THE PROMISE SEED: LEARNING FROM CASS MORIARTY

The Promise Seed is the debut novel by Cass Moriarty, whose second novel, Parting Words, was published earlier this year. The Promise Seed shows the benefits of ‘writing what you know’ and, in its strengths, offers lessons to the aspiring writer on:

  • hooking the reader from the very beginning
  • characterisation and voice
  • theme, and
  • making use of the senses in descriptive detail.

Hooking the reader from the very beginning

In my blog post 10 ways to hook your reader from the very beginning I wrote about the various ways of capturing the reader’s interest from the very first sentence or paragraph.

In The Promise Seed, Cass Moriarty uses several of these methods: she creates a sense of suspense, poses a dramatic question, moves the reader, and uses lyrical prose:

The morning my infant sister died, the sharp chill sucked the oxygen from the air and felt like it would strip the skin right off your face. Sparkling icicles hung like crystal daggers from the eaves. One policeman slipped in the dirty slush, leaving bright red drops freezing in the puddle.

It was 1944 and I was six years old.

 Characterisation and voice

In an early passage, one of the two protagonists, an elderly man, observes his neighbour’s son and reminisces about his own life at that age. The passage gives a flavour of the strong voice Moriarty has given him:

I see that kid next door, mooching around on his own, tormenting the bush turkeys and playing games of make-believe with himself, and I find myself thinking he’s lonely. But then I recall my youth, which was quite the opposite – never a moment to yourself, never a possession you didn’t have to share or a dessert that wasn’t fought over… I think to myself, he doesn’t know how lucky he is. Him and all the kids around here. They haven’t got a clue.

Slowly a friendship develops between the man and the young boy, built on the tangibles of a mutual love of chooks, gardening and playing chess, and the intangibles of respect, concern and kindness.

Moriarty braids the first-person narration by the old man with a third-person narration about the boy in alternate chapters. With many flashbacks to his past, the elderly man becomes a complex character, filled with regrets and sorrows. Similarly, the boy is not a passive victim of his troubles with his mother and her boyfriends but shows amazing resilience for his age and an openness to what the older man can teach him.

The novel’s title, The Promise Seed, comes from a coriander seed, which the old man picks up from the garden. He shows it to the boy and says, It’s you, kid. This seed is you, harbouring a life full of promise and future possibilities.

Theme

The Promise Seed explores troubled families and the possibility of not only coping with poor upbringing, but overcoming it. Moriarty has chosen to leave her two protagonists nameless, which enhances the universal meaning of her story. The boy stands for any children growing up in an environment of neglect and abuse, and the old man for any elderly people living alone and in isolation, grappling with their memories.

Moriarty said in an interview that she used to volunteer at a crisis care centre, where she counselled people on to cope with and overcome family dysfunction, family violence and related issues. And this personal experience lends the novel a level of authenticity which pure research would be unlikely to produce. Hence the value of ‘writing what you know’.

Through the developing friendship between the old man and the young boy, Moriarty also tackles the juxtaposition of loyalty and betrayal that all friendships harbour. A particular focus is the growing suspicion about such relationships between adults and children. The Promise Seed suggests that such suspicion jeopardises the potential for innocent friendship and beneficial mentorship of the young by role-modelling older adults.

Making use of the senses in descriptive detail

Moriarty excels at immersing the reader in the physical environment by utilising sensual, specific detail, with an emphasis on sound. These are two example passages from The Promise Seed:

It was quiet down by the creek, quiet enough to hear the shushing of the reeds, the bubbling of water over the stones, the occasional splash of a darting dragonfly. The late-afternoon sun was settling onto the horizon, leaching the sky of light. Pale grey clouds hung suspended like sheets on a giant washing line.

The sounds of early summer filled the air. Black crows cawed and swooped. A lawnmower buzzed in the distance. There was the shrill call of insects, and a hushing as the wind lifted the leaves on the branches and set them down again. The skin on the back of the boy’s neck tingled and burned; his eyes crinkled against the dry breeze. He leapt the fence in a practised jump and heard the chickens’ squawking intensify to welcome him.

The manuscript of The Promise Seed earned Cass Moriarty a shortlisting as Emerging Author in the 2013 Queensland Literary Awards. Published in 2015, The Promise Seed was shortlisted for the People’s Choice Award in the 2016 Queensland Literary Awards and nominated for the 2017 International DUBLIN Literary Award. These awards show that I am not alone in loving The Promise Seed as a well written, great novel.

While I was procrastinating over this blog post – as I do with almost every one of my blog posts – I was drawn to Cass Moriarty’s second novel, Parting Words, which is another wonderful read. Again, Moriarty uses several point-of-view characters and excels at the descriptive detail of place in a story which suggests you never really know the truth about the people closest to you.

If you are serious about your writing, consider enrolling in my Fiction Writing course as part of Camp Creative from 8-12 January 2018 in Bellingen. One week of intensive training in the craft of writing with many writing exercises will set you on your path! The feedback from participants in this year’s course was emphatically positive.

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