Sometimes it's useful to analyze why a book doesn't work for you. I recently read The Dressmaker of Khair Khana. It's the story of a family in Kabul during the takeover by the Taliban. They had to find a way to support themselves when women were no longer allowed to work outside the home, travel without a male family member, let alone negotiate with suppliers or customers who were men.
In other words, a pretty interesting story, right? Yes indeed. I bought the book, and read it all the way through. There was nothing overtly wrong; it wasn't a bad book that made me cranky to read, but at the end I felt emotionally unsatisfied. Why?
First, and this makes sense, the author did not flesh out the Taliban as a true antagonist. She's writing about real people who still live in Afghanistan, and the political situation there is still unstable. Making the Taliban the villain in the piece could have repercussions none of us want.
While the villain doesn't have to be a criminal mastermind like Snidely Whiplash, there must be a sense of the force that is thwarting the protagonist's goals. And the protagonist has to recognize the antagonist as the antagonist. That's one of the key elements missing here.
Without an antagonist, there's nothing at stake. Which is ironic in that this entire family's life was at stake for most of the book. Knowing it intellectually is not the same as feeling it during the story.
Second, the main character doesn't change. I think this is due to the fact that the writer came to the story long after the events happened. She didn't know the family in 1995; she's starting her interviews in 2005. Thus, she's meeting everyone after the events in the book, and maybe didn't know to ask what the family was like before these life-altering events occurred.
And finally because there's no villain, and the characters don't change, there's rise and fall, no tension to the book. It's just a series of events. Interesting events, but at no time was I on the edge of my seat wondering what would happen next. I didn't put the book down with a sigh that it was over.
I see a lot of queries for memoir that start out "I've had an interesting life." Well, it doesn't get much more interesting than fighting for your family's survival in Afghanistan under the Taliban, and that didn't work as a story. An interesting life is just the start. What's your story? Who's the villain? What was at stake? How did you change, or how did you effect change in the world?