8 Novels With Narrators That Defy Our Expectations
Nathan Go, author of "Forgiving Imelda Marcos," recommends characters that aren't what you expect
Every work of fiction asks us to believe not only in the story, but also in the story’s telling. Even a seemingly unobtrusive third person point-of-view begs the question—Who is this speaker? Is she part of the story or just an observer? Why is he speaking the way he is? A translated work, too, is actually a leap of faith — we’re asked to imagine the narrator as she originally sounds in the language we can’t understand. So here’s the dilemma: Readers easily get distracted by the narrator’s voice if they don’t buy the style. But writers often want to do something fresh with the narrator’s POV, since it’s one of the few things that really sets literature apart from the rest of the creative arts.
When I was writing my debut novel Forgiving Imelda Marcos, I kept wondering how to tell the story of Lito Macaraeg. I knew I wanted him to be the narrator, since he was the fictionalized chauffeur to the late Corazon Aquino, and the only witness on her journey to meet Imelda Marcos, the flamboyant wife of the ex-Philippine dictator. But I also knew another thing: I did not want Lito to “sound” like a regular driver, especially one that would have a stereotypical Filipino accent or a presumed blue-collar vocabulary.
I remembered loving Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, in which a blue-collar worker also narrates the entire story. However, unlike my character, Stevens is a butler of an English aristocrat. Cue in the manicured lawn, chandelier and fine china—and that seemingly gives him a refined language that evades being questioned. How can I give Lito the same kind of articulateness to allow him to express himself fully? And how can I make the readers buy it?
The list below are some great examples of narrators that defy our expectations of how they “should sound” given their societal, racial or other preconceived backgrounds. My takeaway: it’s best to err on the side of giving our narrators more range rather than less, even if it might mean turning some readers off. If fiction can make a few people rethink the way they imagine someone should sound, perhaps they can also reimagine what that someone should be.
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
The narrator of this novel is just nine years old when the story starts. To tell such a rambunctious and sardonic tale, McBride brilliantly uses a “frame” to allow us to suspend our disbelief in the narrative voice. We are told in the prologue that Little Onion was 103 years old when he related his experiences to a certain Charles D. Higgins, a congregational member, who then recorded the story in his diaries, which became the book itself. This creates the same kind of effect as a translation, because we are getting Higgins’ version of Little Onion’s narrative, and that allows for plenty of latitude and verve.
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
The narrator Balram Halwai writes a series of letters to the Premier of China on the official’s visit to Bangalore, opening the address with “Sir, neither you nor I speak English.” Like my novel, Halwai used to be a driver, and comes from a lower class family. We are told that he didn’t finish elementary, though he excelled while he was in school. The language is a mix of low and high registers, humor and pathos – the combination of which propels the narrative forward, even if some might question the believability of a narrator like Halwai essentially writing a book-length succession of letters in just seven days.
In these two examples, over-the-top humor can easily justify quirky narrators. At the very least, it can redirect readers away from policing “realistic narrators,” since realism is obviously not the point. Maximalist writing also achieves the same effect, as in the following novels:
Dogeaters by Jessica Hagedorn
When I first read Dogeaters a long time ago, my immediate reaction was that the narrator perfectly captured the frenzy of what it meant to be a young Filipino in the Eighties. Rio Gonzaga is a ten-year-old precocious kid observing everything that’s happening around her. Perhaps because she comes from a rich family that has access to many forms of media entertainment, we accept her witty and original descriptions. The name of the novel, and the nicknames of many of the characters (“Pucha Gonzaga,” “Boy Boy,” “Lolita Luna,” “Baby Alacran”), also point us to the direction of the absurd, even if Filipino names really do sometimes happen to be that colorful.
A Tiny Upward Shove by Melissa Chadburn
This fantastical novel employs an aswang, or a dark spirit, to tell us about Marina, a teenager who was brutally murdered. While aswangs come from traditional Filipino folklore and are ageless, Chadburn’s version sometimes sounds more like a vengeful Filipino-American relative who’s unafraid to cuss and reference pop culture while delving deep into history: “This man who strangled Marina was a pakshet trick who didn’t know how to be a trick — always fell in love with the wrong girl. Pure PoCo trash, drove around Vancouver in his van loaded with possibilities…”
But what if comedy or satire isn’t the novel’s genre? Can a more subtle narrator within the realm of realism still defy our expectations? Readers do seem to wholeheartedly accept a narrator who can tell stories with precise prose, even if it might strain some disbelief. Language, after all, is one of the things we enjoy in literature.
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
Robinson has become known for her prose, which often sounds like something from early Christian texts, rather than contemporary fiction. We’ve not only come to associate that kind of language with her writing, but expect it. Housekeeping, however, was her first novel. And the narrator, Ruthie, we’re told, isn’t someone particularly educated — she’s constantly missed school with her sister, as a result of troubles at home. Though she’s already an adult when telling the story of her childhood, the narrative voice really bends to the authorial voice: “[Edmund Foster] had grown up in the Middle West, in a house dug out of the ground, with windows just at earth level and just at eye level, so that from without, the house was a mere mound, no more a human stronghold than a grave, and from within, the perfect horizontality of the world in that place foreshortened the view so severely that the horizon seemed to circumscribe the sod house and nothing more.”
The Book of Goose by Yiyun Li
Another example of a writer whose prose has become synonymous with precision and insightful observation is Li. Though she often writes in the third-person POV, in this novel, she uses the first person to really good effect: “You cannot cut an apple with an apple. You cannot cut an orange with an orange. You can, if you have a knife, cut an apple or an orange. Or slice open the underbelly of a fish. Or, if your hands are steady enough and the blade is sharp enough, sever an umbilical cord.”
Lyricism and poetry also seem to suspend our need for realistic-sounding narrators, since style can be the point rather than realism, as in the next two novels told in verse:
We the Animals by Justin Torres
This short but classic coming-of-age novel almost entirely uses the first person plural “we” as the narrative voice. Like good dialogue, the children in Torres’ book do sound like children, but their speech is already sifted for us, so that only the perfectest words make it to the page like music: “We were six snatching hands, six stomping feet; we were brothers, boys, three little kings locked in a feud for more.”
Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter
In the aftermath of a sudden death in the family, a father and his boys deal with how to cope. As if the grief is too much to handle, the narration breaks into three voices: Dad’s, the Boys, and a strange but wonderfully imagined Crow, who visits the family as a kind of trickster-therapist. Of course, it is Crow’s voice that is so pleasantly surprising. He can pretend to speak “crow” in one sentence (“Krickle krackle, hop sniff and tackle, in with the bins, singing the hymns”) but in the next sentence sound more human (“I lost a wife once, and once is as many times a crow can lose a wife”).