I’ve been thinking a lot about structure, feeling about for a temporal shape for book three. Should the action happen over a week, a month, a year, a lifetime even? This question seems so critical, so much the root of a novel for me, that it precedes even plot. The vague ‘itch’ at the start of a new novel centres on characters and how they might move through time. 'It is never possible,' said E M Forster, 'for a novelist to deny time inside the fabric of his novel.'
My first novel, Homecoming seemed to find its feet when I found the structure of a year on the farm, each section being a new month until the year had come full circle. It gave the novel a shape which felt right. The structural bind – the constraint of returning to the characters every month, or on the same day each year for 20 years, as in One Day by David Nicholls, or the loop of a re-worked life story, as in Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson – is containing for both writer and the reader. It makes me think of swaddling – the way a newborn’s flailing arms are held inside a tight cocoon. The structural bind sets up rhythm – the novel’s heartbeat - and creates boundaries against which the plot can usefully strain.
In fact, some books derive their pleasure from structure. I'm thinking of how much I enjoy 'diary' stories, like Carol Shields's The Stone Diaries or the rhythmic ease of letters, as in Love, Nina, by Nina Stibbe.
I haven’t discovered my structural bind yet, but I took Emily Rhodes’ advice in her books blog, and visited the Virginia Woolf exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, in search of some inspiration. What leapt out at me was a passage about time. Woolf wrote:
'Now is life solid, or very shifting? I am haunted by the two contradictions. This has gone on forever; will last forever; goes down to the bottom of the world - this moment I stand on. Also, it is transitory, flying, diaphanous - perhaps it may be that though we change; one flying after another, so quick, so quick, yet we are somehow successive and continuous - we human beings and show the light through. But what is the light?'
It seems to me to contain so much sadness – the bleak feeling of the depressive that ‘this will go on forever’ which makes mental torment so much harder to bear.
But it also spoke to me of the difficulty of the novel – representing something true about people moving through time.