The Reading Room is a series of posts analyzing short stories I have read, with a writer’s eye.
This Christmas story was first published in the UK’s The Telegraph newspaper in 2007.
It’s six in the morning, and Santa’s on the blink.
This certainly fulfills my need for an opening line to be intriguing. (The phrase ‘on the blink’, means ‘malfunctioning’ for those not raised in the UK!)
Of course, the story very quickly delivers on the line. The Santa in question is a light-up decoration (hooray, for a double-meaning for the phrase ‘on the blink’! I’m seeing blinking lights now).
The opening of this story delivers us what seems like a slightly-predictable suburban battle between neighbors who love to decorate for Christmas and snooty neighbors who think such things are class-less and cheesy and ‘lower the tone’ of the neighborhood.
It is elevated from the predictable by Harris’s choice of language.
The neighbors are a snotty bunch, always complainant about one thing or another. Last week it was the penguins. Three of them, cheery little fellows…
She could have picked any kind of decoration, but who can resist penguins?
So far, so entertaining, but is anything going to keep me reading, or is this going to be a predictable story about a misfit in a boring pocket of society?
By paragraph 3, Harris has introduced some more conflict: it’s not just the neighbors but the wider community that seems put out by our protagonist’s harmless affection for decorations. That is mildly intriguing, as it seems a little over-blown as a reaction.
The Plot Thickens
It’s not until the next paragraph that we get our first hint that all is not as innocent as our narrator has led us to believe. This is when we learn that the protagonist orders supplies for a full Christmas lunch every Monday.
Now, I was so caught up in the exquisite, nostalgic details of the classic Christmas lunch from my childhood (“one medium turkey, frozen; 5 lb King Edward’s Potatoes; 1 lb Brussels sprouts; 1lb carrots; 1 package sage and onion stuffing; 1 packet Bistro gravy; 7 chipolata sausages[1. If anyone knows where to get chipolatas in Pennsylvania, let me know!]; 7 rashers streaky bacon; 1 luxury Christmas pudding; 1 packet luxury mince pies; 1 packet Bird’s custard; 1 bottle sweet sherry; 1 jar Branston pickle; 1 medium Warburton’s loaf; 1 small box Milk Tray chocolates”) that I almost missed that ‘every Monday’ comment.
That’s not normal. Where is that going? I have to continue reading now!
The story continues from there, a mix of nostalgia and extreme enthusiasm for the mythical, perfect Christmas that the television ads serve up.
And of course, there is a twist.
I was torn, reading this story. I loved Joanne Harris’s writing and I loved the observations. She really did raise this above the level of a predictable story about a misfit.
I felt for the main character, especially when Harris sounded a note of hope on this actual Christmas morning.
Without spoiling the ending, I will say that this story didn’t end the way I hoped it would. I understand completely why the writer made that choice. I understand the tradition she’s writing in, the psychology of the country…I just want a different ending.
And that’s fine. Because now, I can use that to spur me to write a story of my own. One that shares some of the things I loved about this story, but that ends in away that I prefer.
And isn’t that part of the point of being a writer? To tell the stories we want to read?