David Gaughran’s blog – Let’s Get Digital – is probably best known for his posts on self-publishing, and the publishing industry in general. I admit, David is one of my favourite go-to people when it comes to most things technical or financial.
However David also reads and writes fiction, and the other day he wrote a post about ‘good books’, asking if we could recommend any. In that post he named two books he had read and greatly admired. ‘Because We Are – a novel of Haiti’ was one of them.
I have just finished reading ‘Because We Are’ by Ted Oswald, and I have to say David was right – this is an exceptional novel. It’s not perfect, but it worked in all the ways a good story should : it created memorable, well-rounded characters, transported me to a place I have never seen, and made me care about both.
The story is set in modern day Haiti, and follows the lives of two children living in the slums of Haiti just before the big earthquake that took the lives of so many. Libète is a girl of ten. Her best friend Jak, a boy stunted by chronic malnutrition, is also ten. They are out, playing in the marshes when they stumble across the bodies of a young woman and her baby.
The young woman has been ritually mutilated, raising the spectre of Voudou, but this is not some lurid, sensationalist story about the practices we in the West call voodoo. This is a story about murder for gain. It is a story about poverty and politics, degradation and courage. It is a story about real people living their lives as best they can in a world where smart phones and abject poverty exist side by side. But most of all it is an uplifting story about honour and honesty as told through the eyes of children. In many ways, their growth parallels the growth of a nation.
On a more mechanical level, the writing is lyrical, and evocative without being at all self-indulgent. The dialogue is excellent, peppered with just enough Kreyol [Haitian version of French] to feel authentic without making the reader work too hard, and the characters are vivid. Even the minor characters seem to leap off the page, and there is nothing two dimensional about them. These are all the great things about the story. Sadly there are also a couple of mechanical issues I found quite confusing, and both relate to the way the author handled flashbacks.
I have no inherent problem with flashbacks, so long as it’s clear what is current and what is not. In ‘Because We Are’, the flashbacks to Libète’s earlier life are not immediately recognizable as flashbacks. This led to a lot of ‘oh this is another flashback’ moments on my part. Each time this happened I lost my connection to the story.
The reason the flashbacks were so jarring was because the author often told them in the present tense – “The small girl takes a step down from the large rock.” This is not the conventional way of writing flashbacks, however I could have gotten used to it if only the cues had been consistent. But they were not. Sometimes the flashbacks would not be in the present tense but the current storyline would be.
These inconsistencies made the story harder to follow than it should have been. And yet… despite getting a bit annoyed at times, the story itself was so good, so compelling, it never occurred to me to stop reading. That, to me, is the mark of an exceptional story, and that is why I am reviewing it – because it is too damn good to dismiss for a few mechanical faults.
It’s not often I criticize a novel and then turn around and tell you to read it, but this is one of those times. ‘Because We Are’ is a gem. Read it!
November 10th, 2014 at 7:18 pm
Intrusive authorial narration is my one true way to go.
November 11th, 2014 at 7:43 am
Hmm… okay? I’m sorry but I really don’t understand your point here.
June 15th, 2013 at 8:32 pm
I’m so, so glad you loved this book. It really affected me. I think I was about halfway through when I hunted down the author’s email address and sent him a message telling him it was brilliant. I was running around telling everyone to read it before I had even finished! (Luckily the second half didn’t disappoint…)
Your review is great and will really help readers decide if it’s the kind of book for them – you capture all the major themes and describe the style well. It’s written in quite a singular voice, so it may not be for everyone, but I think those that enjoy it will absolutely love it. However, I have a different take on the “mechanical issues” and I’m delighted to find someone to discuss that with.
Here’s how I see it. The story is not told in a linear way at all. The structure is quite unusual. The narrative will move forwards in time, then back again, then maybe back to an earlier point, and the a later point – it’s much more complex than a story which switches betweeen Point A and Point B in the timeline. I think that was a good decision by the author, and I think it adds much more to the story than any reader confusion might take away from it. For me at least, it made sense after a few chapters and I was able to follow it easily enough.
The second “issue” might be more controversial – and that’s the tense switching. At first, I thought the author had made an error, slipping into present tense when he should have been using past tense. I only twigged the pattern a few chapters in.
It seems to go like this. When the story switches to a different place on the timeline (which isn’t after *every* scene break, but often enough), the author switches to third person present for a couple of paragraphs, and then reverts to third person past and continues the story.
The question of *why* he does that, I can only guess at. But I suspect it’s to aid the reader in dealing with the non-linear stucture. I see it visually like the action “freezing” after the timeline switch, and the narrator describing where the MC is and what she’s doing as a way of grounding the narrative on the timeline – i.e. saying to the reader: this is where you are in the story.
You could say it’s an authorial intrusion, but so is heading a chapter with “November 14, 1995” and then the next one with “October 12, 1995” which forces the reader to flick back to the last chapter to figure out if you have moved forwards or backwards in time. You could make the argument that while this technique is unusual, it’s less intrusive (IMO, YMMV etc.).
It’s up to each reader to decide if this technique works for them or not. For me it did, even if it took a few chapters to get used to. I really think it added more to the story than it took away.
But yes, a gem either way. Fantastic book. Can’t believe it’s his debut. Excited to see what he does next.
P.S. In case anyone thinks I’m shilling for a buddy, I had no idea who Ted Oswald was before stumbling across his book when it was free. I’ve been in touch with him since reading it, as I’m hoping to get him on my blog for an interview so we can explore all this stuff in more detail and hear about his first-hand experiences in Haiti which inspired the book. I’ll ping you when we get around to it!
June 15th, 2013 at 9:27 pm
This is fun! I didn’t think he’d made a ‘mistake’ because the writing was so good, however I was questioning his choice of technique.
Now that you’ve pointed out the grounding effect I can sort of see it. Still not totally convinced though, unless he was aiming for something almost musical. Okay, musical is probably not the right word but I can’t think of a better one.
If Ted Oswald does come on your blog I definitely want to chat with him, so please don’t forget me. 🙂
Oh and welcome to the blog!
June 15th, 2013 at 12:02 am
I love an honest review, at least if people feel a little confusion with the flashback when they read this one they will know they are not alone!
Excellent review, as always. 😀
June 15th, 2013 at 10:12 am
Thanks Metan. 🙂
June 14th, 2013 at 3:27 pm
Good review, and yet another book to add to my Goodreads list. I agree just because a novel has the odd glitch doesn’t make it unreadable, and yet there are others held up as prizewinners and classics that I can’t finish…
June 14th, 2013 at 5:16 pm
I read this one on my Kindle but it was a real page-turner. 🙂
June 14th, 2013 at 3:23 pm
Thanks Meeka. As always you’re very thorough in your review of this book. Yet another author in debt for your kindness and another group of readers who know what pitfalls-if any- to expect. xxx Hugs xxx
June 14th, 2013 at 5:16 pm
Thanks David. 🙂 I didn’t say this in the post because I wanted to keep the review objective, but the proceeds from the book actually go to a good cause so I’m doubly glad to have been involved in a small way.
June 14th, 2013 at 12:42 pm
Will be checking this out!
June 14th, 2013 at 1:27 pm
lol – don’t wear your editor’s hat though. 😉