July 9, 2012

"An Abduction"

By Tessa Hadley
~7600 words

A teenage girl in 1960s England loses her virginity.

"Jane Allsop was abducted when she was fifteen, and no one noticed." Thus reads the intriguing first sentence of this third-person narrative, which goes on to recount how Jane, feeling bored and neglected one summer afternoon at her parents' posh Surrey estate, gets into a convertible with three unfamiliar teenage boys. She returns the following morning a changed young woman, and the story concludes with the ramifications of the event on her adult life.

The tale of Jane's experience is one worth telling, and the story's plot is its main strength, but several glaring defects keep it from realizing its potential.

In the first place, the storytelling is misleading. That intriguing first sentence works so well because it immediately raises a question: How could Jane be abducted without anyone noticing? The mystery motivates us to read: a perfect hook, in other words. Except that it's a hook based on a deception, for the commonly understood definition of "to abduct," as Webster's explains, is "to seize and take away (as a person) by force." Yet Jane enters the convertible voluntarily—which the reader, however, doesn't discover until over two thousand words into the story. So then he thinks, Ah, but perhaps the opening sentence means that Jane will be forced to do something against her will? Nope, not that either—which takes another five thousand words to figure out. Having now revealed the original hook to be a sham, Hadley throws out another one: "Jane was thinking, Will I ever see my home again? It seemed unlikely." This, too, turns out to be a head fake, for Jane returns home the next morning of her own accord. By the end of the story, then, the reader will be justified in complaining of manipulation. If the issue were just the title, it could understood as a metaphor; but, as demonstrated above, the prose deliberately misleads at several crucial junctures.

Perspective is another problem. Jane is clearly the main character, but we also enter the thoughts of each of the following: Jane's father, her brother Robin, the three boys in the convertible (Daniel, Nigel, and Paddy), Nigel's younger sister Fiona, and Jane's counselor in her adult life. In chasing so many different points of view, Hadley misses prime opportunities to develop Jane's character and garner the reader's sympathy. This is especially important because Jane is not a terribly sympathetic character, and we need to be convinced that we should like her. Unfortunately, that never happens.

Finally, Hadley's lackluster prose is characterized by tired metaphors—"the wings of her spirit," "the recesses of her consciousness," "sick with desire," etc.—and a perplexing over-reliance on parentheses: up to four or five per paragraph, some quite extensive. Surely there are more elegant ways of threading backstory and character motivations into the narrative. In cases where the observations are truly parenthetical—and there are several—they probably don't belong in the story at all.

"An Abduction" begins promisingly and has a tender tale to share, bit it is marred by deceptive storytelling, an unfocused perspective, and mediocre writing.


Reader poll: I found "An Abduction" to be ___.

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