Someone once wrote a novel without any words containing the letter E in it. There is also a novel written in 26 chapters, with every chapter being written only in words that begin with the corresponding letter (‘Adam advanced angrily and…’). Experimental novels or just gimmicks? Well, there are doubtless many arguments either way; Sarah Salway’s Something Beginning With stands somewhere between the two.
She has written her novel in 26 chapters, each being a collection of musings upon topics (Ambition; Ants; Attitude). Each entry is also cross-referenced with others, and after the last page of the novel is a subject index. Somewhere in all this alphabetical play there is a story or several of them.
Verity Bell is the narrator of the book; the entries are not entirely chronological, so as we follow her tale of love and loss, we also learn about her history; the death of her parents; her lifelong friend Sally; Sally’s married lover Colin.
At first the organisation of the novel irritated me; these entries seem rather trivial and inconsequential – once you become involved in the narrative, though, they bring an immediacy and liveliness to the story; instead of convention, Salway opts to write tangentially, her narrative bouncing from one topic to another.
Quite apart from narratorial gadgetry, there are some nice moments in the book too: Verity and her friend being scorned as ‘Normals’ by a couple of Station (not Train) Spotters and Verity blithely declaiming that the Queen thinks the world smells of paint because everything is freshly painted for her.
Now I know this may get me into a whole heap of trouble, but I couldn’t help feeling this novel might prove more popular with ladies than gentlemen. It’s just that there’s a little too much of Bridget Jones’s Diaryin this novel.
Salway’s exploiting of the alphabet is effective in giving a sense of the division between our personal stories and the world going on around us – what happens to an office romance at the weekends and on the train home – but ultimately it all seems rather gossipy.
The figure of the kooky-but-reallylovely heroine feels a little limited; then again, Salway’s depiction of an unequal friendship, and its effects on the weaker party, are painfully well observed. The idea behind this book is engaging; I just found that I wasn’t that enthusiastic about the story itself.ARCHIVE: 1st week TT 2004