternately cutting between Keri’s first-person recollections and respective third-person insights into Janna and Sione – an excruciatingly difficult balance to pull off competently, let alone well – both structure and voice ought to be bland at best and messy at worst. Instead, each character is whole and distinct, their interweaving outlooks made complementary even as they differ.
As in Guardian of the Dead, Healey has created a realistically diverse cast: Keri is mixed-race, Maori and pakeha; Sione is Samoan, and Janna is a white New Zealander. For lazy, unthinking writers, this would be deemed a sufficient means of distinguishing the protagonists all by itself, because regardless of race issues, there’s a strong cultural tendency among modern storytellers to delineate different characters more by colour and appearance than by native characterisation, the logic seemingly being that if the audience can picture the heroes as looking dissimilar, then there’s less need for their personalities to actually be dissimilar. At its worst, this practice swiftly devolves to appalling tokenism and stereotyping; at its best, a character’s racial/cultural identity is effectively portrayed as their only identity. Even for well-meaning creators, this can be a hard stumbling block to overcome – but not for Healey. Her characters are real, functioning people, and while their respective heritages certainly inform who they are, these aspects are only and always part of a larger whole.
Which brings me back to flawedness: because the other thing about human beings is that, despite our best intentions and protestations of equality, we are still all products of the cultures which create us – their negative aspects as well as the positive. Which is why Keri thinks of her brother’s girlfriend as a white bitch, and why Janna treads on people’s feelings, and why Sione’s shyness manifests as inattention as often as it does endearing silence; and why Keri is cold-blooded, and Janna selfish, and Sione jealous – and why none of this stops them from being sympathetic and likeable, because all of a sudden, whenever a character we’re attached to thinks something mean or dismisses a friend or behaves badly, we’re forced to confront the fact that we do those things, too, and perhaps more often than we realise, and that this only stops us from being good people if we make no effort to change. It’s a rare book that can bring on such epiphanies without being preachy and while simultaneously letting both protagonists and reader orchestrate their individual redemptions, but The Shattering does so beautifully.
This is a book with heart, conscience and consequences. Superbly written, brilliantly characterised and perfectly paced, it’s something everyone should read. Whatever Healey produces next, she’s certainly set the bar high.