Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Case Study - First Person Narratives

I don't normally write about books I'm in the middle of reading, although in some ways this is the truest response of all. Once I've finished a book, I reinterpret the experience in the light of my assessment of the whole. Very often this means I undervalue a book which has kept me enthralled for 400 pages but then lost me with a weak ending. The emotional experience of 'reading', rather than the analytical one of 'having read', is found only when we are in the process of reading the book.

That prologue aside: I'm about halfway through Philippa Gregory's The Boleyn Inheritance, the sequel to The Other Boleyn Girl, about which I wrote last week. Gregory has adopted a different narrative strategy for the later book: rather than a single first-person narrative, there are three intertwined first-person stories. First-person is usually discouraged by creative writing gurus (and certainly it imposes considerable technical challenges and limitations), but handled well, it's an immediate and intimate viewpoint.

The Other Boleyn Girl was relatively straightforward in its narrative stance. Virtually the entire book is from the viewpoint of Mary Boleyn: the reader identifies with her, and Gregory doesn't play unreliable narrator games with us. The approach reinforces the claustrophobia which is the dominant atmosphere of the novel.

The Boleyn Inheritance takes more risks in giving us three narrators: Gregory has to ensure that the voices are kept distinct, and there is a danger that in giving us three viewpoints the reader identifies with none. So far, at least, the risks are paying off. All three characters are clearly defined: Anne of Cleves, cool and dignified, intelligent and reflective; Katherine Howard, a brilliant rendering of a giddy flirtatious girl given added poignancy because the reader knows her fate; and Jane Boleyn, a calculating, ambitious character resurrected from The Other Boleyn Girl.

Anne is perhaps the easiest to identify with. She is a stranger to Henry's court, a victim of her brother's intrigues (and repressed incestuous desires), and the reader learns about the environment through her. Her stoical intelligence as she tries to avoid being Henry's second murdered wife engages our sympathy. I found the repeated references to Anne intending to live her own independent life without men overdone, and anachronistically 'feminist', but it's a small objection.

Katherine is the most clearly rendered voice. Those of us who have daughters will recognise the tone. Without being a modern 'teenager', she is idenitifiably adolescent. The reader can only look on in horror as her vanity and boy-mania lead her down to a destruction she cannot see coming. She is not exactly a sympathetic character, but the reader hopes against hope that she will see sense.

Jane is the most interesting of the viewpoints. In The Other Boleyn Girl she is presented through the eyes of Mary, who strongly dislikes her; and even when we see her through her own reflections, she is not an attractive character: manipulative and ambitious. But she has self-awareness, and a conscience of sorts. This conscience is a flexible friend: she genuinely likes and admires Anne, but is willing to give false testimony against her on trumped up witchcraft charges. Jane's character development is the best thing in the novel, and while I know what happens to her at the end, I can't see how she's going to get there--which keeps me turning the pages.

The initial chapters are relatively lengthy: Gregory wants to give us a foundation for all the characters before moving on. Once she's established character, the chapters become much shorter, sometimes only a page. This risks fragmenting the narrative, but is probably unavoidable with all three characters often commenting on the same event (such as the chilling scene where Anne is set upon by a drunken lout, spitting out his foul kiss--only to find it's King Henry in disguise). This triple-retailing approach would be unworkable if we had to wait twenty pages to switch viewpoint characters.

The two major decisions a novelist has to take is: "who are the viewpoint character(s)?", and "first or third person?". Gregory's work shows that, while first person is often discouraged, it has more flexibility than is often acknowledged. By giving us three viewpoints, she avoids the limitations imposed by a single character's perceptions, but she doesn't sacrifice the intimate, confessional tone. The Boleyn novels can be read as a terrifying study in tyranny, but we never see inside the tyrant's head at all. What we're shown is the effect his actions have on his powerless court. It's technically highly accomplished, and should make any writer think twice before rejecting the first person narrative.


David Isaak said...

First-person has limitations, but any way of telling a story has limitations.

In fact, I think beginners should be encouraged to write in first person, simply to learn how POV works: the boundaries are more obvious.

That said, I have to agree that multi-POV first person like the book you're describing is a big challenge...

Leigh Russell said...

Interesting. I enjoyed the first of the Boleyn books by Phillipa Gregory, although I did not think it was that well written... (please don't judge my writing by my critical standards!!) The varying points of view is tricky, especially when the characters are writing about the same incident. How do you move the story forward? I'm probably more interested in character than plot when I write. I'm interested in how my characters react to circumstances. From the reader's point of view, as you say, this can become mere reiteration of the same event. As a reader, I want to know what happens next. As a writer, my interest is rather different, because I already know what's going to happen! Fortunately, my publisher is using a brilliant editor who has encouraged me to be far more disciplined, and remember that other people will (hopefully!) be experiencing my work from the point of view of readers.

You can probably guess that I'm rubbish at chess...

Tim Stretton said...

The triple-viewpoint is an interesting device. In this particular story, what happens next is perhaps less important because Gregory can bank on the reader knowing what happens to Katherine Howard and Jane Boleyn. So the "story" is the character journey rather than the historical events. What's interesting to the reader in the matter of "Henry's Kiss" is less the kiss itself, as the characters' reactions. So I think we're on the same page there.

As to the quality of the writing: I think Gregory is better at exploiting point of view than she is as a prose stylist!