A Bibliophile’s Miscellany: Child Narrators
You will have noticed by now that we Bookkaholics are devoted – nay, addicted – to books. And, to me, there’s not much that’s better than a book list. What I especially love is seeing the connections between books, following trends and categories wherever they go, finding the best (and worst) examples of a genre. My idol in this pursuit is ‘rock-star librarian’ Nancy Pearl, the queen of thematic lists; her collections, including Book Lust and Book Lust to Go, are fantastic sources of interesting reading material on everything from Academia to Zen Buddhism. I can’t claim to have anything like Pearl’s breadth of knowledge of the world of books, but of late I’ve read 180-260 books a year, so I have a decent cache of titles to choose from. In any case, I think everyone loves a good list. It’s a chance for all you learned, opinionated types to express your outrage at all the wonderful books I’ve forgotten or misunderstood. So without further ado, here is the inaugural list in this bibliophile’s miscellany:
First person narration is almost as old as the novel itself; some of the first books that can rightfully be called novels, such as Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Moll Flanders (1722), and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), are from the point of view of their main characters, looking back over the shape of their lives and recounting their adventures. As the eighteenth century continued, there was a growing interest in the psychology and experiences of children, especially ‘lost’ and orphaned children. In classic novels like Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) and Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield (1850), we have the author recreating the child’s point of view, but the voice is in fact that of an adult narrator looking back on childhood.
Having a child narrate his or her own story as it unfolds is a more recent development. The earliest examples I can find in the canon are Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (published in 1883 but first serialized in a children’s magazine) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884). By relying on a child’s viewpoint, authors are able to introduce a level of unreliability to the narrative: there is the possibility that readers will not be told the whole story, due to the narrator’s innocence and misunderstandings. Although children are generally expected to be less judgmental or interpretive, there is no doubt that theirs will be a biased perspective.
Meanwhile, a protagonist’s naïveté allows for situations of dramatic irony where the reader realizes things the child does not. A prime example would be Henry James’s 1897 novel What Maisie Knew. Although told in the third person, the perspective is often limited to Maisie’s vision so as to create a contrast between her blithe ignorance of her parents’ marital strife and the readers’ understanding. James is delighted to show just how little Maisie knows of what’s actually happening – “Nothing could have been more touching at first than her failure to suspect the ordeal that awaited her little unspotted soul.”
As unreliable narratives go, children’s voices are especially hard to recreate because the formal constraints of a novel will always demand some measure of forced eloquence and unrealistically profound observations. It sometimes requires firm resolve to suspend one’s disbelief and accept that the novel is the child’s voice and not the author’s. A timeless and well-loved example of the child narrator is Scout Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960). The gap between Scout’s tough-girl optimism and the sad story of racial injustice taking place in her town makes for a compelling read.
A more recent model for the child’s narrative is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon (2003). Here we have a doubly unreliable narrator: Christopher Boone is a withdrawn fifteen-year old boy with a condition like Asperger’s syndrome, which means that he lacks an understanding of self versus others and has trouble interpreting emotions and context. As he chronicles his investigation into the skewering of the neighbor’s dog, his voice – flat and matter-of-fact, perturbed by anything more abstract than his beloved mathematics – is unforgettable.
In recent years it seems to me that child narrators have become much more prevalent. Indeed, there came a point last year when I thought I would scream if I picked up another novel and found it was from a child’s point of view. Here are some of the spate of novels I encountered, all from the last five years or so, and of varying quality: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender, Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away by Christie Watson, When We Were Romans by Matthew Kneale, Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos, The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen, and Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman.
But my very favorites from the recent crop are the five listed below:
1. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell (2011)
Russell’s debut novel begins as a sort of carefree female Huck Finn romp, sails through a pseudo-Homeric myth, and later morphs into a nightmarish Cape Fear tribute. Twelve-year-old Ava Bigtree and her siblings are part of the family business, a small Florida theme park called Swamplandia! Ava has big dreams to fill her late mother’s role as head gator-wrestler at the park, thereby reviving visitor figures and securing her father’s loyalty, but there are many obstacles to overcome. Not least that her brother Kiwi has defected to the new Hell-themed World of Darkness theme park that just opened up nearby, and her sister Osceola is dating ghosts. The writing is excellent: Russell brings a Floridian swamp to life in all its oppressive heat and noise.
2. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer (2005)
The majority of the novel is narrated by Oskar Schell, a tremendously precocious nine-year-old who’s still trying to come to terms with his father’s death in the World Trade Center on 9/11. In his distinctive, effusive vocabulary (the title is an example of his descriptive style), Oskar narrates his travels around New York City as he plays the young gumshoe looking for clues to secrets his dad may have left behind.
There’s nothing so cozy as a Flavia de Luce mystery. Set in and around a 1950’s English country house, the novels are narrated by our eleven-year-old heroine, who does madcap chemistry experiments to solve small-town murders (amateur detection seems to be a bit of a theme running through children’s narratives!). Flavia may be spiky and snotty – especially to her two older sisters, one boy-crazy and one book-obsessed – but she sure knows her poisons, a skill that comes in handy surprisingly often in their rural idyll. I usually eschew both genre fiction and series fiction, but I make an exception for Flavia de Luce.
Donoghue’s reflection on the Josef Fritzl case – in which a man kept his daughter imprisoned in his basement and fathered multiple children on her – is astonishing not so much for its subject matter as for its voice. The novel is narrated by five-year-old Jack, who was born and raised in ‘Room’ and has known no other environment. When Jack and his Ma mount a daring escape, the outside world suddenly becomes much larger and much scarier all at once.
Adrian Mole is a typical teenage boy in 1980s England, preoccupied with family woes, homework, zits, and the beautiful but unobtainable Pandora. He dwells so single-mindedly on his own problems that he misses the evidence pointing to his mother’s affair with the neighbor (an example of that dramatic irony I mentioned earlier). The style is the best thing here: imagine Bridget Jones as a teenage boy, documenting every imagined health crisis and moral failing. Sue Townsend went on to write eight more Adrian Mole books, following his life up through his late thirties. I’ve only read this one so far, but if they’re all this funny they are not to be missed.
[For even more ideas, here’s University College London literature professor John Mullan’s list of his ten favorite child narrators.]