Some novelists indulge a good deal in foreshadowing, that is, giving hints about what is to come in their stories before it actually happens. Others, including me, do not. I’ve been thinking about this device recently, after reading Barbara Vine’s The Birthday Present, in which there is a great deal of foreshadowing.
The first chapter of the book is told by the brother-in-law of the key character, a sleazy MP. It introduces quickly quite a large cast of characters and before anything has happened, within the first three pages there are lines such as these:
‘The chances are that if she hadn’t agreed to provide a certain alibi, none of this would have happened.’
‘I’m putting in Jane Atherton’s diary. Not just some of it but the whole thing as it was sent to Juliet. Ivor’s history and come to that Hebe Furnal’s wouldn’t be complete without it.’
‘The mystery of which girl was the intended victim was never publicly solved.’
(After a snippet of recalled dialogue): ‘There was more of this but I’ll come back to it.’
I have to say that I found all this a bit bewildering and irksome, and, if I hadn’t been such a Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine fan, I might have given up at that point. Luckily, I didn't, and I do want to emphasise that I’m really glad I persevered, because I enjoyed the book, despite some flaws.
But I do think that foreshadowing is a device to be used with caution. In days gone by, the ‘Had I But Known’ school of writing was mercilessly mocked by the critics and I can understand why. Others may disagree, but for me, The Birthday Present shows that, even in the hands of a writer of genius, foreshadowing is a risky technique that is as likely to alienate readers as it is to intrigue them. However, I'd be interested in other people's views.