Jake and the challenge of a new language

I’m up to chapter 22, that’s 27,000 words, of People of the Forest. I make a point of halting each day in the forest during my long walks to write for half an hour seated on a rock surrounded by trees with only squirrels and the occasional roe deer for company.

But you will no doubt want to know about the story itself. If you have been reading the extracts you will know that Isla briefly met Jake before each of them was flung into the other’s world. In the extract below Jake is in Isla’s world having been rescued by a band of dissidents who live in the relative safety of the forest. He is not enamoured of their lifestyle and takes off alone into the nearby woods.

From a writing perspective, one of the challenges in this extract was to portray how Jake was able to understand a page of a book in a language he hardly knew and thus to offer a glimpse of the history of that world. Another challenge was the compression of time in an otherwise continuous narration.

Extracts

Jake half expected Kody to run after him, she did shout, but no one followed as he strode deeper into the forest. The sun’s rays were slanting closer to the horizon and his stomach growled. He swung his bag from his shoulder and slid the book inside before pulling out his hunting knife. Time to find something to eat.

The tinder was dry and the fire caught without a hitch. Soon,  the skinned and gutted rabbit was balanced over the red hot embers. The wild greens Jake had uncovered in a nearby glade would serve as an excellent salad. There was even a handful of blackberries for his desert.

He licked the meat juices from his fingers and popped the berries, one after another, into his mouth. Leaning back against his bag, he sigh with pleasure. The shadows were creeping between the trees. Time to prepare for the night. He would have preferred a cave, but finding none, he’d built his fire in the middle of a tight ring of saplings not far from a fast-running stream. He’d woven branches and ferns between the trunks forming a screen against inquisitive eyes.

The stream was surprisingly cold for a summer’s day, but Jake stripped off and had a thorough wash. Just because these people didn’t care about cleanliness, he wasn’t going to imitate them. His mother aways insisted that keeping clean was the key to a long and healthy life. He also rinsed his clothes and hung them out to dry on the lower branches inside his makeshift bower.

The screen he’d fashioned offered little resistance to the breeze that rose as the sun set. He shivered. Pulling a rain cape from his bag, he wrapped it around his shoulders and drew closer to the fire. Time to look at that book. He flicked through the pages eyeing the pictures in the firelight. Although many of the scenes made no sense, he gathered it was some sort of history book.

In one picture, a massive fleet of silver vehicles, like the one they’d stolen, was driving past a man on a raised platform saluting with an upraised hand. In another, a catastrophe must have struck because houses lay in ruin and the streets were littered with bodies. One picture depicted a child’s ankle with a flesh coloured bracelet around it. Had that been what the man was looking for when he rolled up Jake’s trouser legs?

Turning back to the beginning of the book, he tried to read the first and only paragraph which spanned most of the page. It was hard going. Few of the words were known to him. When he reached the end, despite having understood next to nothing, there was a familiarity about the words that intrigued him. He ran through the text again. If you replaced the soft ‘sh’ and ‘h’ and ‘ce’ with harder sounds like ‘tsh’ or ‘tch’ or ‘kk’ the similarity with his own language was striking. Reading it was like untying knots in his brain, although there was a trick to it.  You couldn’t force it. You had to let the knots unravel on their own.

He read the paragraph a third time, slowly, letting the spelling of words blur into his own language. To his amazement, the meaning of the text sprang out at him. It was a summary of the whole book, the history of a world in one paragraph. Some terms still escaped him, like ‘multinational company’ which he guessed was a powerful group of people making and selling things although he could not understand how they might be found guilty of causing bad weather.

From what he read, ‘bad’ was too weak a word for it. Violent storms had rolled in off the sea while in other places there had been severe droughts. Whole towns had been the victims of tornados. Elsewhere there had been massive flooding. The situation became so disastrous, people had been forced to take shelter deep in caves in the mountains. And there was the ’nuclear bomb’, whatever that was, which, despite being very small, terrified people and caused so much death and destruction.

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