The theme for the post this week was prompted by spending time with friends’ children. Although I don’t have kids myself, I enjoy their company and the fact that most of my friends have now reproduced works superbly in my favour: I can spend time with them, then trot off to [insert any number of frivolous time-wasting activities here]. So, my lack of maternal instinct aside, one of the brilliant things about kids is when they start to discover language and approach it with such fresh eyes and ears, making you reconsider the words you use to explain and understand the world. This got me thinking about novels written from the point of view of children. It’s a hugely tricky premise to pull off effectively, but done well it can help the author voice something essential about our experiences in the world, that we perhaps lose sight of as we grow into adults. To Kill a Mockingbird is a perfect example of this – an incredibly well-written, powerful and incisive novel that so many people adore and find profound meaning in. I decided not to discuss To Kill a Mockingbird as I found it too daunting a task (for the reasons just given), so instead I’ve chosen two fairly recent novels that both employ a child narrator (a five year old boy and an nine year old boy respectively) to explore tragic circumstances through voices that are not typically heard in literature.
Firstly Room by Emma Donoghue. A few years ago I was doing an evening class with a journalist who was given a proof copy of this novel to read, and she absolutely raved about it. I was reluctant to read it at the time as I knew it was inspired by the Josef Fritzl case, and I wasn’t sure of the role in literature in fictionalising such recent events. My only defence is that I’m an idiot, as Room is a wonderful novel which treats its subject matter with great sensitivity. It tells the story of Jack who has lived all his five years with Ma in Room, an 11×11 foot space. Within this limited environment, Jack creates richness and stimulus for himself, personifying the objects that surround him to create his friends:
“I count one hundred cereal and waterfall the milk that’s nearly the same white as the bowls, no splashing, we thank Baby Jesus. I choose Meltedy Spoon with the white all blobby on his handle when he leaned on the pan of boiling pasta by accident. Ma doesn’t like Meltedy Spoon but he’s my favourite because he’s not the same. I stroke Table’s scratches to make them better”
Jack is happy in his world (aside from when their captor, “Old Nick” visits), but how much he is shielded from its sinister side becomes apparent when he describes among the games he and Ma play one called Scream, where it’s clear they spend a portion of each day yelling for help. They have a TV, and for me this really brought home the shock of what they were enduring: the mention of celebrities like Rihanna, Lady Gaga, and Kanye West grounded it very much in the here and now and narrowed the distance between their extreme experience and the contemporary reader.
Jack is remarkably accomplished verbally and numerically for a five year old, and while the cynical side of me thinks this is convenient for Donoghue as she can make a five year old say much more than they would otherwise, I actually think it works. Ma is college educated and in trying to provide games to keep Jack occupied, she inevitably ends up accelerating his learning in some areas that children with more balanced experiences wouldn’t undertake. At one point he even paraphrases 1 Corinthians 13:11: “When I was a kid I thought like a little kid, but now I’m five I know everything”.
Jack’s voice is so distinctive and unique, I found myself being completely drawn into his world. The story is never depressing because although Ma has been through the most horrific ordeal, her love for Jack ensures that while he is scared and often overwhelmed, he is never without an ally. At one point, considering whether she sees her captor and rapist in Jack, she says: “He reminds me of nothing but himself”. This is Donoghue’s great achievement as an author; she has created a protagonist who is wholly unique.
Secondly, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. To start I just want to get my one negative point out the way: I found the voice of the narrator, Oskar, entirely unconvincing as a nine year old, even a precocious, highly intelligent, autistic nine year old. Having said that, Oskar is an engaging, likeable and sympathetic character who easily carries you along on his journey around New York and towards an understanding of what life means following the death of his father. After his father dies in the events of 9/11, Oskar finds a key labelled “Black” in a vase in his father’s closet. Oskar decides to unravel the mystery by visiting every New Yorker with the surname Black in New York. For part of the way he is accompanied by his elderly neighbour, Mr Black (you can probably guess how they meet). The narrative is interspersed with stories from his grandparents, who witnessed the Dresden bombings, broadening the narrative to consider human trauma across the generations of a family.
The book is inventive in its structure both in narrative terms and physically – there are blank pages, those with only a few words, words crossed out, photographs. This alongside Oskar’s unique understanding of the world, even in small domestic matters (“I woke up once in the middle of the night and Buckminster’s paws were on my eyelids. He must have been feeling my nightmares.”) makes for a reading experience unlike any other. There are ways in which I felt the book wasn’t entirely successful, and certainly not on par with Everything is Illuminated, Safran Foer’s previous novel which I think is one of the best pieces of literature of recent years. However, I don’t want to dwell on the shortcomings in particular, because I felt the novel succeeded in capturing the most important thing, the grief of a child for his father.
“I loved having a dad who was smarter than the New York Times, and I loved how my cheek could feel the hairs on his chest through his T-shirt, and how he always smelled like shaving, even at the end of the day. Being with him made my brain quiet. I didn’t have to invent a thing.”
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is as inventive as its main protagonist, and I found it a highly readable and moving novel from an author who strives to create truly original pieces of writing.
Here are the books with a remnant of my own childhood, Ted (unlike Oskar, I clearly wasn’t an inventive child, at least when it came to naming my toys):