Have you ever come across one of those books you can’t escape? I did with The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths. The first time I saw it was at a thrift store. The title caught my eye, the cover of a stormy gray beach did, too. It looked like a book I’d really like. Until I picked it up and glanced inside. It was written in present tense. You know…’I sit down’ instead of ‘I sat down’.
I don’t like present tense as it seems to keep me from immersing myself in the story.
Some time later I saw the book at the library. I thought ‘great title’, picked it up, and then thought, ‘oh, it’s this one again’. That happened several times. Finally I got the message that maybe I should give it a try. Within the first three pages I read this:
‘The wind is whispering through the reeds, and here and there they see glimpses of still, sullen water reflecting the grey sky. At the edge of the marshland Ruth stops, looking for the first sunken post, the twisting shingle path that leads through the treacherous water and out to the mudflats.
At the henge circle, the tide is out and the sand glitters in the early morning light. Ruth kneels on the ground as she saw Erik doing all those years ago. Gently she stirs the quivering mud with her trowel.
Suddenly everything is quiet; even the seabirds stop their mad skirling and calling up above. Or maybe they are still there and she just doesn’t hear them. In the background she can hear Nelson breathing hard but Ruth herself feels strangely calm. Even when she sees it, the tiny arm still wearing the christening bracelet, even then she feels nothing.
She had known what she was going to find.’
I read the book, and the next one, and the one after that. It took only a few pages for me to no longer notice the tense it was written in. There are a few reasons for this.
One, the author does an excellent job of making the setting a character in the book. The crossing place is that area between sea and land, and in Griffith’s hands the area becomes as vital to the story as the people. I felt the haunting magic and the ancient mysteries and loved how the story was strong because of where it took place.
Two, the characters were so real. With their flaws and humor and fears and loves. I wanted to spend time with them, which is why I bought the sequel. I cared about what happened to them all, even the ones I didn’t like.
Three, Griffiths wrote present tense in such a subtle way that I quit thinking about it. As I read I no longer felt it cumbersome and quit looking for mistakes. Present tense is very difficult to write because it’s not the way we speak and I don’t think it comes naturally to a writer. It would be interesting to ask Griffiths why she chose to write that way. Whatever the reason, she handles it with a deft, gentle pen so it is no longer a tool or affectation, but simply how that story had to be told.
Don’t get me wrong; I still don’t like present tense and would never consider writing that way. But Elly Griffiths has figured out how to make it work and I hope she keeps it up.
I also wish I’d bought the book in the thrift store when I first saw it. If I’d listened to my instincts I would have saved some money…