The Narrator – Thoughts on Voice

I recently came across this book:

BearPublished by Little, Brown and Company and released on February 11th, 2014.  It is a new book.  When the book was being explained to me, I was curious about it so I had to look it up.

I read reviews… I tend to read the negative ones or those that score books around 3 or so… those reviews interest me the most.  Those reviews are also the most telling.  I can usually tell if I’ll be able to sit through a book or not based from those reviews.

Oh and if you didn’t already know… I tend to go off on tangents.  What I wanted to talk about was the complaints of this book – well, specifically one complaint: the unbelievable narrator, which is based on the fact that she is five.

Of course, some of the reviewers gives examples of why they think the narrator is unbelievable.  Some of them cite their work environments as proof – being teachers and children’s librarians and in their line of work they never have met any 5 year old child with the capacity to recall events or feelings with clarity.  The kids can’t even remember what they did that day, says one reviewer (when paraphrasing).

This is unacceptable (for the most part).

I don’t care if you work with children or not.  You cannot compare the 5 year olds you work with to the 5 year old in this book.  There are several reasons why.  The children you work with cannot remember what they ate for breakfast or yesterday because of several reasons and the main one I want to point out is because eating is an every day occurrence to them.  It is routine.  I can’t even remember which shoes I wore to work yesterday (I have over 5 pairs)… but that’s aside the point.  The point is routine activities goes into the wayside.  They occur everyday – there is not a significance to them.  So why would they need to remember what they ate.  Now if your parents get mauled by a bear and you escape with your little brother in tow – yes, you’re going to remember that and you are going to remember how it made you feel.  That experience is completely different.

The kids you work with were not experiencing any extreme out of the ordinary feelings or were in an extreme situation.  So yes, I can understand why you would think that, but it is an unfair comparison.

Two, not all kids are the same.  That is an enough reason on its own.  We all remember different things and forget different things.  We react to things differently.  Hence, there are cases where victims of extreme trauma remember different things and cannot recall what the other victims, who experience the same ordeal, saw, heard, or experienced.

I have not read the book.  So I cannot comment on how the book was.  Sure there may be instances where the voice faltered and thus the narration was not believable – but that is an issue of craft… not because the narrator was 5 and did not act like  the 5 year old you know.

AND IT’S STORY TIME…

My parents were displaced from their homes due to the Vietnam War.  Both of them were about the age of the girl in this book, if not younger.  To this day, my parents, my mother especially (as she use to tell us stories all the time) remembers how she felt during these times.  She remembers the cold hard pack mud steps of the hut she was supposed to be at during her time in the refugee camps but was locked out of… she remembers the fireworks of display of the flares from gun fire.  She remembers the burn of the ropes against her body when she was hauled across a river to escape the gun fire; she was hauled because she did not know how to swim.  She remembers all of this.  And she was about 5 years old.

So the arguments of the 5 year olds you work with don’t act like this is invalid for the comparison with the girl in the book.  In circumstances of extreme measures, where your life is in danger – instincts kick in and YES, kids have them too.  It is a innate nature in ALL OF US.  When that happens either you remember details people think you shouldn’t or you don’t remember a thing (it’s all a blur) or you remember else things entirely – we are all different.

The other argument is word choice.  This one is a bit muddled (in the sense of how I feel about it).  Some reviewers don’t know of any 5 year old who would the word choices the author would use.  I cannot EVER recall a 5 year old ever writing a novel.  Ever.  I know this is snide but this complaint is unimpressive and “strawman-ish”.  If they are going to complain about the word choices, they might was well stick to easy picture books.  Of course the author is going to take liberty with word choices.  It is a novel written by an adult for an adult audience in mind.  So what if the child in the book used words a typical 5 year old would not use.  That word is a description of how the child felt or is experiencing.  For example, a five year old may not be tell you she is feeling a hopeless terror and fear, but they can still feel that experience.  Sure no child is ever going to say, “I feel hopelessly terrified.”  But in story telling this may be the best way to reflect this feeling.  Short and condensed.  Yes, the author’s delivery may be off, but rather than compare the mistakes to that of a real 5 year old you know, readers have to compare it to the 5 year old’s personality from the book.

Sure there can be an issue of word choice that breaks voice, but in many complaints the “big” word choice broke voice for them because they felt a 5 year old would not use them.  Nope.  I can’t buy into that.  Though I’m suspecting that the voice broke for these people not because they felt a 5 year old would not use them but rather the word choice were not consistent in connotation and complexity with the character’s personality and word usage thus far to that point.  This I would buy ( and I think this is what some of the reviewers were trying to pin point but couldn’t so they blamed it on the narrator being 5).  I would understand, even maybe agree with these folks, if the book was in a normal setting, where we have your typical average 5 year old child in the typical setting.   But for the case of this book, it just doesn’t fit for me.

I’m sure there were issues of voice.  It was a voice these people did not like.  I can buy that you don’t like a voice.  Because in a book, the voice is a character’s personality trait.  I’m am disliking a book right now on the mere fact I just simply dislike the voice.  But I’m not going to say that  I dislike the book because the voice doesn’t sound like a 17 year old boy or that the word choices isn’t that of an country boy.  The voice thus far is consistent but I just don’t like him.

But that reason of the 5 year old in the book is not acting like the 5 year old you know in real life is not a valid reason.  If anything, if that girl in the book acted like the 5 year old you know and how you expect 5 year old to act, in  the routine every day world… the girl would be dead and there wouldn’t be a story to tell.

(I must clarify, it’s fine that these people feel this way about the book.  That is their opinion.  This is mine.)

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