The Waterboys and Fred Vargas: say again?

A French detective on the trail of a vampire killer. Two Aussie blokes stealing water from a bunch of fascists. The connect, I hasten to add before tries to have me committed or at least reports me to Archery Australia for drawing a particularly long bow, is between the quote marks.

Yep, dialogue.

the waterboys by peter docker

The Waterboys is Peter Docker’s second novel, and it’s a beauty. The Western Australian writer, who also has the acting string on his bow, has delivered a beautiful depiction of an Australia that never was but might’ve been/should’ve been/might yet be/never could be. It deals with a white bloke who’s in tight with the Countrymen: at their core, indigenous Aussies of Western Australia who forged an amazingly enlightened understanding with English colonists. Part alternate history, part science fiction, part fantasy, the rendering of landscape and spirituality is stunning. You can read a full review of Docker’s dystopian/eutopian vision at ASiF.

One of the elements that really struck me about the book was the dialogue. It’s as sparse as that desert country, but it’s steeped in character and personality. As such, it complements the prose very well indeed. There’s very little information relayed, either, just the bare bones, because the story is not about explanation — it’s about acceptance. What will be, will be, already is, already has been: time is a very different fish to our Western linear or even circular understanding.

For a novellist to convey so much information about story and character through virtual stillness is a hell of a feat.

an uncertain place by fred vargas

Fred Vargas, French crime writer extraordinaire, is at the other end of the scale, to some extent. I read her An Uncertain Place a little while ago because of the presence of vampires in the text — the crime under investigation relates to the generational damage caused by a family feud in the way back when, with an outbreak of ‘vampirism’ and the resulting bloodshed that followed. So, no fangs, but lots of chinwagging.

Vargas is also a practitioner of sparse, in that the contemporary world is barely sketched. Paris? Pshaw. The inspector’s office? Well, there’s a cat on the photocopier, and it’s a very cool cat; it made me smile to read about it.

I didn’t much enjoy the book — it is an English translation from the French but I don’t think that was a factor — for a couple of reasons, primarily the personality of the chief detective — kind of beige, really, and there’s a sacre bleu comment for Vargas fans — and way too many coincidences propping up the investigation.

But two things I did enjoy: one, the way that little pieces of information, in this case mostly historical anecdotes about men eating unlikely things, kept cycling through the text, sometimes with different metaphorical impact. Tasty.

And secondly, and this is where the bow string twangs even if the arrow goes adrift, the boldness of the dialogue, not just in execution but in display. I had to stop reading at one stage and flip back, because I realised that in the space of some three pages of almost pure dialogue, there were barely any dialogue tags. Admittedly, it was a one-on-one conversation, so keeping up wasn’t that big a task, but still … Obviously, Vargas has nailed her characters in their speech, to be able to pull that off.

The upshot of the two works, and the reason for sharing, is that it made me think of all the nodding and gesturing and sighing and godawful stage directions I throw around in my manuscripts to try to keep the identity of the speaker clear.

And then here are these two very different writers, both saying more with less, and saying it with a distinctive voice.

I hear what they’re saying.


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