Jane Johnson The Sultan’s Wife – looking at novel openings

I have just begun to read an historical novel entitled, ‘The Sultan’s Wife by Jane Johnson.

The front cover states, ‘Imagine the darkest Arabian Tale combined with Tremain’s glorious Restoration.’  Well, with that kind of promise it was a ‘no brainer’for me, as Restoration is one of my favourite novels. The novel is interesting because it moves from the Palace f Meknes in Morocco during the seventeenth century to Restoration London. The back cover gives you all the goss:

‘Behind the magnificent walls and towering arches of the Palace of Meknes, captive chieftain’s son and now a lowly scribe, Nus Nus is framed for murder. As he attempts to evade punishment for the bloody crime, Nus Nus finds himself trapped in a vicious plot, caught between the three most powerful figures in the court.’

The book arrived in the post and I ripped off the wrapping as I walked up the courtyard and began reading immediately. It was a bright, warm day and I sat down and didn’t stand up again until I had ripped through three chapters; I was hooked. Looking again at the  first chapter I have been analysing just why it should have had that kind of effect. Let’s face it, that’s what we all strive to achieve when writing, whether it’s a novel or a short story, you know,  that feeling of being immediately engaged.

The novel begins with rain, which in itself is pertinent, as this is Morocco and our  stereotypical image would be of heat and dust. The first simile employed predicts malevolence as the rain: ‘streaks the walls surrounding the palace with dark stains like blood.’ Obvious from the end of the very first paragraph the tone is set and it will be bloody!

The action opens with the construction of a palace Sultan Moulay Ismail, Emperor of Morocco has decided will outshine the Palace of Versailles. Johnson introduces the reader to slaves, interestingly in this case, Europeans and from Hull of all places! Readers are intrigued by the link between Europe and Morocco and Johnson is spreading before us, aspects of history that have been neglected.

In amongst the rain we see the main character Nus Nus for the first time picking his way through the mud ‘like a trained Spanish pony’. He is heckled for his feminine ‘ Lily-white quean’ demeanour and the workers enjoy heaping abuse on someone who appears even less fortunate, until they push things too far unaware that Nus Nus speaks English and he finally replies, ‘You should be more careful whom you insult.’

That sets the tone for the whole novel and underlines how treacherous it can be to live in such an environment. The end of the chapter makes the point more evident: ‘ They live to work and die- another day. And that, at the final count, is all any of us can ask.’
So in four pages Johnson has set the scene, introduced us to a significant character, outlined the dominant hegemony of fear, repression and cruelty and set up questions the reader wants answered: Is Nus Nus an eunuch and why has this happened? Why are English men enslaved in Morocco and what happens to those who are not careful regarding their choice of words? Why is the regime dominated by fear?

Immediately we are in the thick of it. Reading the first paragraph of novels such as:

  • A Chinese English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo
  • Long Way by Sebastian Barry
  • Revelation CJ Sansom
  • Wolf Hall Hilary Mantel
  • Atonement Ian McEwan

Just to name five books I can see on the writing retreat library shelves, offers an interesting insight into how to catch your reader’s attention.

A fun writing exercise is to write just the opening to a novel. Then you can re-write it as if it’s a thriller, a romance, an historical novel, a comedy. It’s just a silly exercise to keep the brain functioning and more importantly a writer engaged, especially when they are suffering from a block or feeling lazy.

Meanwhile I shall continue with this novel by Jane Johnson. She is a writer I have not encountered before but she appeals to readers of Kate Moss and Philippa Gregory and I really fancy taking a look at another of her books,  The Salt Road once again  published by Penguin Viking.

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