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Barron's Booknotes-A Separate Peace by John Knowles

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STYLE

Another word for an author's style is his voice, and that's an appropriate term when you think of an actual person telling a story, unfolding it before you, speaking to you one-to-one. Thus the style of A Separate Peace is most simply characterized as the fictional person of Gene Forrester, created by John Knowles, talking to us through the pages of the book.

Gene has a low-key, almost diffident manner. Because he is subtle in his observations, we are welcomed immediately. There's no problem entering the story and walking with Gene through the damp fields. He wants companionship, and his style, his manner of presentation, expresses that need admirably.

We might also say the book possesses a confessional style; in other words, the narrator has some burden he needs to cast off upon us. Anyone who reads the book automatically takes on that burden. Gene has done something too painful to bear in solitude, and he wants to believe that his sharing it will make the weight less heavy for him. (Is this necessarily so?) Again, the style helps get the message across because it accumulates in gradual stages, in an unhurried manner, as if it were sneaking up on us.



The book further possesses a deferential style; in other words, the narrator keeps himself out of the forefront of the action. Notice how sparingly Gene interjects himself. Often he'll quote Finny for pages and pages, while he just stands there, a transmitter, a transparent vehicle for carrying the main event to us. He tries to keep his opinion out of the foreground too, and he succeeds until Finny becomes his "enemy." At that point the style of the book changes and flares up into a more vivid, determined, focused language, as if it were hacked from stone, where before it had been ever so gently molded.

You'll notice another interesting aspect of the book's style if you compare the spoken words (in quotes) with the exposition, the descriptions and passages that tie the dialogue together. Gene, Finny, and the other boys speak with the vocabulary of teenagers of the 1940s, and the teachers also seem true-to-life for the period. The Gene who narrates, however, is the adult Gene, and his insights are those of someone in his middle to late thirties. Thus the book encompasses beautifully the simplicity and directness of young people speaking and acting in tune with their time of life as well as the more mature voice of an older person looking back to that time in retrospect.

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Barron's Booknotes-A Separate Peace by John Knowles
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