Let’s be honest. if there’s one narrator you want for your life, it’s this guy.
Narrators are our avenue into the fictitious worlds mapped out by authors. Their choice of words, phrases and imagery; their take on events; their prejudices and opinions skew everything we see, feel, smell, experience. Therefore, I think there’s a pretty decent case for arguing that the narrator is the most important element of a book. And that’s what I want to discuss in these posts: good narrators, bad narrators and the down right irritating.
What started me on this path was The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, which, as many of you will know, is narrated by death. I’m only 28% of the way through so I don’t know how the choice of narrator will impact the story further on, but so far, after the initial focus on death and its role in the world, there has been little. In fact, it seems superfluous to bother mentioning that death is the narrator; once the main plot takes over, the voice could be anyone’s, meaning that when the odd reference does appear, it almost seems jarring and ill-fitting.
Yet, I like the idea as a concept and understand why it would appeal to a writer; your choice is omnipotent, does not need to match existing accounts or facts, thus allowing for full creative licence. I just wish that Zusak had actually exploited his choice a little more. However, I cannot dwell on this too long – I am yet to finish the book.
So which narrators in fiction do I find effective? The first that springs to mind is Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird. This may surprise some readers as there are many who find her to be the crucial flaw in this best-selling book because she is a child – six years old, to be exact. But I wonder if many of these critics have missed a crucial aspect? Scout is actually looking back at the events in the novel and in the second paragraph we have this line:
When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident.
This instantly changes how we should judge and interpret what is to follow because now we know that not only has a significant amount of time passed, but Scout’s own remembrances have been mixed with those of others who were there. This distance will have had two significant – and seemingly contradictory – effects. The first is that certain parts will have been dulled and others will have been highlighted, thus altering how the story is presented to the reader. One cannot help but suspect that Jem filled in many of the spaces for Scout, as he was present for most of her experiences and being that little bit older, would have much fuller recollections. This interval will also have created fuller perspectives for the protagonists. Who is capable of objectively judging their actions six seconds after the event? Everyone needs time to gain that ability and rationally understand what happened, and why.
The trial of Tom Robinson in particular benefits from having a child’s narration, as it is so steeped in the politics of its time. Scout’s lack of full understanding of the politics at play and Jem’s outrage at what he does understand, allow Atticus to explain the world in which they are living and underline what the modern readers see as ludicrous levels of prejudice and racism.
As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it – whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.
Adult characters would be conscious of the racial factors which underpinned American society but no one can realistically expect such a young girl to have knowledge of her family history, nor the societal, cultural and political elements of her world. To Kill a Mockingbird is a story of multiple discoveries and understandings, so it is fully fitting it is through a child’s eyes the reader experiences this exploration.
I want to end this post with some Atticus, because, well, Atticus:
I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.