In this assignment I am to choose a piece of text by a contemporary author that explores time and/or place. I am then to carry out a close reading of it and write about my response, interpretation and feelings about the writing and its themes. I am also to mention: plot, structure, character, narrator, point of view, language and language techniques, as well as possible themes of time and place. (Word limit – 1500)
The Toymakers by Robert Dinsdale. Chapter 1 Page 1
The Emporium opens with the first frost of winter. It is the same every year. Across the city, when children wake to see ferns of white stretched across their windows, or walk to school to hear ice crackling underfoot, the whispers begin: the Emporium is open! Christmas is coming, and the goose is getting fat … If, at a certain hour on a certain winter night, you too had been wandering the warren between New Bond Street and Avery Row, you might have seen it for yourself. One moment there would be darkness, only the silence of shops shuttered up and closed for business. The next, the rippling snowflakes would part to reveal a mews you had not noticed before–and, along that mews, a storefront garlanded in lights. Those lights might be but pinpricks of white, no different to the snowflakes, but still they would draw your eye. Lights like these captivate and refract the darkness. Lights like these can bewitch the most cynical of souls. Watch out, because here one such soul comes, hurrying out of the night. He is a barrel of a man, portly to those who would look on him kindly, corpulent to those who would not. Outside the Emporium, he stops and gazes up, but this is not the first time he has been enchanted by these lights, so he steps through the door to be met by the whirlwind smells of cinnamon and star anise. Ribbons of navy blue stream apart and, in the vaulted ceiling above, miniature bells tinkle, spiriting up memories he has tried hard to forget: sleigh rides through parks too painful to remember, wassailing on the village green, Christmases in better, more innocent times. (Words 280)
This was an easy extract to choose for this exercise. I read a lot so am accustomed to good writing, even so, on reading this first page of ‘The Toymakers’ I was immediately entranced. I recall at the time actually noting how remarkably swiftly the author had constructed a sense of time and place. Months later on reaching this exercise in the course manual, I knew exactly which book to use.
The extract is longer than the instructions in the assignment, it proved to be awkward to edit down. The initial lines are essential to setting the season and atmosphere, the last few lines provide more depth to the character and situation, because of this I chose to keep both end of it and just use a longer extract.
The first theme which I notice in this extract is ‘Time’. The reader is immediately made aware that the narrative is set in a previous era, this is made clear in a variety of ways. The very first words of the extract, ‘The Emporium’, conjure up images of antiquity and discovery. Language choice as the passage continues, for example ‘first frost of Winter’, further this themes establishment. Word choices such as ‘mews’ ’emporium’ ‘garlanded’ and ‘corpulent’ are not in such common use anymore. They speak of an older era, possibly Victorian, it brings to mind the kind of architecture that is traditionally on the front of Christmas cards. It took me a while to figure out what Dinsdale had done with his approach to the language used. It didn’t seem to be old English, but at the same time, it is not as casual as the wording in contemporary novels. I eventually realised that he had just chosen to use correct English without any shortenings. For example, ‘It is the same every year’ vs ‘It’s the same every year’. This technique gives the whole text a flavour of coming from a different era but without alienating the modern reader. References to traditional Christmas elements such as the fattening of the goose, and ‘wassailing on the village green’ which are no longer mainstream all conspire to whisk the reader back to a world we quite often only see depicted on the front of Christmas cards.
Much like in the excerpt of The Road there is a man character who provides our focal point without actually being introduced to us or saying anything. The sense of ‘Time’ is so strong in this extract that by the time the character is introduced he comes automatically clothed (for me) in a long coat and a top hat. Possibly even clutching a walking cane he strides onto the scene so clearly that I can see it as if it were the opening shot of a film. Dressed as he is as in something you would expect from the Edwardian/Victorian era, this brings me to the second strong theme in this extract, ‘Place’.
We are given a location, ‘the warren between New Bond Street and Avery Row’, which to most readers will say ‘London’. A maze of streets, dark, full of swirling snow, this is an easy thing to ask a reader to picture. We can already imagine walking through the snow having been primed by the authors previous mention of ‘ice crackling underfoot’. As we, with the character described, see the lights garlanding our destination we are even told how they make us feel, how they draw us in. This is a clever use of language to manipulate the readers engagement and something which it took me quite a few read-throughs to notice. The lights are mentioned four times within four consecutive sentences. this intentional repetition reinforces the visualisation.
The third theme which I noticed is ‘Emotion’. At the start of the extract the author begins to remind us of the excitement that is felt in the run-up to Christmas. Most people have happy recollections of Christmas no-matter what their individual variation of it actually looks like. By staying traditional and generic with his use of festive references Dinsdale allows every reader to interpret these emotional triggers with their own details. When I was small we never had a goose, and my parents routinely chose the more practical approach of cooking a mass of legs and breasts as opposed to a whole bird. Despite this the mere mention or sight of a goose roast dinner sends my inner child giddy at the prospect of Christmas and all it’s associated fun. All these early references are designed to trigger positive emotions. On sighting The Emporium with its garlands of light we are instructed on how to react, we are told that we are ‘captivated’, ‘bewitched’ and ‘drawn in’. Fairy lights are another traditionally cheerful festive association, town centres even hold events when the lights are officially switched on! It is at this point that Dinsdale introduces the contrast of the character and his emotions. Whereas the goose being described as getting fat was a positive association, the nameless man is described alternately as ‘a barrel’, ‘portly’ and ‘corpulent’. These are more negative word choices which lead into the direct contrast between the positive sights and smells of the Emporiums interior vs the negative Christmas memories that they trigger within the man.
Writing in the second person allows the narrative to further envelop the reader, it feels as though we are in the scene itself alongside the character. I think it is this factor which makes the scene so vivid for me personally. I feel like I could storyboard the beginning of this as a film quite easily. More generically the use of a second person narration allows the reader to focus on the sense of place being generated by the text, senses are stimulated through triggered memories. When these are positive memories there will be increased external buy-in. This in turn allows greater engagment when the character is introduced.
The juxtaposition of the positive Christmas atmosphere that Dinsdale has created with someone who seems to have negative attitudes towards it is designed to intrigue, what has happened to this character that he can not only withstand the positive triggers which we the reader are subjected too, but further, can give them a negative overtone? Although in such a short extract there can be no real sense of the plot of the story, the building structure of the opening has already given the reader something to discover, the reason for the mans negativity and hopefully, the pathway to his recovery.
I find Dinsdales writing, specifically the way he can create such immersive scenes, utterly enchanting. The themes are explored alongside the plot allowing the reader to pay as much attention to them as they choose. When I initially read this book I was concentrating purely on the plot line, but having completed this Part 2 of the Creative Arts Today module, and having learnt so much about particularly The Heroes Journey and poetic devices, I will certainly be reading it again soon!
Word count: 1,137
Dinsdale,R. Published 08 Feb 2018. The Toymakers. Penguin Books. United Kingdom.
To conclude I am to write a commentary of about 500 words, drawn from my learning log and notes, reflecting on what I have learned in this part of the course and how I have put this into practice in my assignment piece.
The main thing that I have taken from this part of the module has been a greater awareness of poetic devices. I had always just assumed that poetic devices were restricted to poems themselves, now that various exercises have pointed out to me quite how obviously they are used in a variety of applications I am surprised that I have never noticed them before!
I was also intrigued to learn about how many different sort of poetic device there are and how they are key to constructing a good narrative within a novel. Since working through this module I have become more aware of what I am reading and how it has been constructed, this in turn has heightened my enjoyment of the text because now I can identify why I am finding it so immersive. Using this knowledge I was able to return to the extract of text and find a new level of appreciation for the skill with which it has been put together.
I was also surprised at how poetic some extracts of novels are when taken in isolation. I’ve never particularly liked poems, I’ve always thought of them as pointless, following this section of the module this is an opinion which I will have to re-visit.
A skill which I have learnt from this module is that of analysis or close reading. Trying to spot the different poetic devices felt like quite an enjoyable game and I’ve found myself looking for them in other items that I have been reading. It’s assisted me in identifying why I find some authors good and others not to my taste. Having learnt to carry out close reading I spent some time studying the extract properly and highlighting all the uses of poetic device that I could identify. I used the same technique to pick out where the different themes were introduced and incorporated.
When I’d successfully identified them I was able to establish a hierarchy and look for what I believe the author wanted to make most prominent. The themes of time and place were most prominent which would fit with the start of a novel. The most important thing is to establish a scene for a reader and immerse them within it before introducing the action.
I also found it interesting how much an author can say about a character without the reader knowing basic information such as a name or having witnessed any conversation. The extract from ‘The Road’ in Project 4 introduces the reader to a man and boy and through narrative device ensures that the reader forms impressions about them whilst knowing very little. This is another thing that I had never noticed before but will certainly learn from and use in my own work.