Thursday, 18 August 2011

What happened to Phil?

How do you design the rise and fall of characters in a novel?

Where it becomes tricky is when the author decides that a favourite character must die (witness the upheaval over the final Harry Potter book/movie). This has happened to me with Karoo Plainsong. One of the most poignant characters in the book is Phil, the son of Cath and Edward Harrington. Although Phil is some eight years older than Ada, they form a close bond. In contrast, Phil's sister Siobahn seeks to undermine Ada at every turn. But more about that in a later blog.

Phil serves in North Africa during World War 2, and returns to Cradock with 'inside wounds' - what Ada's mother says are the sort of wounds that don't have blood. These days we recognise the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, but in Phil's day it was poorly understood. 'Shell shock' was the common expression at the time. You were meant to buck up and just snap out of it. But for Phil, like many others, this was to prove almost impossible. Of course, in Phil's case, there was more to his illness...

Phil's character was inspired by my heroic real-life uncle, who was the subject of earlier blogs, see Desert Search and Desert Rest. I never met him because he tragically died in battle in North Africa. I didn't want the fictional Phil to perish in the same way. I wanted him to return home, and meet Ada again, and try to rebuild his life. But the world he returned to was different from what he left behind. Ada was now beyond his reach. His love for her was forbiddden by the laws of apartheid.

And this is where it has become intriguing for me, as the author, because Phil's death has sparked a huge debate amongst my readers. At a recent Book Club meeting, I had to moderate between 2 factions who each held a determined view about his demise.
Was it an accident? Was it suicide?
What do you think?

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