Narrative Voice

14 02 2009

I’m currently in the middle of My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time by Liz Jensen. I am already a sucker for time-travel stories (Connie Willis’s hilarious To Say Nothing of the Dog and terrifying Doomsday Book are two of my all-time favorite books), and Jensen’s feisty, clever narrator Charlotte provides a unique and delightful narrative voice that elevates what is so far a fairly middle-of-the-road plot to something amazing.

Charlotte is a prostitute in Copenhagen in 1897, charming, street-smart, curious, selfish, and Romantic with a capital R — the sort of character who claims adamantly and repeatedly that the woman who is obviously her mother is not, in fact, related to her at all.

I gave a curtsy, while saying quickly, lest there be misunderstanding, ‘As I mentioned to you a moment ago, Herr Møller, Fru Schleswig is not my mother.’ (Why would people persist in this misconception about my relationship with the embarrassing Fru Schleswig? It was a daily ordeal I endured. I should perhaps inform you at this point that my real mother was a minor princess, who was forced to abandon me as a baby.)

She’s a seductress by nature, and her frank and transparent apostrophes to the reader pepper the story with a sort of rakish nineteenth-century charm. Charlotte is thoroughly engaging as she hilariously relishes (and, of course, often exaggerates) the melodramatic potential of the tale she unfolds.

One should begin in childhood, I suppose. Is not that the tradition, in autobiography? But forgive me, dearly beloved reader (and my, you are looking well today, if I may say so!), if I skate over mine in the briefest manner possible, for the tale of my early years is simply too tragic to dwell on & I do not wish to start our tender relationship by making you cry tears of pity for me at this stage, as there will be plenty of opportunity for you to do so later.

I am approximately halfway through and utterly charmed.

I’ve always gone weak in the knees for a brilliant and unique narrative voice, though. I am always captivated by Sarah Monette’s accomplishments in her Doctrine of Labyrinths series, consisting of Mèlusine, The Virtu, and The Mirador (and soon to be completed with Corambis sometime this year, I believe). While that brand of fantasy is quite a bit darker than I usually read (the first book opens with a violent rape, and one of the narrators is mad), I really admire the sharp distinctions she makes in voice between her decidedly imperfect narrators. Mildmay the Fox grew up in the slums of Mélusine and speaks in a vivid thieves’ cant; Felix Harrowgate speaks with icy aristocratic precision (and sometimes pretension). Even though the events of the books aren’t always my cup of tea (as I said, I generally don’t like dark fantasy), Monette’s narrative voice(s) are extremely compelling.

Perhaps the greatest and most famous example of a deftly wielded and unique narrative voice in recent SF/F is Susanna Clarke’s work in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and The Ladies of Grace Adieu. I’m a huge Austen fan already, and Clarke has managed not only to create an incredibly detailed and fascinating magical world, but also to match that imagination with the sharp satire and keen perception evinced in Austen’s work and embodied in the Austenian (Austenesque?) tone that Clarke adopts. Like Mozart’s music, her language is precise, lyrical, harmonious, and characterized by virtuosic talent.

Voice isn’t everything, of course; it can’t cover over every literary sin. But a compelling, entertaining, and unique voice can persuade me to overlook a vast number of flaws.




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