Tomorrow I am going to see a session at the Perth Writers Festival featuring visiting superstar author Margaret Atwood. It reminds me how much I loved her novel The Blind Assassin—and that one of the reasons I loved it was its voice.
The voice of a novel is an elusive thing to define. It takes in things like point of view, psychic distance between writer and reader, syntax and language, imagery, metaphor. I once heard an editor describe it as ‘the author on a plate’—presumably because those choices are an extension of the writer’s own personality. But if that were true, all the novels written by a particular author would have the same voice, and what drives an author to make such decisions may be more to do with the material—what it seems to want, or need—than with the writer her/himself. Still, it’s the writer making that judgment of what is needed, so perhaps there’s something in this.
Coincidentally, three of the novels I love for their voice are written in the first person—quashing (for me, anyway) Henry James’s view that use of the first person in a long work of fiction is ‘barbaric’! (Very comforting, too, given three-quarters of my forthcoming novel, Elemental, is a first-person narrative.) Here is the first we hear from the acerbic, enigmatic Iris Chase in The Blind Assassin:
Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge. The bridge was being repaired: she went right through the Danger sign. The car fell a hundred feet into the ravine, smashing through the treetops feathery with new leaves, then burst into flames and rolled down into the shallow creek at the bottom. Chunks of the bridge fell on top of it. Nothing much was left of her but charred smithereens.
And Chris Cleave’s unnamed grieving mother in Incendiary (subtitled A novel of unbearable devastation and unbounded love):
Dear Osama they want you dead or alive so the terror will stop. Well I wouldn’t know about that I mean rock n roll didn’t stop when Elvis died on the khazi it just got worse. Next thing you know there was Sonny & Cher and Dexy’s Midnight Runners. I’ll come to them later. My point is it’s easier to start these things than to finish them. I suppose you thought of that did you?
And the third is the sometimes capricious, sometimes caustic, always unflinching voice of Nora Porteous in Jessica Anderson’s Tirra Lirra by the River:
I arrive at the house wearing a suit—greyish, it doesn’t matter. It is wool because even in these subtropical places spring afternoons can be cold. I am wearing a plain felt hat with a brim, and my bi-focal spectacles with the chain attached. I am not wearing the gloves Fred gave me because I have left them behind in the car, but I don’t know that yet.
Ah, so many reasons to fall in love with a novel… more later. And I’d love to hear yours.