Personal Response: Thursday’s Child by Sonya Hartnett

I’ve read the first chapter or two. Immediately I recognise that a book like this is the absolute antithesis of Ernest Hemmingway’s work. Like a hard-nosed Puritan, Hemmingway set out to strip all frivolous animation and fun and phantasms from writing, and to present simple, direct, stark naked descriptions. Obviously the previous sentence does not share Hemmingway’s style, and neither does Hartnett. Why speak of something in 10 words when one can weave a wonderful image in 20, 50, or 200? Why indeed…

Consider the section in the first chapter where Hartnett presents:
“ ‘Look Tin’, I said again, this time making my voice full of wonder and amazement which he surely could not resist, same as a cat can’t resist investigating when you suggest there’s something hidden she might like to see. If it works on a cat, it should work on a four-year old, but it didn’t (p7-8).”

Hemmingway would have seen red (sorry Ernest!), tossed his cookies (sorry!) and turned in his grave (SORRY!) to suffer such figurative play: Hemmingway would have stated the first five words only, and have forcefully excised the rest from the draft. He would certainly have done away the parts where a creature that is not even there is described, and where an action has no place or effect (in that “it didn’t”) is entertained. Yet for other styles, writers and audiences, the imagery of a voice “full of wonder and amazement” is clearly discernible; the extension of circumspection with respect to another character of something “he surely could not resist” is engaging and convincing; the imaginative analogy for a cat’s behaviour is insightful; and ultimately the figurative comparison does in fact work (even if the narrative event does not). Describing a non-event poetically thus achieves an intelligent and beautiful image for the reader, even if Hemmingway could observe that the narrative events suffer a whole lot of words that prove to miss the mark and bear no fruit (SORRY!!!).

By comparison, the following plot event in which “That tiny fish I had in my hand went slithering into the water (p.8)” presents no further detail or poetic description to capture the horror of the moment. As such, it is a phrase of which Hemmingway would be proud. Yet the purpose of such a failure of poetic prose is to emphasise the moment – the lack of detail by contrast to the style of preceding passages achieves a strong linguistic climax. Hemmingway might argue that every sentence should enjoy such a climax, as bereft of the writer’s confabulations the reader has the chance to crystallise the image for themselves. The other school of thought is that the writer’s poetic efforts serve the reader to achieve visions they otherwise might not enjoy. Both forms of poetic verse clearly have their place; for this novel Hartnett enjoys the skill to extend the latter style.

Having consumed the first 50 pages, I make connection with two other important historical literary works. Both have to do with mud and war, and both present the style that Hartnett appreciates. The first is Sebastian Faulk’s Birdsong. There is a particular chapter in this heavy tome that is set in France during WW1 – it is a masterpiece of poetic prose in which the charnel-house, despair and utter exhaustion of the trenches is depicted with extraordinary power. [If only I could find my former notes and studies for this text… But I can’t!] The second is Fly Away Peter by David Malouf. Malouf proves in his descriptions of the trenches a master of poetic verse. I assure you: Hartnett will have read both these texts and taken a dozen leaves out of each. Come and see…

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