The Reflection: a note on dialogue

ReflectionSometimes the smallest things in a novel can make such a difference.

I’m reading The Reflection by Hugo Wilcken, which is narrated by a psychiatrist who ends up in hospital mistaken for one of his patients, and decides to go along with this new identity. There’s a definite sense that, as in the work of Christopher Priest (whose novel The Glamour is mentioned in the Acknowledgements), we can’t trust the reality of what we’re reading. In this post, I want to mention a technique I’ve noticed in The Reflection which helps create that sense: most of the dialogue is unattributed.

It doesn’t sound a lot, I know; but what it does, just for a moment each time, is place the reader outside of the narration. Without the comforting flow of “I said, she said”, it is as though we’re reading two different texts: one, the narrator’s subjective account; the other, an objective (but is it?) report of dialogue. It remains to be seen what this may lead to; but the most powerful effects of fiction start from such little building-blocks.

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

The Reflection (2015) by Hugo Wilcken, Melville House UK hardback.

7 Comments

  1. Nice observation. I have an unread one by him, so it’ll be a while before I get to this. I do plan however to get to it.

  2. I have seen that work quite effectively though I can’t recall specific examples at the moment. My philosophy about attribution and the “to use quotation marks or not” question is that, if the chosen technique works and is handled properly, the reader should not notice, at least not right off the top. If you find yourself frustrated because you can’t tell who is speaking (or when someone is speaking and not thinking – David Vann’s Caribou Island comes to mind) then it’s not a good thing. In this case it sounds like it could be most effective. I look forward to hearing how well it holds up for you.

    • That’s a good way to look at it: you shouldn’t necessarily notice what the author is doing, because it should be working on a more subconscious level (to create a sense of dissonance, or whatever). I don’t remember having the problem you mention with Caribou Island; but, thinking about it, I can’t think of any obvious examples where omitting quotation marks really did much. The Reflection, on the other hand, unsettles you from the get-go with its dialogue.

  3. While I enjoyed its cleverness, I felt I didn’t bond enough with the main character who felt a bit lacking in personality – then of course he gains a different one! Perhaps I was expecting a bit too much Cary Grant (North by Northwest)…

    • I felt I didn’t bond enough with the main character who felt a bit lacking in personality

      Fair enough, though it didn’t really strike me as that kind of book – maybe the Hitchcock comparison in the blurb does it a disservice?

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