Moonlit Landscape With Bridge by Zadie Smith, 2014
The magic trick:
Dropping in a small detail about the protagonist’s past that piques the reader’s interest about the character
I have an oddly vivid memory of my dad complaining about a new Whitney Houston song on the radio when I was a kid. He said, “She has a wonderful voice but her producers give her terrible material to work with.” I’m not sure I agree with that assessment, and I certainly can’t imagine why it made enough of an impression on me that I remember that among the millions of moments of my childhood all these years later, but memory is a funny thing.
Anyway, I’m reminded of my dad’s comment this week as I roll through Zadie Smith stories on the SSMT site. She is a wonderful, wonderful writer, but I just don’t know if she always has the best material. She is a novelist, first and foremost, so any consideration of her work from solely a short story standpoint is faulty. I’ll continue along these lines nonetheless.
“Moonlit Landscape” is exquisitely written. The scenes are vivid. The action moves along quickly. Not one sentence feels forced or extraneous. But at the same time, I finished it with the same feeling I had at the end of “Escape From New York” – shrug. She works so hard to keep plot details vague that I think I may have eventually forgotten to care. What country is this? What kind of storm happened? What kind of things did this minister character have to do to assume power? Am I still reading this story? What am I having for dinner?
At a certain point, a little backstory might be nice!
The one nugget that did connect for me comes early in the story. We learn, very casually and very quickly, that the minister years ago had a sexual tryst with a member of his house staff when he was “bored” by his wife’s pregnancy. This kind of detail sheds so much light on a man and his life and his motivations.
It had me very interested to see where the story went. Unfortunately, I wasn’t as interested in results. But regardless, it’s a great way to pique the reader’s interest early in a story. And that’s quite a trick on Smith’s part.
“God is powerful,” she said, and bowed her head. Then: “God sent this wind.”
The Minister sighed but did not correct her. They were from the same village originally, distant cousins—she had a great-uncle with his mother’s surname. He appreciated her simplicity. She had done much for his children over the years, and for him, always with this same pious sincerity, which was, to the Minister, as much a memento of his village as the woven reed baskets and brightly colored shawls of his childhood. But why bend so deeply, as if she were the only one suffering?
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