I've been thinking a lot about beginnings - what captures us quickly and draws us into the center of story?
We're told to start with action, bring the reader into the scene, and keep it moving. That's important advice, keeping us from lingering in backstory, setting the scene for too long, or wandering until we find the heart of the story. But an excellent beginning is something more. It has layers and meaning only revealed through reading the story, even while giving us the hints, the mood, the sense of the whole from the start.
The beginning of A Swift Pure Cry, by Siobhan Dowd, lays out the entire book in a single predicative sweep, each image resonant with multiple meanings that will be revealed over the course of this lovely novel.
Consider the opening:
“The place brought to mind a sinking ship. Wood creaked on the floor, across the pews, up in the gallery. Around the walls, a fierce March wind chased itself. The congregation launched into the Our Father as if every last soul was going down. Heaven. Bread. Trespass. Temptation. The words whisked past Shell’s ears like rabbits vanishing into their holes. She tried wriggling her nose to make it slimmer. Evil. Mrs. McGrath’s hat lurched in front of her, its feather looking drunk: three-to-one odds it would fall off. Declan Ronan, today’s alter boy, was examining the tabernacle, licking his lips with half-shut eyes. Whatever he was thinking, it wasn’t holy.” (3)
We know from the first sentence that this story will drag us deep into its heart, like a sinking ship and the church is a central vessel. It’s spring outside. Not a balmy, sweet spring, but the fierce March spring. The congregation sings for their lives, seeking solace and comfort. These are not wealthy people living a life of luxury. The italicized words – the dead, sustenance, sins and temptation- whisk past Shell, our main character, who has lost her mother, will trespass and suffer, and find redemption.
We see Mrs. McGrath, the gossip who will wrongly implicate Father Rosen, in Shell’s pregnancy, and Declan Roman, who leads her into temptation and birth. The drunken feather is a nod to Shell’s drunken father who will assume sins and admit to crimes not his own. It’s all swept into this opening scene, setting the stage for a novel seeped in a teenager’s longing for the holy and spiritual truth in the face of loss and fear.
Dowd’s carefully chosen images and words do double-duty, as we layer meaning from the past over the present, and interpret the future significance of the events unfolding in the story.
This layering happens throughout the novel - setting, characters, action - all baked into richness.
Shell is innocent and unworldly. She sees her mam’s spirit, feels the longing of all that is holy at church, and lets herself drift forward, unmoored, into love and intimacy. The reader sees the world through Shell’s eyes, but brings a broader, worldlier knowing to the page.
Dowd lavishes meaning on her scenes, drawing a line from beginning, to middle, and end. The field where she meets Declan is the church is her home – sheltering and empty. Shell’s memories and ‘visions’ of her mother are layered over reality. Throug the book, the reader is pulled back into memory and forward into the future as Dowd’s carefully chosen elements do double-duty. Feelings, symbols, and characters appear as echoes from earlier scenes. The ending is the beginning’s well-balanced counterpoint.
Shell takes her sister and brother, Trix, and Jimmy, to the fair with money Shell’s demanded of her father. Shell drags them after a woman who looks like her mother, but the woman disappears in the crowd, leaving them standing at the Ferris wheel. Instead of a sinking ship, we have a rising Ferris wheel, lifting our sibling trio high over the water, off the land, and above the crowd of ghosts, characters past and present, to joy.
The rise makes Shell’s stomach somersault, tying us back to the moment she acknowledged her pregnancy at the ocean. This time, the sensation foretells joy. The wheel lifts them off the ground, and they see the woman, who flickers and turns, “She called out with her soul in her mouth. A last farewell. But she was going, going for good this time, back to the place from which she’d come.” (309) We see the sea, “large and shining, restless, eating up the sky. Chasing the day to another continent.” (309). Dowd then ties the beginning and ending together with word pairs: the living and dead, dreams and laughs and tears, here-and-nows and the here-afters. Then we have the people of the book, Bridie, Father Rose, God, Declan, on the “other continent”, Mam, Jimmie, Trix, and Shell herself. “Together always. Free. And Mam’s perpetual light shining on them. And their lives ahead of them, around them, spilling from them as they screamed Whooooooo like three demented owls. What joy it was to be, what joy.” (310)
There is so much packed between the beginning and end that A Swift Pure Cry lingers, like the mists over Ireland, long after its covers are closed. Dowd is a rich writer, showing us how to layer scenes with images, experience, memory, and anticipation, causing the reader to experience each moment at multiple levels. By prolonging the interaction we deepen the reader’s connection to the work. When we say a book is “rich,” this artful layering is often the source.
Dowd, Siobhan. A Swift Pure Cry. David Fickling Books, Random House, Inc., 2007.