We owe it to each other to tell stories - Neil Gaiman

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Through the Eyes of the Narrator - The May Edition

Sometimes the narrator offers us a very limited view, other times the narrator offers us a blow by blow account of the story that they have to tell. Through the eyes of the narrator we can either see the whole, bigger picture, or just get a partial view, a mere glimpse into the life of the characters that we’re sharing a journey with whilst reading.

The eyes of the narrator largely impact how we feel about the characters we encounter. Our narrator will have certain prejudices or biases that will come into play, and often it is difficult to see things any differently to how our narrator perceives and experiences people and events and then relates it to us – just think about how you felt about Professor Snape in Harry Potter.

Let’s look at The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. Narrated by the boys in the neighbourhood the Lisbon girls stayed in. For years it has been a mystery that I have been unable to solve. Why did those girls feel that committing suicide was their only way out? It has driven me crazy that I can find no answer to that question, until it dawned on my during my last reread that there is no way that I could ever solve the mystery of the Lisbon girls. I could offer theories, I could make guesses, I could infer meaning to their actions during their last weeks – but I could never find an answer. There never would be an answer because that is what Eugenides meant for the book to be. If 25 years after the tragic way that the Lisbon girls ended their lives, those who were most intrigued by them could not figure out why they did it, how could I? The boys, now men are still enchanted by those girls that they could not figure out – they still cannot figure them out. They still cannot get them out of their minds. How would I, who could never look at the before and after of the Lisbon girls since Cecilia’s death be able to figure it out? I can only see things as the narrators do, and they only had an outside view, not being able to intervene and save the girls. Even the information that they gather through the interviews that they conducted could never help them to piece the puzzle together – the information, was also from the outside - so it was a perspective or an opinion – not the actual truth. Our narrators didn’t see what it is that pushed those girls, or who suggested the mass suicide. We can never know, because the ones that do know are not alive to tell us.

On the other hand, we have 13 Reasons Why, and I assure you I’ll not only be looking at books with suicide, this is just to make a point. In 13 Reasons Why we know exactly why Hannah Baker decided to end her life. On the tapes that Clay receives, we hear the whole story as to why she did it, the catalysing factor that started this whole process is revealed to us. Whilst reading this book you feel like you are there listening to the tapes, on the one hand you feel like you are there with Clay as you go through the devastating truths of why she did it. You experience the way that Clay hears it and is impacted by it all; how Clay is the only one that didn’t really hurt her. On the other hand, you feel like you are there with Hannah, in her shoes – experiencing it all, listening and understanding why she did it. What Hannah wants you to see is that a lie, or insult, no matter how harmless it may seem at first can alter someone’s life forever, so you need to be careful – you don’t know what your words can do.

A similar thing happens in 10 Things We Did (and probably shouldn’t have). We get the full story, all 10 hilarious misadventures – from a hot tub to chlamydia, to the fear of being found out by the parents who believe that none of these things are happening, but that everything is above board. You feel like you’ve had the same crazy adventure that you could, maybe, tell your kids about one day and can relive with your friends for years to come, because that is how the narrator has seen and experienced it.

It is quite a different thing when we have an all knowing narrator, who knows how it’s going to end before it begins so can tell the story from many angles. Here I am thinking of Callie from Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex. All knowing, Callie takes us through 3 generations of the Stefanides family so that we can see how it is that Callie came to be. There is also J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye – where we have Holden Caulfield who starts and finishes with the end of his story.

Then you get books like The Color Purple by Alice Walker where we have Celie – whose story we see through her journal entries. Her innermost private thoughts – that she puts down writing to God – perhaps the most open and honest narrator of all?

There are also instances of confusion, where your narrator is as lost as you are because of their distorted view of reality - being unable to distinguish what is real to what is actually fantasy. Here I am referring to Shutter Island, where we have the story of Teddy as he believes it to be, only finding out at the end that his reality is distorted, so you feel quite mislead and hoodwinked when you see what it is that really happened.

These are but a few narrators that have stood out for me over the years, I am certain that there are many others whose narrative style or story I have not touched on here. Who are your favourite narrators? Which narrative style do you enjoy or abhor? 

A narrator who I have immensely enjoyed is Odette from The Imagined Child by Jo-Anne Richards. I don't want to say too much as I do not want to give anything away, but I do hope that my review will regale you so much that you'll be so overcome that you'll go out today to get yourself a copy of this wonderful book. So without further delay...

Title: The Imagined Child

Author: Jo-Anne Richards

Pages: 330

Publisher: Picador

Source: Received from Pan MacMillan South Africa

The Synopsis

Odette leaves Johannesburg to make a new start in Nagelaten, a small Free State Town. A writer for a popular TV soap, she appears to be searching for a less complicated life. But others think she’s escaping – to a place where she knows no one and won’t have to share her secrets. Life in Nagelaten isn’t as simple as it seems. The town also holds secrets. Why do people insist there’s no crime, all evidence to the contrary? Who is the strange outcast, whom she feels sorry for, yet doesn’t quite trust? And why will no one tell her his story?

Odette is caught up in two deaths – a baby in the United Kingdom, whom her troubled daughter, Mandy, is suspected of killing – and a brutal farm murder. Both cause her ordered life to unravel, while a new friendship forces her to question the silences of Nagelaten. Events edge her towards the most courageous act of her life: facing the truth in order to save herself and her daughter.

The Review

I started reading The Imagined Child on the bus on my way to work – the 40 minute bus ride just flew by. I really wished that my bus ride was longer, I was so taken by this story that I needed more time to be in its world. How I wished I could just wheel my chair to a corner in my office so I could just keep reading, but alas – when you must work, you must work. I could not wait for my bus ride back to Table View so I could get back to The Imagined Child, and even that ride was way too short. Fortunately the weekend was very close, so I spent much of my Saturday relishing the pages of The Imagined Child – which is a marvellous book in that it does not give up all of its secrets at once.

The Imagined Child is a brilliant piece of South African fiction- it has made me wonder why I do not read more South African fiction. I actually think I shall have to start a feature on Bibliophilia showcasing more South African works.

I find myself struggling to tell you about The Imagined Child without giving too much away. There are so many things that I want to tell you about The Imagined Child, but I don’t want to take away any of the experience in the brilliance of the way that it unfurls itself for you. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, so this is very hard to write.

The Imagined Child is a brilliant showcase of the immense talent that Jo-Anne Richards has – her writing style here keeps you guessing. I adore the way you are left to follow the dots, the way you see things when Odette does.  The way you take the same cues from social interactions as she does, and the way you are shocked when you discover things. Most especially the way you almost intuitively feel the guilt, the emotions that bubble under the surface of the calm, collected, together façade that Odette puts up. Most of all, the way that you are simultaneously finding things out about the town of Nagelaten and its citizens, but also the way that you feel that there is something that does not quite add up about Odette and the way she doesn't want to talk about what is wrong with Mandy. The whole hide, and reveal style of her writing is truly brilliant. Also the way that she works on a story line for the soap that she writes for that allows her to work through the what ifs of her situation with Mandy.

I was reminded quite a lot of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex whilst reading The Imagined Child – whilst not as long or complex as Middlesex, The Imagined Child is an Odyssey of sorts, and much like Middlesex, we are shown how genetic manipulations, and the actions of our parents, and even their parents have an impact on the person we become – not only when we are born, but in the way that we are raised.

I was also reminded of Ian McEwan’s Atonement in the way that Odette tried to fix things by telling, and sort of revealing the truth. Also, in the way that when we take situations out of context because we are wrongfully witnessing them they make us do things that we end up regretting, and will never be able to fix.

The Imagined Child is exceptional in the way that it explores small town life – the role of the church and the way that outsiders are viewed, and not entirely let in. The way that the Afrikaans community people accommodate the English speaking folk and the small grammar mistakes that fall into conversations. Jo-Anne really got it right – I could relate quite easily being from a small town in the Karoo myself.

On a completely unrelated note, I found it rather awesome that I know someone who knows Jo-Anne Richards – and who was thanked in the acknowledgements. Really small world, when you think of it – thanking Monty Roodt – my favourite Sociology lecturer from Rhodes for the use of his house.

If you are looking for a great local book that you can relate to, that will keep you thrilled to the very end, go and get yourself a copy of The Imagined Child – this is South African Fiction at its very best.