Portraits of Celina – Sue Whiting

Portraits of CelinaPortraits of Celina is young adult fiction, something I’ve not read since I was that age myself. I read it because I had the privilege of meeting the author at my novel-writing course this week.

Portraits of Celina is about 16-year-old Bayley, who moves with her mother and brother and sister to an old house on the coast following the death of her father. The house has been in the family for generations and was once the home of Celina O’Malley who disappeared at 16, never to be seen again. Bayley sleeps in Celina’s room and wears clothes belonging to Celina that she finds in an old truck and pretty soon she’s being stalked by the ghost of Celina.

The story follows the increasingly disturbing presence of Celina’s ghost, leading to the answer to how she died. But its really a story about how a family handles grief, from Bayley’s mother who can’t see her way clear to go back to her job as a designer, wayward older sister Amelia and younger brother Seth, haunted by how his father died. Its also a love story, between Bayley and Oliver, who lives across the lake and whose father loved Celina.

It’s a really beautiful story about a family, but the visits of the ghostly presence and gradual unfolding of the mystery of Celina’s death are subtly handled. The teenage dialogue really rings true and the characters are distinct and likeable. I think the best part of it is the seamless movement between reality and the presence of Celina’s spirit, which doesn’t feel jarring at all.

I think the difference between this and adult fiction is that its easy to understand the subtext and there are few, if any, ambiguities. Even so, I really enjoyed reading it.

But the best thing about meeting Sue, who is also an editor, was hearing about the importance of connecting your story opening with the climax and ending. She really emphasised how important it is that the ending must resonate with the opening and deliver on what the reader expects. Sue said laying the foundations of the story in the beginning are the key to creating a satisfying ending.

Its made me think long and hard about my own story and now I am thinking about the climax and ending (which I just rewrote this weekend). It’s made me see more clearly what is, and is not, important throughout the rest of the story. And I have also had to define exactly what this story is about so that it can be planted right there in the opening so readers know where they are going. It doesn’t have to be overt, but it has to be there.

I’ve been walking around the house pulling books off shelves and reading the first few pages, and sure enough, in nearly all of them, the central theme and what the climax represents is right there in the first few pages. This insight has also made me realise which scenes should be cut to narrative or just cut out altogether, and how to strengthen each scene so it has a direct connection to the climax.

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