Tuesday, 10 September 2013

A Time To Read

A very dear friend of mine bought me John Grisham's A Time to Kill for Christmas last year, and as thanks to him, I'm gonna discuss it here. Also, it's to help me explore my thoughts on more traditional narrative styles and hopefully encourage people to pick up a book, if they ain't already reading one.

I'd seen Joel Schumacher's 1996 film of the same name a long time ago and really liked it, but since I knew the plot already, my reading of it was different to what it might have been. Naturally I drew comparisons between both visions as I read, contrasting Grisham's balding Jake Brigance (our hero) with the swish Matthew McConaughey version from the film, for example. One other comparison I had to draw was the size of the book. You hardly notice the two and a half hours of film go by, but the edition of the book I've got is nearly seven-hundred and fifty pages long. Quite frankly it looks a little daunting, especially when you consider how other authors have brought the most vibrant universes to life in a much smaller physical space (I want to mention David Markson, Alasdair Gray and Elfriede Jelinek as examples because they are much more experimental, with plot (or lack of it), form and voice respectively). Basically, being a pretentious PoMo guy, I was sceptical as to how I'd receive A Time to Kill.

The first nice surprise in the book was an 'Author's Note', which was honest and humble enough to hook me right away. Grisham explains a little bit about the process of writing the work, his hopes and dreams at the time and also a reflection on the finished article. He directly deals with my primary put-off - the length - saying, "It's a first novel, and at times it rambles, but I wouldn't change a word if given the chance." At reading this, all my pretentious pre-judgements melted away, and I settled down to give it a go.

I've heard Grisham's work (and others' in a similar vein) described as 'courtroom procedurals' which is pretty damn apt. There's no doubt that the themes are very engaging, the characters nicely rounded etc, but this plot-riche novel is chock-full of dry protocol. It's great for Grisham that he has such a wealth of knowledge on the American justice system (or should that be injustice system, ho-ho!), but I just can't help hearing my writer's voice shouting "CUT IT!"

One thing that struck me is how a whole chapter will be devoted to one strand of the narrative, then the final paragraph will reveal a shocking development elsewhere. The effect of this is startling, a sudden gear change that yanks your head back as your body speeds up through the action - certainly an interesting device that is present throughout and has a way of getting you to read on. I had thought of re-writing the book just including these final paragraphs (because they are the most 'to the point' bits of the book). I'm not sure why I thought that, perhaps just as a reaction to the heavy dependence on plot, but it would probably be quite lame without the rest of the chapter as a counterpoint.

I'm not saying everyone should be like Samuel Beckett, I'm not saying plot is evil and I'm certainly not saying A Time to Kill is a bad book. It was an entertaining enough yarn and I'm glad I read it - especially since now I can compare it to the film (incidentally, the way the film deals with expositional elements was a little better in my opinion, especially in the most important matter of Jake's 'final speech' and the jury's final hour). As I say, there are things I'd take out to streamline it, but Grisham himself admits that, as his first novel, he could've done better. You can't argue with how successful it is, though, first book or not.

Right, enough of my rambling. Should you give this book a go? That's what we're all here for right? You will like this book if family is important to you. You'll like it if racism, class and social order is a concern. You'll like it if you're sensitive to plight, not averse to harrowing events and, above all, want a happy-ish ending. It'll while away a pleasant few hours on holiday or, failing that, make a serviceable doorstop.

Peace out.

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