For those of you who have not read an ‘On Three’ review before: I review books after the 3rd chapter and determine whether I’m going to continue reading or not. Most agents only give a book three chapters (or the first 50 pages) and I find it’s gauge enough to know whether I’m going to enjoy a book or not. Sometimes I’m wrong but hey – what’s life without a little surprise?
The Sin Eater.
For some, history has an uncanny way of drawing you in with seemingly mundane facts that illuminate a world so distanced from ours. Me, I’m some. I bloody love little history blossoms between a thicket of fantasy; so when the opening words are an author’s note saying ‘this isn’t real’ (I’m paraphrasing) and a list of sins and their associated foods, I’m not only intrigued, but inspired. What platter would be laid next to my death bed? Is that too morbid? Who would be the one eating it? What kind of person does this, and gets paid to? I have so many questions, and the narrative hasn’t even started yet!
I was less interested in the family tree, but is a historical fiction really a historical fiction without one?
Also, there’s a mild prologue. I say mild because whilst it builds the word our Protagonist is in, being harsh, and visceral, and real, it is short. The stage is set. The descriptions of the food alone set the scene for the rest of the narrative. This is not a light read. This is not escapism for escapism’s sake. But I enjoy that about it. And then chapter 1 begins.
Each chapter is carefully crafted to balance the microcosm narrative – that of May Owens, our main character – and the wider context of the world outside. Through conversation, we determine era, religion, context, without it feeling heavy-handed or forced. And because our main character is a chatterbox, and we are in her internal dialogue, she guides us through both in equal measure.
May Owens is not wholly good or wholly bad. She has agency, opinions, and personality. I like her. An orphan, a thief, and isolated as a new, young sin eater. No one speaks to her. No one looks at her. And the cruelest part is, all she wants is the company. When her parents die she actively seeks it out. Now she cannot. She doesn’t need your pity. I like her for that too.
Megan Campisi bridges the gap between genre and literary effortlessly, and as we wind through the old streets, activities and understanding of an old world, we’re also embarking on a journey of melancholic self-discovery. I will finish reading this book because the character-driven narrative and interesting world are so rich and well developed, it would be rude not to!
Highly recommend this book, the first three chapters have broken my heart without any promise of mending it!
You know that feeling when you’re half way through a book, and you’re already sick of it but you have to finish it? No? Oh… yeah… erm… me either… I guess. Well, I’m trying to break that habit – which I don’t have – with popular fiction books I’ve not read. Yet.
So I’m trying something different. When submitting to agents, you have to hook them with three chapters. So, I’m going to review the following novel on three chapters – and no more. These reviews are a teaser of what’s yet to come within the narrative, the questions the novel sets before the reader, and whether I would continue to read or not.
And – as so much of my life is – this review will be interrupted and ‘corrected’ by my mum.
The Flatshare, Beth O’Leary.
The Flatshare has a really fresh premise for a love story. Two people, in the same space but never meeting. Communicating by little notes around their shared space. The blurb promised imprisoned brothers, obsessive ex-boyfriends and demanding clients. All tropes for a perfect storm of conflict, and because romance isn’t my go-to genre of favourite reading, this seemed like a new leaf for me and my reading habits.
Mum: “I like it. It’s definitely the sort of book I would take on holiday and will finish within the first few days sat by the pool. I didn’t read the blurb deliberately so that I wasn’t in a position to star second guessing how the story would go.”
But my cynical brain couldn’t turn off when I finally met the main characters.
Tiffany is an assistant editor who puts plants in the way of people she doesn’t want to talk to. She’s got polarised best friends who seem to have all met at university but never lived together; which I’ve got a lot of questions about, but I’ll get to that. She’s also got an ex-boyfriend, who has a sofa she’s been living on for the last few months. Which I’ve also got a lot of questions about, but I’ll get to that.
The other main character is Leon, a monosyllabic night nurse who speaks only to the reader through truncated sentences and with ‘need to know’ information. He has a girlfriend with suitable ‘antagonist’ appeal – but that’s all the information about Leon we get.
Mum: “I struggled with the change of style of writing to reflect Tiff and Leon. I can understand his sentence structure will not be as flowing and romantically created as Tiffs and is maybe trying to reflect the difference between a creative person and one in a medical/scientific environment but his early story was too staccato for me and I was glad to move back to Tiff.”
You’re wrong, mum, but okay. This was my first disappointment. Tiffany feels like a collection of so many romantic heroines that it was nice to have Leon’s thoughts to create some discord from the usual. But of the totalled eleven pages the first three chapters get, Leon only gets two. We get a physical description of Leon from Tiffany, who has the audacity to explain he’s not her type. Come on. We’re reading a Leon is a romance. You can’t pull the wool over my eyes that easily. But, if anything was going to make me read on, it’s Leon’s perspective.
But as we get more of Tiffany – I need to return to her story.
I mentioned questions I had about her living situation:
Why did she and her boyfriend break up? She mentions that he ‘always comes back’ suggesting maybe he plays away or finds her lacking in some way.
Why do romances have to perpetuate the idea we have to stick around for someone who doesn’t appreciate us to ‘make it work’. You might love that person but love yourself enough to know this isn’t healthy. Please.
Mum: “She’s hanging on to her romantic past with a guy who has clearly moved on to his next conquest. She’s being used as a ‘fuck buddy.’”
Please. For the love of all we hold dear, never say Fuck Buddy again in my presence.
Mum: “But she is! He keeps coming back for more!”
I feel sick.
Why does she think it’s okay to live on his sofa for months? Why is she surprised that after months he wants rent money? Why is she surprised that the new girlfriend isn’t happy with the arrangement?
If I was dating someone, and their ex was still living on their sofa – I’d be out of there. Ex’s can be friends but having someone that you were emotionally and physically intimate still in your space is baggage you’ve not dealt with yet. And I’m bringing my own pile of damage- I mean baggage for us to deal with. I don’t need hers. She’s got to go.
Mum: “I’m guessing the split was much more one sided. I’m not surprised her replacement wants her out of the flat.”
What did Tiffany do that ‘disappointed’ Justin (the ex) so much that he wrote her a Facebook message doing a 180 on their creepy little arrangement? And why is that not what Tiffany focuses on, but the fact he says she’s ‘been taking advantage’ of him?
She may well have taken advantage. He may well be emotionally manipulating her, but we’re not given what the behaviour or thing was – so how can we fully back either character? It doesn’t feel like an ‘unreliable narrator’ or ‘untruthful narrator’. It just feels like she’s self-absorbed. Maybe she is.
And at the end of chapter 3, we learn Justin is engaged to this newgirlfriend. Her friends think she’ll handle this so poorly that they get her drunk before telling her. Sounds like a healthy coping mechanism…
So, her friends:
What degree did these people do? That you’ve got an assistant editor and a barrister and a scruff bag on the same course?
I’m assuming the same course because at no point have they lived together. And having been to Uni twice, I met people through three things. Course, societies and living situation. But these friends are so polarised – it doesn’t seem authentic. People don’t have to be dressed in opposites and act opposite to have differing opinions and behaviours.
Friends should have something in common, no? And you can’t tell me Tiffany is their link because they’ve started living together!
Mum: “I like Tiff and her friends. They are stereotypical of the friendships I like to follow. Friends I would like to have in my life although mine know better than to ply me with alcohol.”
Mum: “Her friends care. In a similar vein to Four Weddings and a Funeral kind of way. I feel like I know Tiff early on in the book and I like her.”
How old are Gerty and Mo?
There’s a historical fiction concept called the ‘Tiffany Problem’ that suggests people have set ideas about history and anything that jars with that idea is questioned. So even though the name Tiffany is medieval, if you had King Henry VIII talking to a Tiffany – no one would believe it.
Equally – Gerty and Mo age these characters. Not only do they seem more emotionally mature than Tiffany (prepped to buy their own flat which is ‘eye wateringly expensive’, and don’t think the flat share is a good idea) their names make them sound like they should be in their forties.
Okay – I think I’ve really dug into the characters enough… Sorry O’Leary.
Dialogue though… that’s something I’m struggling with in this novel. I’ll give you an example:
‘We could have put you under the dining table if you were less than 5’9’ – Gerty about Tiffany.
Erm, what? I’ve never met anyone who drops descriptive exposition bombs like that in a conversation before. There are so many ways for someone to be shown as tall that this is just… weird.
Leon’s take on dialogue is interesting because it reads like a transcript of the events. But, as I’ve already said, there isn’t enough Leon to really create a contrast between characters. If I were to take all the dialogue from Tiffany’s chapters and get you to link them to people who say them, unless you know the book really well it would be difficult to separate them. They all get the Tiffany twang and idiosyncrasies given to them, which is understandable. I do a particular voice when I’m repeating dialogue from people I’ve spoken, but she’s rendering the dialogue as it happens so there should be some individuality that breaks through that. And yet it doesn’t.
So: how does the first three chapters leave me?
Do I care that Justin is engaged? Not especially. Good luck to him. Tiffany needs to grow up a bit.
Do I care that Leon is nervous about telling his girlfriend about the flatshare? Not really. It would be more interesting if she’d suggested it, thus creating the wedge between them whilst Leon kept working towards a strong relationship.
But it’s a romance isn’t it? The two main characters are going to get together. Was I tempted to read the last line and found out if I was right? Yeah, actually I was. Because even though I find Tiffany bizarre and unreliable, and the dialogue difficult to chew through, Leon has potential. And I’ve not got to the premise of them actually living together yet. I want to know how that pans out. How their behaviours fall into patterns and how they eventually meet in person. What does Justin do that makes him obsessive because I’ve not seen anything yet? And where’s the imprisoned brother?
Mum: “I’m looking forward to pinching this book to take on holiday so that I can finish it!”
Yeah. Well done O’Leary, we’d both read past three chapters.