Look who’s talking – strange narrators in fiction

Not long ago, I read a book that was written from the viewpoint of a foetus. Now, I’ve just finished one in which the narrator is death.

The former, Nutshell, was written by one of the world’s highest profile authors, Ian McEwan. It is a story of a dysfunctional couple from the unusual perspective of a foetus.

And in starting to read The Book Thief, I was unprepared for such a grim narrator. In the book, death recounts the experiences of a sensitive young girl in wartime Germany.

While using such narrators to tell the story might at first seem like some kind of stunt, I have found that I have enjoyed the books, although it took a while to settle into stories.

Markus Zusak, the author of The Book Thief, acknowledged the strangeness of his narrator when he wrote his Author’s Note at the start of his novel about the way his novel had not turned out as he had originally planned,

“The initial thought had been a hundred-page novella. It had become a 580-page novel set in Nazi Germany, narrated by Death. I honestly felt it was doomed to fail.”

The Book Thief has gone on to become an international bestseller, adapted into a film of the same name.

The success of a book with such a strange narrator has started me thinking about the quirky narrators that I have come across in books, and the effect that unusual narrators can have on the story.

Children are narrators that I often enjoy.  The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time was narrated by a boy with Asperger’s Syndrome. This perspective had the effect of introducing readers to a new way of looking at ordinary life, through the eyes of someone whose mind, in some ways, worked differently to their own. In particular, I remember the way Christopher highlighted the absurdity of the ‘chit chat’ that adults around him engaged in, providing a clear view of a social construct normalised by adults.

Holden Caufield was another singular narrator with a view on society that was both blinkered and revealing, as cynically trained as it was on the ‘phonies’ that he saw around him. Like many books narrated by children or teens, JD Salinger’s book reminded readers of what it was like to see through younger, sometimes critical, often defensive, eyes.

Another narrator who it is hard to ignore is Lolita’s Humbert Humbert, a man who preyed on his young neighbour. By presenting the story from Humbert’s perspective, Vladimir Nabokov almost allows the reader to sympathise with him, despite his manipulation and abuse of a girl.

Another surprising narrator is the murdered child, as in Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones. While the book is very popular and well-loved, I’m not sure that I ever got past the novelty of reading from such a strange perspective. Similarly, I never quite lost the sense of silliness of Nutshell, although perhaps this is exactly what McEwan wanted in his satirical story of incompetent parents-to-be.

According to writer Paul Auster, it doesn’t matter if the narrator is not quite believable, as readers understand well that the book is not reality … precisely because of the narrator.

“When you pick up a book, everyone knows it’s imaginary. You don’t have to pretend it’s not a book. We don’t have to pretend that people don’t write books. That omniscient third-person narration isn’t the only way to do it. Once you’re writing in the first person, then the narrator is a writer.”

And perhaps that is why I settled quickly into a book narrated by death, even shedding a tear as I neared its tragic ending.

Whether silly or strange, protective or destructive, the voice of the narrator is one that has a significant influence over the reader’s experience of a story. It is a careful and skilful writer that can enable the reader to hear past that voice, be it deathly, childish or manipulative, to that of the characters and situations of which it speaks.

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