Over the weekend I re-read Kamila Shamsie’s novel Burnt Shadows for a discussion with my Monday afternoon book group. One of the elements that came up as we talked was the author’s use of a prologue, a device which appears to be increasingly common in modern novels. I come across them most often it seems in crime fiction where they tend to serve as a way of filling the reader in on an occurrence that has happened before the primary event line begins. This might be the actual crime whose investigation is going to form the main body of the story or possibly an event that occurred many years previously but which acted as a trigger for what is about to take place. Either way it helps to place the reader in a superior position to that of the investigating officers because initially, at least, we have more information then they do about what is going on.
I have to say that I am ambiguous about these prologues. What is not to like about feeling superior you might ask, but sometimes I simply don’t want to engage with the information they give me. This is probably because many of those that you come across in crime fiction are particularly brutal providing, as they do, details of some poor individual’s last moments. However, I don’t think I have the animosity to them on principle that one friend of mine does. She flatly refuses to read them and has been known to go as far as striking repeat offenders of her reading list. As far as she is concerned they are a sign of lazy writing. She wants the details they contain woven into the main story rather than having them presented flat out at the beginning.
I have to admit to having a more than passing interest in this topic at the moment as I have the beginnings of an idea for what might become a major project to do with both prologues and epilogues in Shakespeare’s plays. So I was more than usually interested in what Shamsie does in Burnt Shadows because, although the passage is announced as, and appears where you would expect to find, a prologue, the material which it contains actually serves as an epilogue. As a result you read the book in anticipation of finding out how one of the main characters ends up in the situation you now know is going to be his fate after the book concludes. I am not someone who reads the last page first so that I know in advance where a story is going, although I have friends who habitually do read that way, so I am even less certain how I feel about this than I am about how I feel about prologues in general. What I do know is that in this modern prose incarnation they are performing a very different role to that which they fulfil in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama and it would be interesting to trace the line of development.
How do you feel about being presented with a prologue at the beginning of a novel? Do you know of any interesting examples? And what about a prologue that reveals all? Does it stop you in your tracks or make you want to read on on the grounds that the journey is more important than the destination?