All in the mind

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In the days before my parents caved and got us a telly (1986 World Cup, thank you), most of my time was spent reading. Worlds lodged inside, their images taking residence.

Like films, they had an atmosphere, a time. Characters were real. I read to get out of the endless now of childhood, I read to stay right there. Without knowing that years later I’d come across the same writer of quite different feasts, I borrowed a book from the library called ‘The Perfect Hamburger’.

So excited by its flavour, I would leaf through it while eating cheese on toast. I read and re-read it because its words took me to the taste of the burger. Nowadays ebooks come with their own soundtracks, publishers have caught on that stories can meld with reality.

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My brother and I were fascinated by our new TV, lining up sitcom then soap opera, the Radio Times our glossy accomplice. But after a while the canned laughter became routine. We had not yet learnt the art of selection.

There is nothing like a great drama, stylishly written. TV entertains in its own league. But the experience of reading and watching television are poles apart.

I’ve been thinking about how in novels, words stop being words and become a world. Nordic noir, Wolf Winter may contain the answer.

A wolf winter

‘Frederika poked at her knees. They were white and lumpy, bitten by grit.’

Description is hard to get right. Too much and the reader has little space to create a picture. Not enough and the story becomes suspended without scenery. If the writer succeeds in stretching out a hand with an image, the reader can take it and run. Wolf Winter soars in its imagery.

Here are three ways I think the writer achieves this:

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Being selective:

Cecilia Ekbäck uses three words to say a lot, ‘bitten by grit’ describes the look of the knee but also how it feels to the child, inside and out.

Verbs carry the imagery:
In British schools, children are taught to use adjectives and adverbs to describe. But these can overload the reader. In much of Wolf Winter, images are carried in the verbs.

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She breaks ‘rules’:
On her website Cecilia Ekbäck says:
‘I quite like writing in something other than my mother tongue – I don’t have perhaps as big a reverence for the language, which gives me a certain etymological freedom.’

It could be about about shrugging off some of the shackles of syntax, using metaphors which feel right. Purists might disagree. They have other novels to fry.

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Ekbäck’s story is tense with plot and tender with character. The rest is just the faintest sketch of colour, painted with the deft hand of a writer, waiting for her readers to fill in the rest.

Which books have drawn you in with their description? Have any images from children’s stories stayed with you? I’d love to hear about it. Please do comment below 🙂

Thank you to Memphis CVB for the cheese on toast photo and nivekhmng for the writer photo and Ashok Saravanan .Ay for Children’s Day photo: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

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