An so on a recent troll through my library's single case of new nonfiction Abigail Thomas's brilliant memoir, A Three Dog Life, caught my eye. I confess that I picked it up because there was a dog on the cover. I read a few pages and that was enough to propel me at a run to the checkout desk. I got the book home, devoured it in a day, and immediately requested her previous book, Safekeeping: Some True Stories from a Life, via interlibrary loan. I have since bought copies of both books for myself. Both are in my current Top 10 for 2007, and I guarantee that they will still be there at the end of the year.
Thomas is the rare writer with a style that is vividly distinctive and yet somehow does not call attention to itself. The chapters are short -- often a couple of pages or less -- and the prose is generally spare, almost telegraphic in places. While you cannot read her books without noticing her style, there is nothing flashy or affected about it; it is entirely in service to the work.
"Don't spell everything out," the instructor of my first memoir class told us. "Let the reader do some of the heavy lifting." Thomas's writing is the first where I can see how that collaboration actually works. I think of her technique as "bell ringing." Thomas touches on a topic or emotion that resonates in the reader's mind and then moves on. Later, she circles back and touches on the same topic again, but with a slightly different emphasis or point of view, like a bell rung at a pitch that harmonizes with the first occurrence. The result is something greater than what is on the page: a work of art that is not so much the book itself as the multi-layered effects it creates in the reader. And as a reader, it is exhilarating to feel oneself an active partner in this act of creation with the author.
Thomas's web site contains a wonderful section called Getting Started that gives me inspiration and new ideas every time I visit. Today it's this: "Sometimes it’s what you’re not saying that gives a piece its shape."