For the avid reader, there’s nothing more refreshing than a book that reads like nothing you’ve read before. For its innovative structure and diction, Sara Tilley’s Duke is a very novel novel. It’s exciting to hold a book in your hands that is visibly busting out a brand new narrative form.
In fact, it was Tilley’s trailblazing flair that her publisher, Pedlar Press, was drawn to. “Pedlar Press values experimentation in style and form,” says Beth Follett. “If a work is ground-breaking; ‘if I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off’ (to quote Emily Dickinson), I know it’s a Pedlar book. Sara’s Duke did that, and more.”
Duke tells the tale of William Marmaduke Tilly – a man looking to re-inflate his family’s financial wellbeing by channeling money home through his work in the Yukon. He’s also looking for his semi-estranged brother Bob, but finding a man in Yukon is about as easy as striking gold.
It reads as a bit of a discovered travelogue, because it basically is: Tilley based her book on a hidden collection of her great-grandfather’s journals she found in an old family property. “In 2004 my father pried open a cupboard upstairs that had been stuck shut, and we discovered a large cache of documents. I took all of the written material and began to order it, and sort it by author according to handwriting, and then to transcribe it all into a source document. That took a year or so, and as I worked, a natural story began to emerge.”
She says she was drawn to the incredibly complicated relationship that Duke had with his father, which was evident throughout the letters. “I wanted to write a tragic love story that was not romantic, but about a child’s enduring and doomed love for their parent.”
In an attempt to preserve Duke’s voice, she wrote like he did – with no punctuation, emphatic and idiosyncratic capitalizations, etc. The writing in the novel is also “peppered here and there with little rhyming verses and jokes. I was really taken by his sense of humour, his turns of phrase, and the poetry that was present in his unique way of putting words down. The real Duke often would continue on for pages in one long run-on sentence. In my text, I created spaces for breath, for the character and the reader.”
She also wanted to have the layout of the page mirror the interior life of this character. “I have crossed-out text sometimes when Duke can hardly even think the thoughts he’s having to himself – he’s editing away his thoughts in the moment of having them.”
Tilley took channelling a character to new heights in the writing of this novel: to end her struggle with feeling wrong about appropriating the stories of her relatives, she put her background in Pochinko clown work to use, and made masks for the two main characters, Duke and Eva, so she could not only emotionally, but physically inhabit their worlds. Duke’s mask was so big and clunky she says she would “write on the floor, crouched down with big paper and markers, and write in large scrawls that I often would have trouble reading later when I ‘came to.’ It is quite like having an out of body experience to go deep inside the mask, very surprising.” She certainly did something right, as the characters in this book – like the narrative structure – are dynamic, well-drawn, and memorably impressive.