Strangely enough, although I attended a grammar school, we were only taught the most basic English grammar. It was obviously the educational vogue at the time, because I only knew there were ouns and verbs, for a long time got adjectives and adverbs in a muddle and I’m not sure I knew there were prepositions. I got pronouns for some reason. This made learning Latin more difficult for me – or should I say even more difficult, because I missed most of the first rem of learning it because I had glandular fever, and absolutely no clue what nominative, vocative, accusative etc. meant, and as for ablative absolute I still don’t know.
I love language and playing with it and writing in different ways, and my love of reading is virtually an addiction, and I read every sort of thing imaginable and feel quite bereft if I have no words nearby to cast my eye over. I was the kid that read the cereal packets and the tomato sauce labels! I confess, I do sometimes read some quite rubbishy books, but often see something of value – great mystery, interesting characters, realistic dialogue etc, but I also have irrational dislikes too. This makes it sometimes hard to defend my opinions of a book in book club as they are actually without any foundation except a personal prejudice. I really don’t like the use of the present tense in stories and it seems to be the fashion now that so many are told in that way. I’m in good company though, Philip Pullman hates it too. It supposedly makes writing more vivid, well, not for me it doesn’t and apparently Philip ‘has branded the preponderance of this mode of storytelling as a ‘silly affectation’.’
Going back to my mention of my lack of grammatical knowledge, I only learned yesterday that this way of writing is called the present historic tense. Wikipedia says ‘In linguistics and rhetoric, the historical present or historic present, also called dramatic present or narrative present, is the employment of the present tense when narrating past events.’ Occasionally though, I do find a book written in this way which I enjoy – ‘The Hunger Games’, for example and a book I have just finished by the exceptionally talented Cecilia Ekbäck, ‘In the Month of the Midnight Sun’. It’s quite an extraordinary book, set in the far north of Sweden in 1856. It’s told through three narrators, Magnus, his young sister-in-law, Lovisa and a Sami woman, Biija. It concerns the dreadful murder of three people in a remote village, apparently killed by a Sami man. It is a mystery, but the roots of the story go back into the childhoods of the villagers.
This book works brilliantly in the first present tense – the present historic, it really couldn’t be any other way. It brings immediacy and tension, it’s as if the three different but connected characters are telling us what’s happening, whispering into our ear. The idea of using the present tense was significant to Cecilia, she writes: For the eighteen months I worked on it, it felt like wading through water. I couldn’t seem to map the story out; even three quarters through the book, I had no idea how it would end. I took a break in writing the summer of 2015 and when I returned it felt impossible to pick up the manuscript again. I had to regain access to the story – revitalise it for myself somehow – and thus I changed the tense to present and the writing to first person.
It truly is an amazing book, and I so appreciate Cecilia explaining her writing processes.