Behind every great book is a good editor. This statement is not meant to dis any authors, but to illustrate that writers – especially those at the beginning of their writing career – greatly benefit from the help of a professional who not only checks for typos and grammar, but is able to give advice on the structure and development of characters and story. The Storyteller by first-time author Chris Trotter is one of those books where a potentially strong story is let down by its lack of editing.
The premise of The Storyteller is promising: Boasting beautiful cover art for a young adult novel, it’s a drama-slash-adventure story with a dysfunctional family at its heart: lonely protagonist Jamie (13), distant sister Lauren (16), alcoholic ex-stripper mum (Elaine) and aggressive, overweight dad (Bob) are starting their annual camping holiday in Scotland. When Elaine reverts to buying alcohol, Lauren is about to pop a pill and Jamie finds out that Bob isn’t his real dad, one cannot imagine a more disastrous start of the holiday.
The Storyteller is a novel about the importance of telling stories, and the main technique Trotter uses to convey this message is to tell a story within the main plot line: about half of the book is a story that gypsy Moses tells Jamie to help him make sense of the world around him. Moses is one of the most interesting characters of the piece. He is kind, good at listening as well as telling stories, and wise: “It’s nice to be told a story […] they fire our imaginations before we dream”, he muses. For his storytelling sequences about the Kingdom of Amal and The Land Beyond, Trotter doesn’t hesitate to borrow from existing classical stories – The Prince and the Pauper springs to mind, but also popular fantasy and quest stories (The Lord of the Rings, anyone?). There are also parallels with stories and their accompanying morals from the bible. Though a little contrived, it shows that Trotter puts his money (or, pen) where is mouth is: he shows that stories make the world go around.
Trotter’s first book for young adults has commendable strengths: he has an expansive imagination, a pleasant descriptive prose and a clear passion and understanding of the importance of telling stories. (A technique, I’m sure, he also uses at his job as a tour guide in Edinburgh.) His ability to set the scene and some revealing character sketches are the strong points of this novel.
There are a few areas that let this book down. Dialogue is sometimes forced: what is supposed to be natural conversation is often too obvious, unbelievable, or a combination of both. The author reveals too much about how conversations should be interpreted, leaving little room for suspense and the reader’s own interpretation. Trotter should not be disheartened: with more practice and allowing time for relentless editing, these are things that can be straightened out.
Two character developments annoyed me a bit: the first is that father Bob ‘gets away’ with physically and mentally abusing his son. The character’s admission “I know I’ve beaten you to pulp and emotionally neglected you, but I do love you, so sorry about that.” is highly irritating. Are we supposed to believe that Lauren’s accident has put him in his place? (Or, maybe this is part of the moral ‘forgive and forget’?)
The second is the characterisation of Mariah, Corliss’ bride-to-be. Their love for each other is as believable as Trump’s commitment to fight climate change. Why do Corliss and friend Ahab assume that she only wants a prince? Has she no say in the matter? There is no clear evidence that Corliss loves Mariah; their marriage seems to be one of convenience and tradition. Because Corliss doesn’t make an effort to really get to know Mariah, her character is as diverse as a digestive biscuit (without chocolate). I think Corliss would have preferred to marry Ahab instead.
Let’s have a look at some of the best scenes: the moment when brother and sister learn that their mother has started drinking again, in the dodgems at the fun fair, is revealing and symbolic: their lives are literally and figuratively smashed around. With the use of flashbacks, their parents’ vulnerability and concern for their children gives the story much-needed depth, while the silent beating Jamie receives at the hand of his father is chilling. There is also some humour – I found myself smirking at the description of the sinking marsh houses in The Land Beyond, where Corliss finds the elders in a meeting, sitting on chairs that are bolted to the floor, at an angle of thirty degrees. These are the moments that make the book: may Trotter’s next be more polished.