This post is focused on the beginning of Beautiful Malice by Rebecca James and how questions are raised, creating mystery and suspense throughout the novel.
A video of Rebecca James reading the prologue and first chapter of Beautiful Malice can be found here.
The following is the opening passage of the one and a half page prologue:
“I didn’t go to Alice’s funeral.
I was pregnant at the time, crazy and wild with grief. But it wasn’t Alice I grieved for. No, I hated Alice by then and was glad that she was dead. It was Alice who had ruined my life, taken the best thing I’d ever had and smashed it into a million unfixable pieces. I wasn’t crying for Alice but because of her.
But now, four years later and a lifetime happier, finally settled into a comfortable and routine life with my daughter Sarah (my sweet, oh-so-serious little Sarah), I sometimes wish that I had made it to Alice’s funeral after all.”
In this passage, and the rest of the prologue, a reader is provided with some details of what will happen in a storyline which occurs prior to the prologue, in the fictional time of the story. This allows a reader to partially know what will happen by the end of the story, which in turn raises questions about how certain situations might come about: how and why does Alice ruin the Katherine’s life, and why does Katherine sometimes wish she had made it to Alice’s funeral despite this?
These questions are compounded by the early chapters of the novel, in which Katherine becomes friends with Alice and enjoys her company. However, Alice sometimes oversteps the boundaries of what Katherine is comfortable with. This is complicated further by a secret which is frequently on Katherine’s mind but she is reluctant to reveal.
The following excerpt is the opening passage of the first chapter, in which Alice approaches Katherine to attend her party, beginning their friendship with one another.
“‘Do you want to come?’ Alice Parrie is looking down, smiling.
It’s lunchtime and I’m sitting beneath a tree, alone, absorbed in a book.
‘Sorry.’ I shade my eyes and look up. ‘Come where?’
Alice hands me a piece of paper.
I take it and read. It’s a brightly coloured photocopy of an invitation to Alice’s eighteenth birthday party. Come one and come all!! Bring your friends!! it reads. Free champagne! Free food!
Only someone as popular and self-assured as Alice would issue such an invitation; anyone more ordinary would feel as if they were begging for guests. Why me? I wonder. I know of Alice, everyone knows of Alice, but I’ve never spoken to her before. She is one of those girls – beautiful, popular, impossible to miss.
I fold the invitation in half and nod. ‘I’ll try. It sounds like fun,’ I lie.
Alice looks at me for a few seconds. Then she sighs and plonks herself down next to me, so close that one of her knees rests heavily against mine.
‘You will not.’ She grins.
I feel my cheeks begin to colour. Even though my entire life can sometimes feel like a façade, a wall of secrets, I’m not good at lying. I look down at my lap. ‘Probably not.’
‘But I want you to come, Katherine,’ she says. ‘It’d really mean a lot to me.’
I’m surprised that Alice even knows my name but it’s even more surprising – in fact, quite unbelievable – that she wants me to come to her party. I’m practically unknown at Drummond High and have no close friends. I come and go quietly, alone, and get on with my studies. I try to avoid bringing attention to myself. I do well enough, but my grades aren’t exceptional. I play no sport, have joined no clubs. And though I can’t do this forever – live my entire life as a shadow – for now it suits. I’m hiding, I know that, I’m being a coward, but right now I need to be invisible, to be the kind of person who arouses no curiosity. That way they need never know who I really am, or what has happened.”
Three questions are central to much of the story’s suspense:
1) How and why will Alice ruin Katherine’s life?
2) Why does Katherine sometimes wish she had made it to Alice’s funeral despite this?
3) What is Katherine’s secret?
Subsidiary questions also stem from these, such as:
How will Alice die, and why does she die so young?
How will various characters react if or when they find out Katherine’s secret?
How much will Katherine put up with behaviour from Alice that she is uncomfortable with, will Katherine confront Alice, and how will Alice respond if or when confronted about her behaviour?
Further questions are also raised regarding supporting characters in the novel and regarding shorter term questions for each chapter.
Rebecca James started writing Beautiful Malice with a mystery and a general idea of the topic she would like to write about, rather than an outline of plot, character development or thematic progression. As she has shared in an interview with The Australlian Literature Review:
“When I started Beautiful Malice all I knew was that I wanted to write about toxic friendships. I started with the first line ‘I didn’t go to Alice’s funeral’ and went from there. I didn’t know what Alice had done to Katherine or how their story was going to unfold. In the second or third chapter it turned out that Katherine had a secret and I didn’t know what that secret was until I wrote about it. Beautiful Malice was very much a process of discovery for me — I had no idea what was going to happen until it happpened!”
This can be an effective way for an author to create mystery and suspense. If the author doesn’t know what will happen until they write it, a reader may be less likely to guess what will happen until they read it.
Beautiful Malice is split along three timelines which, in chronological order, are: the story of Katherine’s secret, the story of Katherine’s involvement with Alice, and Katherine’s life in the aftermath of her involvement with Alice (four years later).
Beautiful Malice’s triple timeline provides several layers of mystery and a concentrated look at the main character, Katherine, through three major periods of change in her life. If a reader cares about what happens for the characters in the story, this plot structure will provide a suspenseful reading experience as the reader anticipates potential developments and reads on to find out what happens. I think the characters are well portrayed and found the story compelling and suspenseful.
More on Rebecca James and her fiction can be found at www.rebeccasjames.blogspot.com.
The Australian Literature Review