What Do You Look for in a Novel?
By Mary E. Martin
If you’re like me in a bookstore or online, you’re attracted by a book’s cover. I know, we are not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but I can’t help it. Once you’ve picked it up, what do you hope to find when you turn the pages?
Are you looking for a simple diversion to while away an hour or so on the bus? Nothing wrong with blotting out the traffic jams! You’ll find plenty of diversion on most any bookstore shelf. Or are you looking for something to get your teeth into—hoping the writer has created an enchanting world just for you of fascinating plots, and characters who jump from the page into your head, and scenes which make you really experience “being there”?
Yes, indeed, that’s what I want. And in addition to all that, here’s what I’m looking for—some magic! No, I’m not into fantasy novels or science fiction myself. Instead, I mean that magical sense of the wonder at life. Tall order, you say? Of course it is, but it is those kinds of novels that live on in our minds for years to come—even for many lifetimes.
Robertson Davies is a Canadian author, whom I greatly admire. In his essay, The Novelist and Magic, Davies talks about a novel, Trilby, published in 1894, by Georges DuMaurier. It’s about a beautiful woman [Trilby] who has a gorgeous singing voice. But sadly, she has no “musical ear,” without which she is a hopeless performer. Enter the musician Svengali, who hypnotizes Trilby so that her singing becomes stunningly beautiful. Audiences are transported out of this world by her voice. Together, they are a sensation, but when he suffers a heart attack at a performance, her singing becomes, once again, raucously ugly. We all know the hideous nightmare resulting when our dreams, colliding with reality, explode like a balloon. And so, the story highlights our very human need for keeping our dreams alive and for someone to complete us. Even today, we wish for our own personal Svengali.
Is this magic? For me it is because, it serves up magical enchantment—that which we wish were true in this world. In another essay, Writing, [the McFiggen Fragment], Davies asks what essential quality a novelist must have. His answer is shamanstvo, which he defines as “enchanter quality.” Such a novelist is “the weaver of spells, who through his spells, reveals unexpected and marvellous things about life and thus about ourselves.” Upon hearing this, I immediately conjure up in my mind a campfire, deep in the woods at night. Huddled about the fire are human beings stunned into silence by the marvellous tales of the shaman. Shamanstvo comes down to us from prehistoric times and yet is alive in us today as story telling! It is in our blood and in our bones.
But where does shamanstvo come from? Davies answers this as well. This is a gift to an artist which rises up from the Unconscious. The true artist has the ability “to invite the unconscious, to solicit its assistance, to hear what it has to say and impart in the language that is peculiarly his own... [this] is decidedly his gift and what defines him as an artist.”
If you believe in the creative power of the unconscious, as I do, then it seems that the writers of novels with the gift of shamanstvo are easily spotted as soon as you open the book and read page one. You are dragged into the story by the story-telling voice of the author, who does not let you go until the last page or the embers of the campfire have died out.
Mary E. Martin grew up in Toronto where she began practicing law in a small estates firm. In 1999, she became a full time writer and photographer. Her own writing The Osgoode Trilogy, in the legal suspense genre, was greatly inspired by her law practice of twenty-eight years, which she says gave her a window on the world and humanity.
KEYWORDS: writing tips, The Osgoode Trilogy, Conduct in Question, Final Paradox, A Trial of One, Mary E. Martin, Robertson Davies, Georges DuMaurier, mystery, suspense, legal mystery, legal suspense, thriller, literary fiction, Trilby, Svengali, writing, novels, qualities in writing, shamanstvo, Harry Jenkins, Osgoode Hall, Toronto