The Unguessable Country

Topic Sentence #6

Dear reader,

(Welcome to new readers, especially those from Sarah Avenir’s wonderful newsletter. In Topic Sentence, I write about sentences, because good writing is made of good sentences. It’s part reading recommendation, part musing about the nuts and bolts of writing.)

Here’s our topic sentence:

I remember how, that night, I lay awake in the wagon—lit in a tender, delicious ecstasy of excitement, my burning cheek pressed against the impeccable linen of the pillow and the pounding of my heart mimicking that of the great pistons ceaselessly thrusting the train that bore me through the night, away from Paris, away from girlhood, away from the white, enclosed quietude of my mother’s apartment, into the unguessable country of marriage.

This comes from the titular short story of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber—if you’re anything like me, you’ve heard writers mention, often, that you should read Carter and The Bloody Chamber. In fact so many, that you rebel a little and wonder how good it can be. I can now join the ranks of the annoying and confirm: you should read The Bloody Chamber.

I don’t mean this to sound glib, because it’s true: The Bloody Chamber is Carter retelling fairy tales from a feminist voice, way before that was cool.

The sentence begins with a simple main clause: “I remember … I lay awake in the wagon”, and then three clauses building out from there—“lit in … excitement”, “my burning cheek pressed …”, “the pounding of my heart”. Common advice for writers, especially in short stories such as this, is to start the story as late as possible but no later. That’s where Carter starts here, on the threshold of the event (or rather, with the reminiscence of it)—not with the musing beforehand.

The word choice is as precise as a calligrapher. “Tender” and “delicious” modify each other and the “ecstasy of excitement”, evoking that feeling of being a child before Christmas. It’s delicious because the feeling is almost greater than the actual event. It’s tender because that feeling is liable to be crushed by any small reality.

In that last fantastic clause, we are swooped between layers of meaning, in the way that writing can do better than an Hollywood long take. We go from her feeling (“the pounding of my heart”) to the reality of the locomotion (“the great pistons”); from her setting (“the night, away from Paris”); to her character (“away from girlhood”); from her character history (“the white, enclosed quietude of my mother’s apartment”) to setting the scene of the current predicament: “the unguessable country of marriage”.

I could go on—“white” in the description of her mother’s apartment is evocative of a pre-marital state, and an innocence of character, and there’s the bait and switch of the last clause, where we might expect the physical destination, we hear about the greater destination: marriage. But I think it mostly speaks for itself.

From a guessable country,