What makes a character?
15 keys to One Green Bottle: n° 3 – Charlotte
She was polishing the piano a couple of days later when the doorbell rang again and a woman was there on the steps asking to speak to her. She was about Magali’s age, but slim and well dressed, and Magali, in comparison, felt dowdy and shapeless.
‘I happened to notice your sign,’ said the woman. Her eyes had the haunted look of someone worn down by anxiety or stress. ‘I’d like you to help me if you can.’
That’s the first glimpse we get of Charlotte Perle in One Green Bottle. Magali wasn’t expecting her; even less was she expecting Charlotte’s request: ‘I’d like you to find the person who murdered my son.’
I’ve written about Magali – where she came from and the precise image I had of her at the start. But although the main character may be more developed than the others, all of them come from somewhere and Charlotte Perle, central to the story, is no exception: she comes from grief.
‘I suppose it’s time. The great healer. I thought at first I’d never get over it – and of course I never will. Not in the sense of it going away or not being unbearable to think about. But I find myself thinking more about other things. The first time it happened – or the first time I noticed – I felt guilty. As if I had no right to allow normality back into my life. Or as if I was somehow betraying Enzo’s memory. But then I thought that’s what the healing process is all about. And I said to myself there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m allowed to feel better when I can.’
There are whole books about grief, which I haven’t read. If I do, a good place to start could be Mourning Has Broken by Carol Balawyder, a collection of essays about the death of her sister – it touched a chord. There’s a review of it here on Kevin Cooper’s blog. But as I wrote in the comments to that review: ‘I don’t think I could ever read or write about grief. I feel strangely possessive of the memories and emotions attached to it. But it does inform my writing and I confront the issue through fiction – I guess I’m just not a very good autobiographer.’ There isn’t a lot about grief itself in One Green Bottle, but it’s what defines Charlotte, and what Magali tries to imagine.
The woman pressed her lips together. She knew plenty about depression, she must do. Or perhaps you don’t even go there – you’re plunged straight into a sort of madness and people call it grief. Magali had lost her father and she remembered the emptiness that followed, the meaninglessness of all that went on around her. But when the normal pattern is reversed and children are taken before their parents, you surely go to a different place altogether. What sort of landscape did Charlotte Perle see? Here she was in Sentabour, among the rocks and pines of Cézanne’s art, but how did they appear to her? Perhaps she wasn’t in Provence at all but in some private Hiroshima. Or else the pines were just the same but their very prettiness was obscene, the scent of the earth and the shimmering breeze a cruel affront to the senses.
I did a nerdy thing the other day – looked at the number of occurrences of characters’ names. In One Green Bottle, the figures are 442 for Magali and 119 for Charlotte. In the sequel, Perfume Island, where the story takes place a few months later, they currently stand at 628 and 349. The main character, by definition, still gets the lion’s share, but Charlotte features in the sequel far more prominently. And although she continues to battle with grief, I’ve been finding out – along with Magali – that there’s a lot more to her than that.