THE RESTORER: LEARNING FROM MICHAEL SALA
It’s been a long time between posts. No, I was not sick, I read as many novels as usual, but I encountered a drought, a drought of good books. Perhaps it was a consequence of reading overseas authors, perhaps of editing someone else’s book, which made me hyper-alert to instances of poor writing. Most books I read showed how not to write rather than how to write. Finally, The Restorer, Michael Sala’s second novel, broke this drought.
Reading The Restorer can teach you how to write well in several respects:
- Theme as a unifying focus aided by symbols and metaphor
- Framing a novel
- Foreshadowing as a means of creating suspense and tension
- Writing a teenage point of view character
- Using place and time to heighten atmosphere and tension
Theme as a unifying focus aided by symbols and metaphor
Thousands of women live in terror of their male partners. Most of the violence perpetrated against them occurs in private, behind closed doors. And for a very long time, the public, the police and the legal system did nothing to help such women, precisely because what happened at home was considered private. Over the last few decades, public and police attitudes have changed, and legal instruments such as apprehended violence orders were introduced as a means of protection for women. But despite many campaigns, women continue to be abused and killed by partners and ex-partners. And often people, including journalists, ask the question, Why do these women not simply leave?
Domestic violence expands to family violence whenever children are exposed to it, regardless of whether the violence is perpetrated on them as well or whether they are ‘merely’ observers, witnesses to what is being done to their mother.
As was his first autobiographical novel, The Last Thread, Michael Sala’s second, The Restorer, is a good example of the potential for fiction to be superior to non-fiction journalistic accounts in raising awareness of a socio-political issue such as family violence, as a result of Sala creating empathy in his readers for characters exposed to such violence and delving into the complex reasons behind the decisions of women to stay.
Maryanne has only recently given in to Roy’s charms and taken her children 14-year-old Freya and 8-year-old Daniel for a new beginning in Newcastle with him, where he has bought a terrace house he wants to restore while they live in it. Both the state of the house and the old mining tunnels running beneath all the houses in the area as well as the seascape of Newcastle with its crashing waves serve as symbolic metaphors for the fragile state of the marriage.
Throughout the novel, Sala keeps a tight focus on his subject of family violence, which he explores through the use of very close third-person points of view of Maryanne and daughter Freya. This is a crucial choice by the author, because it embeds the reader inside the family, living through and experiencing every mood swing as it occurs.
But rather than showing the reader actual violence, which would arguably trivialise and exploit it for the reader’s ‘entertainment’, with regard to past such incidents Sala uses Maryanne’s memories and conversations with her mother. Otherwise he focuses on showing the ever-present threat of violence as a result of Roy’s bristling and brooding, sudden flares of temper, and slammed doors. Sala grew up with such father figures and told Linda Morris that “When you live in a violent household the violence itself might be sporadic but the presence of its potential is constant. It’s an intense way to live.” This personal experience lends his narrative a strong sense of both authenticity and sensitivity and may well be the reason for his depiction of his theme being so powerful.
Framing a novel
While most of the story emerges from the points of view of Maryanne and her teenage daughter Freya, Sala uses the ingenious strategy to utilise the point of view of Richard, the family’s neighbour, in the first and final chapters, entitled ‘Before’ and ‘After’ respectively.
In the ‘Before’ chapter, this allows Sala to use Richard as an objective witness to the family’s arrival at their new residence in East Newcastle. Since Richard does not know the family at this point and Sala describes what Richard sees and hears, the opening unfolds like a movie, a powerful means of showing the individual family members and the way they interact with one another as well as with a stranger, their neighbour Richard.
In the ‘After’ chapter, using Richard’s point of view allows Sala to give readers what they want – the answer to their question What happened next? – by drawing on Richard’s emotions to the events in the novel and their aftermath one year later (rather than in an objective manner) and thereby following the way in which he has written the novel – in close third person points of view – to the end.
Foreshadowing as a means of creating suspense and tension
It is a strange psychological phenomenon that human beings, when they witness a tragic event in their normal lives, will hope for a positive outcome even when it’s perfectly obvious that this is at best unlikely. Similarly, readers, even when they are told early on that something dreadful is going to happen, will hope for a positive outcome against all odds.
In the ‘Before’ chapter, Richard reflects as follows about the family’s arrival: There was something about them, the way there were standing, that Richard would remember later, in the gloom of an early morning, with the jostle of neighbours and the blue and red lights washing across everything. But for now there was no one to see but him.
The passage foreshadows the climax of the events to be depicted, and yet, this foreshadowing manages to create tension and suspense in the reader, which lasts throughout the novel, whether there’ll be a positive outcome for the family members against all odds.
Writing a teenage point of view character
Freya, the 14-year-old teenager from whose point of view the reader experiences the events in the novel, strikes me as possibly the most authentically drawn teenage character of that age I have encountered in fiction. Reading The Restorer gives you a good idea of how to draw such a character – without copying, of course.
As most of us know through personal experience, this teenage period with its insecurities, feelings of alienation and search for personal identity is one of the most difficult and dark times we ever go through. In Freya’s case, these difficulties are heightened as a result of the family tension at home and having to live in an unfamiliar city and to go to a new school, where she doesn’t know anybody.
Freya makes quite a few dangerous decisions in that time, which is another factor which heightens the tension throughout this novel. Some readers may want to shout at her, Don’t do it; those who are parents to a teenage girl may well sleep poorly after reading this novel…
Using place and time to heighten atmosphere and tension
The location and time in which a writer chooses to set their story can create and heighten atmosphere and tension. Even though The Restorer feels contemporary, Sala’s setting is Newcastle in the year 1989. That year had two momentous events for the city: the Newcastle earthquake and the murder of 14-year-old Leigh Leigh at Stockton Beach.
The physical geography of Newcastle, especially its beaches and cliffs, and those two events play a strong role in the events depicted in the novel to heighten both atmosphere and tension, endangering some of the family members.
Regardless of whether you are a writer or ‘merely’ a reader, Michael Sala’s novel The Restorer will keep you reading late into the night.