Review: The Different Girl, Gordon Dahlquist

Here is a book about a girl called Veronika who has been kept in ignorance all her life, and when her circumstances change, she is only pretty vaguely enlightened. So are we. I prefer to be more enlightened.

Veronika lives on an island with three other girls: Caroline, Isabel, and Eleanor. They are all the same exact girl, except that their hair is different colors. Their parents died in a plane crash. They live with their guardians, Robbert and Irene, who educate them and test them and try to understand them. One day, a girl called May washes up on their shore. She looks different to Veronika and the others, and she seems frightened of them. Her coming heralds the end of the life Veronika has always known.

The problem is this: I like books that work more by implication than by description. I do! I loved The Haunting of Hill House, for example, a book that does not spend much time spelling things out for the reader. However, my liking of implication-heavy books depends on trusting that the author knows how to steer the ship. In The Different Girl, there are heavy implications of Unrest back in the real world, but it’s super dull because Dahlquist doesn’t give any good details. One or two really good details, strategically and creepily dropped at intervals, would have counterbalanced a lot of the vagueness about world-building. As it was, the world outside Veronika’s island felt mad generic. Blah blah people are scared of science blah blah destroy the robots blah blah blah.

I am a reasonable woman. I do not demand that every author be Laini Taylor and N. K. Jemisin, with their flawlessly realized worlds. All I ask is some dribs and drabs of information to say what this world is about, and what its dangers are, and what the point of these girls is. Absent that, the book hasn’t got any stakes. I truly couldn’t have cared less about the fate of these characters.

I hereby propose the following guidelines for authors who are not natively gifted at world-building:

  1. Introduce a fig leaf to explain why you are not explaining more. This can be that all the characters are steeped in their normal, thus not fussed about describing it; but if a stranger washes up on shore, you really cannot keep up the non-explaining without a plausible reason.
  2. The number of details you must drop about the world is inversely proportional to their specificity, by which I mean, their ability to imply a lot while saying a little. For instance, early on in Crux, there is talk of how parents of non-neurotypical children are suspects for use of / sympathy for users of the mind-altering drug Nexus. That says a ton about the drug and the political atmosphere that surrounds it. A small number of details with that kind of specificity can go a long way.

Okay. Grumbly post over.

Do you have any guidelines you’d like authors to adhere to in their world-building?

17 thoughts on “Review: The Different Girl, Gordon Dahlquist

  1. Oh I love books that are full of implications. So many different ways to interpret stuff, making the book very discussion-heavy. Reading the book second time would give rise to more a-ha moments. But yeah, I would be bummed if the details are not fleshed out well enough for my imagination.

    • And they really aren’t — I’d love it if there had seemed to be more going on under the surface, but it felt like it was ALL surface.

  2. I very much like your rules, especially the fig leaf one. I would add one I call the Tempest rule, which is that you have to, at some point, tell the story of how you got to the island of people who are avoiding some great disaster in the rest of the world.
    One of the great things about Womack’s Random Acts of Senseless Violence is that the whole book is the story of how the character ends up on the “island.”

    • Oh my God YES. I find it so frustrating in, particularly, dystopian books, when I can’t tell how the world came to be what it is in those books. It’s why I’m so fond of process dystopias when I come across them.

      (Is there a better plural for dystopia? I never took Greek and have no idea how the root words would decline.)

  3. I love a World-Building Preface that just lays it all out, and then you KNOW it, and you can just plunge in, with chapter one, and start enjoying the STORY. Some may see this as info-dumping, but I see it as doing a favor to the reader, especially by keeping it out of the story itself so it doesn’t SOUND like info dumping.

    • Like what’s an example of that? It doesn’t sound awesome, but I can’t think of any examples where the authors do that, so I don’t know. My instinct is to say that if they dump all the background in the first chapter, I will immediately forget it. :p

  4. I am very fond of implication, but it has to be really GOOD implication, with lots of implication packed in there. The Haunting of Hill House is really quite explicit about the environment in which the story takes place, and it’s only what exactly is happening that is glossed in a spooky sort of way. There has to be a balance – if you want your feathers of implication to float far on the breeze of the tale, you have to have the floating over a very clearly described world, I think.

  5. My enjoyment of a book is ALL about the trust. If I believe an author is going to take care of me, I can follow them almost anywhere. But with a new author, if things are looking shaky, I don’t feel on solid ground, and that’s a big worry for me. So I definitely get where you’re coming from here!

    • Exactly, exactly! I give someone like Marisha Pessl a huge amount of benefit of the doubt, because I enjoyed Special Topics in Calamity Physics so much. If another author had written Night Film, I’d probably have had far less patience with it.

  6. I think most readers can tell if the author is just being evasive (ie, hasn’t really thought their basic concept through and is hoping the reader won’t notice) as opposed to an author who knows exactly what they’re doing but leaves enough space to let the reader draw their own conclusions. I like to figure the world out as I go along, but that’s just me.

    • I do as well. I like it when an author trusts the reader enough to let her draw her own conclusions about what the world is like — IF, as you say, the author genuinely knows what she’s doing and what the world she’s building looks like.

  7. I think if a writer is not natively gifted at world building, they should just leave dystopia/fantasy genre alone. To me the world building is half the story (at least), I can forgive a going nowhere plot if the world is fantastic and engrossing but a vague story with little to no world building? No, just no.

    • Hahaha, yeah, fair enough. I am probably less patient than you about a going-nowhere plot, but certainly some good worldbuilding can cover a lot of sins.

  8. I’m pretty much in agreement with your rules. I much prefer books that tell you a lot without having to describe a lot, it’s not hard to do as long as you set a story up properly. The book you’ve mentioned sounds like it gave a lot of thought to the girls and the island without thinking to flesh out the outside world. Mentioned in the novel or not, I find if the author has an idea of the greater fictional world in relation to it’s story it shows.

    • It shows SO much. The same is true of the characters: If the author has done the required thinking about who these characters are and what they’re about, you can always tell. It’s why I love Diana Wynne Jones so much. Even her minorest characters, she knows inside and out.

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