Sex and drugs and rock and roll – what’s not to like? So in a novel where those are the major themes, you’re almost bound to come up with a good opening line, right? Well, no, not necessarily. It’s surprisingly difficult, which is why the fact that this opening has a cracker of an opening line is laudable. The question here is, does the book maintain the early promise?
Title: Forlorn Hope House
Genre: Literary Fiction
Language: British English
Synopsis: Its 1969, and 16 year old Alison considers herself the luckiest girl alive when rockstar Donny Nabian asks to marry her. But being wife to a rock idol isn’t everything she dreamed of, and unequipped for the adult role she’s taken on, Alison descends into isolation, jealousy and madness.
Every girl I’ve ever met wants to fuck my husband.
Older, younger, freaks or squares, it doesn’t matter. They all want to fuck him.
Some of them try to hide it, smile at me, as if getting friendly will somehow bring him closer. Most don’t. They flirt with him right in front of me, lips parted, nipples hard under Italian leather or Indian gauze as their fingers graze his arm.
Take me, their eyes say. I’m yours, Donny. Anytime you want.
He brushes them off adeptly, unthinkingly; so many hairs on his collar, so much powder on his sleeve.
Who knows how he acts when I’m not around.
This is our first public scene together since the wedding, and I’m trying to hide my nerves, my changed state bubbling inside me like boiling water under oil. Mrs Nabian, it whispers as I steam.
I can immediately tell the news has preceded us. A perspicacious sprite dances through the crowd as we descend the stairs, tipping off averted glances, whispering around twisted shoulders and between subtly poking fingertips.
The music is loud and the Full Moon is full of faces. It’s a real happening, alright; one of those times when the night owns you, but you own everything.
I immediately see Ginger and Jim from The Cobalt Tone, a rarity, with recording in LA they’ve barely been around since ’67 (it was a groovier scene back then, the old timers say, just so they can have something you don’t). Their presence had the Moon alive, everybody dancing and getting high and pretending like they haven’t seen those guys on telly, because we don’t dig that establishment baggage on the underground.
The groove isn’t just for Ginger and Jim, but my Donny, too (my Donny). After all, Odysseus are just as big as The Cobalt Tone now, their shows always packed. As soon as we walk in I’m digging it, eyes on us, a real down vibe. Dave is spinning Axe’s Child Dreams, and those tripped out chords are wrapping around me, my arms heavy with the Quaaludes, and it’s a sunshine trip.
I can feel Donny next to me, really feel him, and it’s all real, you dig, he’s so beautiful, purple and red and blue, lights moving on his skin.
I hope Dave will drop an Odysseus track, so I can hear Donny play, with him there, touching me, every atom of us made of sex.
And then this chick pushes me into the bar.
Donny doesn’t notice. His eyes are glazed and the drums are coming in and the smoke is pulsing, and for a moment his hands are on her back, his body lithe and powerful, just like when he’s holding his guitar.
There are times when I love Donny so much, I think it might kill me. Some of those times: when he’s on stage and I watch him from the crowd, like a stranger. Every time I hear the first ascending notes of his solo in Clementine Dream. When he’s on a dancefloor, some other woman pressed against him.
How many others have there been?
If I close my eyes, do I even exist at all?
“Alison, baby.” Roy Mathews tries to scoop me up, the backs of his fingers hard against my breast as he grabs my arm. “I hear congratulations are in order, Mrs Nabian.” Roy looks pointedly from Donny and the chick to me as he says my new name, his smile mocking under his moustache.
I push him away as soon as I’m standing again. Roy Matthews is a no-one. And yet I’m scared sometimes he sees something everyone else has missed.
Donny pulls himself off the chick and turns around.
I smile. You can’t get uptight over shit like that. The possessive vibe isn’t cool.
I press myself to his chest instead, so I can check her out over his shoulder. Her hair is okay, thick and long, but frizzy, and she has bad skin and flat tits. Her glitzy top sits awkward on her shoulders, some regular home-sewn trash.
Amateur. She’s not good enough for Donny. I hold him tighter, and he pushes himself into me, kissing me drunkenly. I run my hands down the length of his hair for her benefit, stroking his back, watching it all through her eyes.
We look good together, me and Donny, everyone knows that. Nothing is an accident with him, that’s something I’ve found out. Despite his scruffy vibe, Donny puts a lot of thought into how he looks. Tonight it’s in the soft quality of his purple velvet trousers, trademark tight, his loose, William Morris pattern shirt. It’s effortless, but I know now how long he took to pick it out. These are the things I’m privy to as Mrs Nabian.
I’m dressed to match, in a floral Ossie dress and purple Biba boots. Edgy but still pretty. Pretty enough to be a model, people say. Donny says it all the time: I’m gonna retire one day baby, we can live off your looks. I’ve done a few shoots, but I don’t think I’m tall enough. I didn’t get a call back for Mary Quant (So square, Sasha snorted, smoke curling from her nose, who wants to wear that shit anyway? She passed me the spliff, and I wondered if she’d laugh about it with the others when I’d gone. She was shot by Norman Rockwell for Vogue in September ’68, and she wore Mary Quant then).
The amateur chick is circling around us, pretending to dance to Axe, her kohl eyes never leaving Donny’s face. I can see other girls watching him too, whispering, but none of them are quite so brazen.
I get it.
She doesn’t want to lose her chance, not yet. When else might she get to experience Donny Nabian, the Donny Nabian, in the flesh?
She’ll clutch this encounter for years. Tell all of her friends. You didn’t. What’s he really like? Tell me everything about him!
This could be the greatest night of her life, if only she can get close to him. This could be the greatest night of her life, if only he’ll fuck her.
Are frizzy hair and flat tits and bad skin better than me, just because they’re new?
Does better even matter, when you measure it against more?
Editorial comment: The beginning few paragraphs of this extract are a fantastic example of how to start a story. The very first line is in-your-face conflict, intense, very close PoV, internal thoughts of someone looking at their husband in a crowded bar, and watching what goes on around him, what impact he has on everyone else in the place. It’s a moment of vivid self-realisation that, because we’re thrown into it head first, works extremely well. This is a universal fear in human relationships, and it crosses all gender and proclivity divides: he/she is so much better looking/sexier/magnetic/charismatic/appealing than dowdy old me. What does he/she see in me? Why don’t they go off with someone else?
As I understand it from the synopsis, this is the basic premise of this novel – a young girl who gets wrapped up in a marriage to a successful older rock star at the tail end of the sixties heyday of ‘free love’, and finds it all too much to deal with.
From the brilliant beginning, what happens? Well, to be honest, it loses a bit of its narrative drive in the third paragraph. ‘This is our first public scene together since the wedding’ is pure ‘telling’. All she needs to think to herself is something like ‘I’m Mrs Nabian now’, and hang on to her husband’s arm all the tighter if she’s feeling insecure. That would ‘show us’ everything you’re telling, rather insipidly. Pulling back the focus from the very close PoV of the opening few lines to the narrator-like telling of the third para is leaving the reader feeling cheated. If you’re going to start with such a brilliant, intense focus, you’ve got to keep it up, at least within the same scene. It does come naturally. You’re straight back in to that close PoV as she comes down the stairs with Donny and sees everyone recognising her new-found status, the ‘averted glances and whispering … poking’. As a sixteen-year-old whose dreams have apparently come true, she would be luxuriating in this, the attention on her, and, by proxy, on her husband. You’d think if she was the type to marry a rock star at the tender age of sixteen, she would be loving this.
There are two problems here, that I see. The first is that I’m surprised that there’s already such deep-rooted insecurity in Alison’s character. She’s sixteen, and she’s married her dream idol rock star (days? weeks ago?), and it’s the late Sixties, when everything seemed possible. So, ultimately, it was an optimistic era. This sixteen-year-old seems extremely ‘streetwise’ and cynical, and, frankly, quite fearful. I would have thought that a sixteen-year-old girl, at that point in her life, at that point in that era, would be so much more optimistic about the prognosis for their marriage. Where’s the naivety and optimism of youth? Even on the first page she’s questioning: ‘how many others have there been?’ If she’s that worldly-wise, you have to wonder why she married him in the first place. And how are you going to maintain this tension over the course of an entire book when you’ve mentioned it on the first page?
The second problem is an inconsistent PoV. There’s a book by John Gardner called ‘The Art of Fiction’. In it, he mentions a concept called ‘psychic distance’, which is essentially a retitling of PoV depth. The psychic distance between your main character and the reader should remain pretty constant, in order to maintain a consistent and seamless reader-immersion in the narrative. What does that mean? It means that the PoV can’t shift from very close in – internal thought about ‘my husband’ – to wide narration, ‘This is our first public scene together…’. It might be possible to do this over the space of a chapter or at least scene break, but within a few lines? I’d say not a good idea.
For all my caveats, I’m going to award this a gold star. After such a beginning, I’d be surprised if an agent wouldn’t want to read more. The Sixties has a perennial appeal, and you have the evil triumvirate of sex, and drugs, and rock and roll to sell the concept. If they didn’t ask to see more, it would be because of the inconsistency of PoV and voice. For that, you need to really focus in on telling the story from Alison’s perspective, to the exclusion of everything else, and I think even were you to be picked up by an agent, that is one of the things that they’d be asking you to sort out in a rewrite.
Thanks for posting.
This is excellent feedback, thanks so much! You have such a good eye.