Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Dissenting voices

There are so may ways of telling a story. In the weighty tomes of Victorian England, authors like George Eliot took you by the hand and led you sententiously through the novel. Eliot's all-knowing, all-seeing 'voice' helped to shape your response to the characters, and ultimately the book itself. 


Tatty old books
Books of old: "Dear reader..."
© Photographer: Simon Lawrence | Agency: Dreamstime.com
As children of the modern age, we have rebelled against this kind of handholding. In The Art of Fiction, the writer and literary critic, David Lodge, explains that an intrusive, authorial voice claims "a God-like omniscience, which our sceptical and relativistic age is reluctant to grant to anyone". Modern fiction, he says, tends to present the action through the consciousness of the characters, or "by handing over to them the narrative task itself". 

In other words, readers of modern fiction are more accustomed to a quiet, third-person presence who moves deftly in and out of the characters' thoughts, or a first-person narrator who tells the story from their own point of view. This is not to say that the first-person narrator is a modern invention - in Great Expectations, Charles Dickens tells the story through Pip with great ingenuity. Despite the immediacy of the first person, somehow we can still feel Dickens' judgement of Pip coming through. 

Undeniably, however, there is something modern and spontaneous about the first person. It pulls us into the book with its confessional tone. There is no standing on ceremony. The authenticity of the first person can instantly bring a story to life. Immersed in the tale, we find it easier to forget that we are reading a work of fiction.

Nevertheless, there are limitations. The author, adopting the voice of a first-person narrator, has to stay in character. There are can be no sweeping descriptions of landscape (unless the narrator is prone to such diversions) or jumps into the minds of other characters. By contrast, a third-person telling allows the author to stand back, play God and pull all the strings. 

Now we come to my dilemma (and here I switch into the first person). I am in the process of writing a novel about an ex-patriate community in Jakarta during the 1970s. On a whim, I decided to write it in the first person. I wanted the novel to open with all the immediacy and distinction of a single voice. But, for the reasons above, I keep toying with re-writing the book in the third person! My view on which perspective works better changes from day to day.

So I am putting it to the vote. Below, I have included two versions of the same opening passage. If you have time, take a read of both and let me know which you prefer in the "Add a comment" box at the bottom of the page.


First Person


We arrived at dusk. Flaming Nora – what a trip! Forty-eight hours door-to-door, with fourteen pieces of luggage and a wooden crate. We were only off the plane five minutes before the sun deserted us, tunnelling down into another part of the world. Jakarta! Truthfully, I had barely heard of the place until a few months ago and here I was, one dark night.
Outside the airport window, the jumbo jet had melted away into a twinkle of lights. They swam before my eyes in fluorescent waves. Oh Holy Mary, Mother of God, grant me one cigarette, please! My fingers were twitching in my lap. And where in the hell was Daniel? I gazed out across the filthy floor of the arrivals hall and spotted him in the distance talking to some airport bloke in a cheap uniform. Daniel’s spine was stooped, his head hangdog. He looked as old as my dad. Something was wrong. Hauling myself to my feet, I tottered over.



Third Person

They arrived at dusk, a husband and wife. What a trip! Forty-eight hours door-to-door, with fourteen pieces of luggage and a wooden crate. They were only off the plane five minutes before the sun deserted them, tunnelling down into another part of the world. Jakarta! Louise, the wife, had barely heard of the place until a few months ago and now she found herself listening to crickets trilling in the trees outside the window.
On the runaway, the jumbo jet they arrived on had melted away into a twinkle of lights. They swam before Louise's eyes in fluorescent waves. Oh Holy Mary, Mother of God, grant me one cigarette, please, she prayed, as her fingers twitched in her lap. The sound of raised voices caused her to look up. Where in the hell was Daniel? She gazed out across the filthy floor of the arrivals hall and spotted him in the distance talking to some airport bloke in a cheap uniform. Daniel’s spine was stooped, his head hangdog. He looked as old as her dad. Something was wrong. Hauling herself to her feet, she tottered over.



Emma Clark Lam is the author of A Sister for Margot