A book is like a promise. It’s cover, it’s blurb, it’s author are all promising us something, from the moment we pick it up. Tag lines on the jacket promise us ‘this is one of the best books I’ve ever read’ and that the book is ‘un-putdownable’ or ‘this book had me in stitches from the first sentence!’. We read the back cover, and get an expectation of what the book is going to be like. The book is a romance – we assume that the hero and heroine will live happily ever after. The book is a thriller – we won’t be surprised when a dead body turns up somewhere. We read the first chapter – we get a sense of the tone of the book, and what to expect for the rest of it. Not exactly the plot – we still want twists and turns, and for the story to unfold, unknown to us – but we know what to expect. We know whether this book is going to make us cry, or laugh, or maybe both.
Seven Little Australians, by Ethel Turner, broke it’s promise to me. It’s cover promised ‘delightful’ to me. It’s blurb (see above) promised innocent and delicious mischief. This was reinforced by the first few chapters, full of pranks and mayhem from seven lovable little Australians. I saw the book as an Australian version of E Nesbit’s The Story of the Treasure Seekers – harmless fun from seven children living in Sydney in the 1890s.
For most of the book, this was delivered to me. The book lived up to its promise to me, my expectations of what it was. I really liked the quaint humour, the way the author delivered the story in a way that the reader felt like they knew more –and better – than the children they were reading about, and the various characters, from dreamy Meg, to their gruff father, to bright eyed Judy. The story followed the pattern that so many similar books followed.
And then, two chapters from the end – disaster! I wont tell you what it is, in case you want to read the story, but let me just tell you that tragedy strikes, and an awful feeling of sadness fills the end of the book. I cried, which I did not expect to do so when I picked up the book and read the first chapter. More than just feeling sad for the characters, however, I felt something that I rarely feel for a book – betrayal. I felt like the book had betrayed me – it had given me no warning that I was going to feel such emotion when I was reading the first, forth, or even tenth chapter! The book had no right to spring something like that on me, when I thought I had the book all figured out…
I felt like the book had broken its promise to me.
This, of course, is a completely ridiculous way to look at a book. In fact, it’s rather life-like – you don’t get hints in the weeks leading up to an accident that something bad is going to happen. But I can’t help what I felt. It tinted what had been a lovely book into one that I didn’t know if I could quite forgive for being so harsh on it’s characters.
Another book that I’ve just finished reading is another Australian classic, Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay. The whole book hinges on three girls and their teacher mysteriously disappearing while on a picnic with their school friends. It breaks a different kind of promise, one that we have come to expect from books containing a mystery – that the mystery will be solved at the end of the book. That’s why people read crime novels, or mystery novels – they like seeing how the story wraps up the mystery into a neat little package for us. Not Picnic at Hanging Rock. It leaves us (pardon the pun) hanging. But I kind of understand why. This book is not about the mystery, but how the mysterious disappearance affects those left behind. The disappearance of the girls is only the catalyst for the rest of the story. But it is still rather annoying, when you get to the last page, when you realize that you are not going to find out what happened, when all you have been wondering for the last two hundred pages is what happened at Hanging Rock?
Maybe it’s good for books to break promises – it makes them more interesting, and less predictable. I just wish I had a warning next time – which, I know, is precisely the opposite to what a book breaking promises is about.