Writing a character is always a leap of the imagination, so is it any more of one to take on a member of the opposite sex? Maybe not, and I certainly haven’t had a problem with creating and speaking for the odd romantic hero, but many years ago when I first read The Ginger Tree by Oswald Wynd I remember empathising so deeply with the heroine that I found it hard to believe her story had been written by a man.
Now Bristol HNS have chosen the theme of ‘gender and character’ for a forthcoming meeting I’ve had a great excuse to skim through it again and look for what makes it so successful.
It’s the story of a naïve (but increasingly headstrong) Scots girl (Sorry about my battered copy. I never did see the TV version) who travels to China in the early 20th century to marry a military attache. She has a daughter with him but the marriage is a flop and she ends up having an illegitimate son by a Japanese General. Abandoned by all but one distant friend and deprived of the right to see either child, she is forced to rebuild a life for herself in Japan.
Picking it up after almost 20 years, I still can’t answer the question of what makes the telling of this story so compelling, but here are a few observations.
- I’d completely forgotten it was a first person narrative, written partly as a journal and sometimes in letters. The voice is consistent but the tone and the content alters, depending on who she is talking to. All of it a great window on character. Is the use of first person more persuasive? In this case I think it is (food for thought!)
- The opening which describes Mary’s long voyage to China in the company of a chaperone is prefect. We see how as she travels further east she is leaving behind not just her old life but also many of her inhibitions. We immediately get the contrast of what can be put in a letter home to Mama and what can’t. It sets the tone perfectly and illustrates the conflicts that are going to arise later.
- The crux of the story is her love affair with Kentara. Conducted in short episodes and almost total secrecy I’d forgotten that it takes up a tiny fraction of the book, but of course I remember it because its intensity dominates not just Mary’s life but also the narrative as a whole.
- Less is more also goes for the sex scenes which are all conducted with the sliding door firmly closed. Never has ‘he came to me’ born more meaning! Restraint (at least in the telling) is the order of the day here, which feels right for the period and the character, but there’s plenty of unspoken emotion bubbling under the surface.
- The book is a great illustration of elipsis, or ‘jump cut.’ The big scenes we are waiting for (husband Richard discovering she is pregnant but not by him) are often skipped completely in favour of the agony of the wait and the drama of the fall-out. Maybe the action scenes are the victims of the journal form (she can hardly write them as they happen) but it still works really well and we are taken through 40 years at just the right tempo. (Music to my ears as I struggle with a thirty-year time-span.)
As well as Mary’s emotional journey the account of Japanese life and society is a rich and fascinating back-drop adn there’s lots of history and culture to soak up. But it’s Mary’s heart that speaks to us, often between the lines of her everyday existence. I just spotted this quote which pretty well sums it up.
By the end, it is the reader who sheds the tears his heroine has kept back for almost 40 years. — Nicholas Shakespeare, Sunday Telegraph
Looks like it’s now out on Kindle. You have no excuse!