The Family Tree rant

early warningThis is a rant about books – usually family sagas – in which the relationships between characters cannot be understood without reference to comprehensive family trees. These tables or lists of characters are usually found near the front of the book, but occasionally (and perversely) are only discovered right at the back, by which time you have worked yourself up into quite a frothy.

Not a fan.

And don’t judge me until you have read all three of Pulitzer prize-winning author Jane Smiley’s latest trilogy on the Langdon family: Some Luck; Early Warning and Golden Age. Using the fictional and fascinating  Langdon family to walk us through a century of American history, Smiley tests my family tree tolerance to its very limits.

The Lord of the RingsResearch indicates that 9 important characters per novel is about all most of us can tolerate. Yet Tolkien created a whopping 923 characters in The Lord of The Rings series, and readers have been very forgiving. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, on the other hand, has copped a fair bit of criticism for a character list that stretches to 80 plus 2 accompanying family trees. Smiley’s Langdons – a reasonably fertile lot, grow from a cast of 45 in Just Luck, to 72 in Early Warning and a 105 by the final book Golden Age. I’ve no complaint with Smiley’s writing, it is brilliant, so what exactly is my problem?

  • I find it tiresome to have to flick back to the family tree whenever a new character is mentioned. A mere 30 or so pages from the end of Early Warning a new character, previously unmentioned, was not clarified in the text which meant that even at that late stage in my reading, I was still at the mercy of the family tree.
  • Vital characters – like best friends, crucial business colleagues, lovers, illegitimate children and live-in partners don’t make the family tree cut, necessitating paging back to reread bits of the book to remember who’s who.
  • I harbour a suspicion that good writing should not need to use devices like this, and would instead be able to make clear the relationships within the text of the story.

Wolf HallYet I read, with relish, all three of the books in this Smiley’s most recent trilogy – and have ended up knowing more about the Langdon’s than I do about my own family. And what fascinating, likeable, human characters the Langdons are, and how well Smiley plucks at the lute strings of family ties.

Jane Smiley is presenting at Auckland Writers Festival this year, and is in Christchurch on Monday 9 May thanks to WORD Christchurch. Maybe fortune will smile, and I will get stuck in a lift with her. Do you have any literary questions that you would like me to ask this great author, for I fear that left to my own devices I will just break down and sob:

Why? Why? Why?

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