In this Bombay-set opening scene, the first few pages seem to have only tangential relevance to the main characters. See what you think.
Title: Growing Apart
Genre: Cross genre
Language: British English
Synopsis: In Bombay, India in 1936, Englishman Rupert Chilcott has a clandestine affair with a vivacious Anglo-Indian girl. She gives birth to twin boys but dies in childbirth. One is adopted in India, the other is raised in England. The story follows both until they meet unexpectedly in extraordinary, dramatic circumstances.
PART ONE – OCTOBER 1936, BOMBAY, INDIA
Arranged marriages are supposed to be the norm in India, not in bloody England!
Rupert Chilcott dabbed his brow, folded his handkerchief and stuffed it back into his pocket. He had been in British India long enough to know that it could be hot even in winter. Not that Bombay ever enjoyed a winter of any kind. On that October day in nineteen thirty-six, Rupert was feeling a bit too warm for comfort. The air felt stiflingly heavy.
There was no simple answer to the question he had been asked. He leaned forward to stub out his cigarette, grinding it firmly into the glass ashtray.
‘To be honest, Bob, I’ve no idea how I’m going to tell Patsy.’ Elbows on the table, he cradled his head, staring into his beer glass. For him, this was something new. At twenty-nine, tall and good looking, he was blessed with a quick wit and easy manner that had served to give him a reputation for being attractive to women. He enjoyed their company and the occasional casual affair, with no regrets or complications. This time it was different.
‘What’s the problem? You can leave it until you get back. Much easier if the deed’s already done.’ Bob Saunders seemed to have missed the point.
Rupert had been looking forward to his biennial vacation from his job as a senior District Commissioner in the ICS, the Indian Civil Service. He would be away for twelve weeks and was due to depart in three days’ time. But the airmail letter from his mother had changed the situation completely. He felt drained and unable to think straight.
‘You’re saying I should go ahead with it? I don’t want to be forced into marriage. I really don’t think I’m ready for it yet.’
‘What exactly did she say?’
‘Bottom line? She’s been diagnosed with a terminal disease and hasn’t much time left. She’s making arrangements for me to marry Fiona as soon as possible. Bluntly, she wants a grandchild.’
‘Ah!’ Bob inclined his head. ‘I take it she knows nothing about Patsy?’
‘Are you joking? Of course not. I’ve never mentioned her to anyone in England, let alone the family.’
Bob leaned back and spread his hands. ‘So why say anything to Patsy? You don’t need to. You can marry Fiona, come back and pick up with Patsy again.’
They were seated on the shady veranda of the Strand Prakash, a modest hotel in the business centre of Bombay. Rupert needed his handkerchief again. He took it out, shook it and wiped his brow. The late morning sun was drawing beads of perspiration from his forehead. Or maybe his dilemma had something to do with it. The day was warm but tolerable, not unbearable as it had been earlier in the year, before the monsoon broke. He sighed, wondering how he was going to get out of this mess. Something that he could not talk about with anyone. Except Bob. Life was good in Bombay with Patsy and he didn’t want to be pushed into marrying Fiona. Why can’t things stay just the way they are?
The ceiling fan directly above spun lazily, swishing but scarcely moving the sultry air. Across the metal table Bob raised his glass and drained it.
He pointed at Rupert’s. ‘Another?’
‘Uh, no. I’m ahead of you; started before you got here.’ Rupert’s cigarette case was on the table between them. He reached for it. ‘I’ll have a lime juice.’
Bob turned and signalled the white-suited waiter who was leaning against a pillar in a shady corner. As the man came over, Rupert offered his friend a cigarette.
‘Ake beer aur ake nimboo ka pani,’ Bob said to the waiter.
The man rolled his head in the way that Indians displayed assent. ‘Ha, sahib.’ He glided away.
Rupert lit their cigarettes and sat back. He looked at his old friend. Self-assured, always in control, Bob Saunders carried the air of one accustomed to having the best things in life. Only to be expected of a member of the well-to-do family that owned a tea plantation.
Rupert grimaced. ‘What a mess. You really think I should go ahead with the wedding?’
‘It’s up to you. Depends on how much you want to marry Fiona. Or not. Do you love her?’
Rupert hesitated. Did he? Maybe, in some ways. But marriage? ‘We’ve been friends since we were kids. She’s my girl friend, always has been.’
‘None of my business, old chap, but it seems to me that if you did love her, you’d know it.’ Bob flicked ash off his cigarette. ‘I’d say the big problem is your mother’s illness. You must be worried.’
‘Yeah, a bit. I was thinking of booking a call but I’m not sure it’s as bad as she says.’
Bob’s frowned. ‘You think she’s using it to force your hand?’
‘Hell, I don’t know. She’s a strong woman and she and Fiona are close. My next leave won’t be for another two years and maybe they think that’s too long to wait. And if there’s going to be a war with Germany as my father thinks, it could be longer.’
‘Huh! That’s not going to happen.’
‘I hope you’re right, but he’s been in Parliament a long time.’
Bob picked up his glass and paused for a moment. ‘Why don’t you just stay in England? Don’t worry about Patsy, she’s young. She’ll get over it.’
‘I’ve thought about not coming back. But that’s not what I want right now. I’d have to give up my job, for a start.’
‘Could be a way out. Especially if you decide to go ahead with the wedding. And you could go back to the London office, surely?’ Bob put his glass down carefully. He added, apparently as an afterthought, ‘Does Patsy know about Fiona?’
‘No, of course not. I’ve never mentioned her, no reason to.’
You mentioned in your author notes that this is your fifth book, and the others before this were edited. I wonder what kind of editing they received, because I’d be prepared to bet that they received proofreading or copyediting type editing (the type that picks up typos and missing words, poor sentence construction, sloppy punctuation etc.) rather than any kind of developmental or structural editing. The reason I say this? Because the writing is of an excellent technical quality, in that I’m struggling to see anything I’d change in the objective sense (technically you don’t need a new paragraph after the first line, but that’s about it). However, there are a couple of fundamental issues to do with the style of the writing that I think an editor who looked at your work from a more holistic perspective might have mentioned to you.
The first issue is starting your story in the right place. From your synopsis, the story is about twin boys, separated at birth, who lead different lives until they “meet unexpectedly in extraordinary, dramatic circumstances”. So why are we starting the story before they’ve been born? Why are we in a bar with their father confessing his relationship confusions to one of his mates? If the story is really about the boys, why should we be that interested in the father, apart from in a supporting character role? Is the book about the father? Who faces the challenges in the story: poor Rupert, who has to decide which of the two women he’s been lying to gets the dubious comfort of looking after him for the rest of his life, or the two boys in the synopsis? You wouldn’t normally start the story of a character before they’ve been born.
The second issue is one of general “wordiness” and lack of immersion. You say in the Part heading “OCTOBER 1936, BOMBAY, INDIA”, so it’s not at all necessary to say in the text “On that October day in nineteen thirty-six”. These are wasted words, and if you’ve read any of the previous critiques on this site, you’ll know that wasted words anywhere in a novel, but particularly in the opening few pages, are a critical problem. It’s not an isolated incident, unfortunately.
You perfectly adequately describe Rupert’s discomfort at the heat in the second line, where he’s dabbing at his brow. But you then go on to say he’d “been in British India long enough to know that it could be hot even in winter”, that Rupert was “feeling a bit too warm for comfort” and that the “air felt stiflingly heavy”. I think you’re doing the “heat” thing to death here – it ceases to become interesting after the first mention. Much more interesting is later on in the scene where you mention that it might not be a reaction to the heat alone that’s causing Rupert to sweat. This tells us a lot more about Rupert’s state of mind than all the other stuff about the seasonal temperature of Bombay.
All of the passage from “At twenty-nine, tall and good looking …” to “This time it was different” is exposition. It’s not told from the perspective of any character, just an omniscient narrator who is telling us about Rupert. It’s fine, but it’s uninvolving. You’re telling us that Rupert is tall and good-looking and very attractive to women, but we’re not finding that out for ourselves or, indeed, seeing anyone else’s corroboration that this is indeed true. Perhaps Rupert thinks he’s good-looking and hugely attractive to women, but actually they think he’s a bit of a vain sex-pest? Show us how Rupert is good-looking. Have other female characters falling over themselves to sit at his table, or try and get him to buy them a drink, or whatever courtship rituals existed in the era.
Another paragraph of pure exposition: “Rupert had been looking forward …” to “… unable to think straight”. You’re essentially telling us a story in shorthand here. There’s a succession of factual points that could almost be presented in a bullet point presentation: Rupert has a holiday every two years. He’d been looking forward to it. He worked as a senior District Commissioner in the ICS, the Indian Civil Service. He would have been gone for twelve weeks, and would have been off in three days time, but something has come up that’s wrecked all his plans. Okay, that’s great, but there’s zero emotion in this paragraph. There’s no sense of what Rupert is feeling about all this, no sense of his friend’s struggle to give him any helpful advice. Why don’t the pair of them discuss this—have it revealed in their conversation rather than all these bland statements?
All of which comes back to editing. Editors are not there just to correct typos—they should be there to help your writing be much better, more immersive, more interesting, more engaging, more thrilling. Any editor worth his or her salt should have pointed out these issues in your writing style before and I wonder why they didn’t? It might have been that you didn’t commission that kind of editing. Perhaps that particular editor didn’t see this kind of issue as problematic. Perhaps you did, and they did, but you ignored their advice? I don’t know the answer without knowing you better as an author, but in my book, these problems change what could be quite an interesting novel about two twins and their disparate stories until they finally find each other, into a completely different and rather bland story about a man with a rather confused love-life.
What to do about it? You could just carry on as you are. There are plenty of books written in this kind of vaguely omniscient narrator style (although not many traditionally published, at least not in recent years). It may be that this digression into Rupert’s story doesn’t last much longer than this brief interlude, which makes it more a prologue than a first chapter. The other books that you’ve written (are they a series?) might have been very well-received so you see no reason to change, and anyway, substantial change would not go down too well with your established readers. These are all good reasons to ignore everything that I’ve said in this critique.
However, if you really want to take your writing to the next level I think you’d have to confront two problems with this piece.
You have to be entirely sure who the story is about, and then, having made that decision, make the story about them, and not other close relatives. That means starting the book in their voice, their PoV, and beginning the book where their story begins.
You’d also need to cut out all this narrator telling (Rupert had a Civil Service job; he had a biennial leave of twelve weeks; he was leaving in a few days; he had a few problems etc.) and bring the story out much more organically through dialogue and inner thought—living the character’s life, in other words. I think you clearly have the writing chops to do that, judging from the submission here. It’s whether you’ve the appetite or the ambition. Food for thought, I hope?
Rejection might feel harsh for an opening of this technical competence, but unfortunately, it’s immersiveness and emotional integrity that makes a story compelling, particularly in modern fiction.
Thanks for posting.
Sponsored by editorial.ie