Monday, 11 October 2010

Who tells your story? POV changes everything

I was interested to read James Wood in the London Review of Books today, on the difficulties of the narrative voice in Emma Donoghue's Booker shortlisted novel, Room. The story takes its prompt from the real-life case of Josef Fritzel, and is told through the eyes of its five year old hero, Jack. Wood states very lucidly the difficulty posed by this narrative choice, for the author but also for the reader:

"... unfortunately Jack is a child, and unfortunately Jack narrates the novel, and unfortunately Jack is a pretty cute kid, which means that the book itself is never far from cuteness – more Adrian Mole than Ivan Denisovich – which may explain the endorsements of Room provided by sentimental popular novelists like Anita Shreve and Audrey Niffenegger. Where is Mark Haddon’s imprimatur? And of course, a novel narrated by a five-year-old kid stretches to breaking point the already uneasy tension in first-person narration between the supposed orality of the recitation and its actual writtenness."

I think Wood makes a very good point. Even if our primary interest in the story is its psychological impact on the hero, the narrative doesn't quite capture - convincingly, consistently - the extent of that impact. Because no 5 year old can be expected to articulate an experience of this kind, let alone in a manner that extracts the nuances and the socio-political subtext which would have made this a richer, more thought-provoking work. I absolutely understand Donoghue's attraction to the subject matter, as a writer, but I wonder if she took the easy route through, by avoiding anything approaching an adult commentary.

The narrator in The Lovely Bones is older, and manages to combine a childish wonder with an emerging adult instinct for danger and despair - we don't lose anything by seeing the story through her eyes. In any case, Sebold's novel is not (to my knowledge) based on a real-life crime. The prude in me (if that's what it is) wants to demand that fiction inspired by real-life crime takes its responsibilities very seriously, thinks about what is important in the narrative, what responses readers should feel, the questions we should ask about a world that contains this kind of crime. I don't believe this was ever going to be possible through the narrative POV of a 5 year old, and I wonder whether Donoghue believed it to be possible.

Ultimately, I think my disappointment with the novel is its light-weight treatment of what is a deeply disturbing and morally challenging subject matter. I'm not squeamish but even if I was, I wouldn't want my reaction to a story inspired by the crimes of Josef Fritzel to be "Aww, how sweet!"

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