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Books, Guest Authors

Guest Author – Claire King on A Child’s Point of View

Claire King Mini (10 of 10)Although there’s been a trend for books with child narrators over the last few years, not many have appeared on the Literary Sofa.  Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman demonstrated the potential rewards for authors who succeed in capturing a child’s voice for the adult fiction market.  No wonder it’s so notoriously difficult to pull off:  the voice has to be convincing but one the reader can live with for the full length of a novel; a child’s worldview may be simple and innocent, but in order to be satisfying it must shed light on things which are not.   With her debut The Night Rainbow Claire King achieves all of this and I invited her to the Literary Sofa to tell us how and why:  (My mini-review follows)

Why choose a child?

I love unreliable narrators. Whether it is a child, a liar, someone with a distorted perspective on things or someone with memory issues… whatever the reason, you can’t take what the narrator says as read (no pun intended).

This means the reader dynamic is different. You’re not only expected to appropriate the story, and form opinions about the characters and the things that take place, but you’re expected to question the point of view of the narrator.  It adds depth to the intimacy between the reader and the story.

As the author, you need to facilitate that intimacy, ensuring that you provide information in ways other than through the simple narration – through the reactions of other characters, through clues in the environment or in how the narrator describes the environment, or via ambiguous phrases. It’s exciting to write and I hope exciting to read.

For telling the story of The Night Rainbow, there were a number of viewpoints that could have been used, the two most obvious ones being Maman’s and Pea’s. But it quickly became clear that taking Maman’s viewpoint exclusively would diminish the story because there was so much of the time that she was absent and introspective. Her viewpoint would have darkened the whole story, whereas Pea has that wonderful childish optimism and tenacity, the spirit needed to carry what is a potentially dark and difficult story through with hope.

I could also have chosen a dual viewpoint, but I feared that in this case it would result in a novel that was neither one thing nor another. I decided that if I was going to ask the reader to see things through the eyes of a five year old, that it would have to be for the duration of the novel. What I really hoped was for the reader to get to know and understand Pea and her ways of dealing with the world, and even when they can then review her situation from an adult perspective, to still accept why she sees the world as she does and to continue to live it through her eyes until the story is done.

Time expanding

Some novels with a child protagonist are written with an adult voice using past tense, looking back at childhood experiences. But that allows adult reasoning, whereas I wanted my narrator to not have the benefit of hindsight. I felt strongly that to work, The Night Rainbow needed to be written in present tense.

But ‘real-time’ for a child has a completely different magnitude than for an adult. Time stretches and expands. Hours go on forever, days seem interminable and a month is hard to imagine. How to get that over to readers, without the narrative dragging? The Night Rainbow takes place over a fortnight or so. It may seem longer, but it’s not. So there was the added challenge of keeping that sense of expansive time whilst maintaining a good pace to the novel.

Who was to blame?

One thing I found very liberating about writing from a child’s viewpoint is the obligation to remain neutral and without judgement. Children don’t usually have a tub to thump or social criticisms to make. They are generally very matter of fact, and see things quite simply. Which means that regardless of your own opinions as the author, you have to leave the space wide open for the reader to decide what is right and what is wrong. If I were to pose one question to reading groups or book clubs discussing The Night Rainbow, it would be: “Who was to blame?”

Child_voiceAuthentic voice

An interesting part of writing, and taking this novel to publication has been the discussion around just what is acceptable as an ‘authentic’ child’s voice.

Of course we don’t want to read a story as an actual five year old would tell it, can you imagine? But that’s not exclusive to a young voice. In any work of fiction, the author constructs a narrative voice and dialogue which is readable as well as believable.

But yes, it is hard to know where to pitch it for a five year old. Children of that age vary so widely, and unsurprisingly Pea’s voice was guided by my own experience. My daughters were four and two when I finished the manuscript, but they both talked early and had quite advanced vocabularies, and the narrative is littered with their own turns of phrase and remarks.

You have to walk a fine line, though, not slipping into language in that is notably adult, but at the same time keeping it rich and interesting. I think there are a couple of occasions I could be pulled up, but overall I’m happy with the balance I struck.

Tissues

One notable effect that writing this book had was on my tissue consumption. I wept as I wrote it, I wept when I saw the cover, I wept when I saw the trailer. I am quite an emotional person but this was something else. I suspect it’s because, with the experiences and fears I have as an adult, becoming genuinely immersed in such a naïve and hopeful character has been quite a poignant experience.  Some of the tears, I should say, were happy ones.

Further Reading

Here is an interview I did with authors John Harding, Stephen Kelman, Caroline Smailes and Christopher Wakling of their own experiences writing from a child’s point of view.

Thanks very much to Claire for this engaging post and the Word Cloud she made to go with it.  The beautiful trailer for The Night Rainbow which she mentioned captures Pea’s voice perfectly.

The Night Rainbow coverIn Brief:  My View of The Night Rainbow

You’ve probably guessed that I’m hard to win over when it comes to child narrators, but by the time I finished The Night Rainbow there was no doubt that it belonged in my Hot Picks 2013.   I did think narrator Pea consistently sounded older than nearly 6, but with the positive effect of increasing the book’s readability.  In fact, the writing is lovely throughout, both emotionally and visually powerful.  Anyone reading this will be transported to the landscape of Southern France that Claire King knows so well from years of living in the Pyrenees.  It’s a poignant story of family life disrupted by grief, and the subtlety and cleverness of the storytelling left me full of admiration.  Some books have more to them than meets the eye.  This one certainly does.

Do you enjoy novels with a child narrator?  What makes it work (or not work) for you as a reader?  It’d be interesting to hear from writers who’ve tried it too (I can only write teenagers!)

*POSTSCRIPT*

No post next week – I’m taking a break to listen to my own children over half term!

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About Isabel Costello

Novelist and short story writer based in London. Debut novel PARIS MON AMOUR now out in digital and audio, paperback on 22 May 2017. Host of the Literary Sofa blog.

Discussion

21 thoughts on “Guest Author – Claire King on A Child’s Point of View

  1. I found this very interesting. I have used a child narrator before in a short story, but I’m not sure I could keep it up for a whole novel. Thank you, Claire and Isabel.

    Posted by Miriam | February 12, 2013, 12:40
  2. Lovely piece, well done.

    Posted by t upchurch | February 12, 2013, 15:46
  3. This is really great. One of the reasons I’m so excited to read this book is because of the child narrator. My favourite novels of the last few years – Diamond Star Halo & Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice Cream Float – both have child narrators, although they’re set over a number of years so the characters grow up in to teenagers.

    Since reading these I have tried it out a bit for myself with short stories and my current WIP, and I think it’s so fun to write. I felt much more free and you can really look at things completely differently when you’re describing them.

    I bet it is really difficult to balance realistic narration for a young kid, whilst still making sure that it’s readable and makes sense. I just finished Ketchup Clouds and I thought the narrator in that sounded much younger than a teenager, but I didn’t mind,

    Thanks for the interesting post, I can’t wait to read the book,

    Posted by Cariad Martin (@cariadmartin) | February 12, 2013, 17:27
    • Hi Cariad, I like what you said about looking at things completely differently. That’s one of the great things about choosing a narrator that is completely different to you – as the writer you know immediately if you fall ‘out of character’ because there’s such a gulf between your own voice and thoughts and those of your narrator.

      Posted by claireking9 | February 19, 2013, 20:18
  4. I don’t think I have read many adult novels with child (not teenage) narrators – perhaps because it’s difficult to pull off not that many get recommended to me. I did think Esther Freud did an excellent job of her first person five year old in Hideous Kinky, putting across that terrible sense of “it’s not fair” over quite trivial squbbles with her sister, but mixed with a real sense of unease in things like “Oh Mum, please don’t become a Sufi” as the children travel around Morocco with their hippy mother..

    There’s a section on using a child narrator in David Lodge’s The Art of Fiction, lookng at Maisie in Henry James’ What Maisie Knew about adulteries seen “exclusively through the eyes of a child who is affected by but largely uncomprehending of them'”. What Maisie Knew isn’t first person, which Lodge says allows for her view to be put across without attempting to imitate a child’s voice, so he says it ends up as the opposite of The Catcher in the Rye – “a naive viewpoint is articulated in a mature style”.

    I enjoyed both books, so that tells me there’s more than one way of pulling off a child narrator..

    Posted by Catherine | February 12, 2013, 21:31
    • I think despite the recent spate of unreliable narrators (you write one and suddenly they’re everywhere!), the child narrator is always going to be a slight oddity in the land of adult fiction. Much more common the adult narrator telling about a childhood experience (Like Niccolo Ammaniti’s I’m not Afraid). But I have enjoyed most of the ones I’ve read, including those very different examples in the interview mentioned above. As you say, more than one way to pull it off.

      Posted by claireking9 | February 19, 2013, 20:33
  5. This is interesting, Isabel, as usual. Hmm, child narrators. The last novel I read with a child narrator irritated the hell out of me. I couldn’t stand the child, which sounds awful, but I like to have a great deal of sympathy with the protagonist and I felt he wasn’t even the true protagonist, the mother was, and her voice was drowned out by her son’s, and it really put me off. (“Room” by Emma Donaghue). I wanted him to pipe down, grr. So I think child narrators are very difficult to pull off.

    The Night Rainbow sounds good, so have added it to my TBR list.

    I have tried a child narrator in my very first novel attempt, but it didn’t work, so am re-writing with an omniscient third person narrator who still gives us insights into the child character, who has morphed into a 14 year old, which is easier for sure.

    Posted by Louise | February 14, 2013, 08:39
    • Hello Louise. Funnily enough, although I really enjoyed Room (I read it while The Night Rainbow was out on submission), I really couldn’t stand the voice of Jack. It was possibly authentic, for the age and the arrested development of the child, but I found it really hard work. I enjoyed the older Harri in Pigeon English much more.

      Posted by claireking9 | February 19, 2013, 20:26
      • I enjoyed that book but felt it got lost once the outside world. I felt the voice was very strong in the room but felt the child voice got lost a bit when there were too many characters and too much going on. I tried it in a flash piece and even in a few paragraphs found it very hard to match the words to the age etc.

        Posted by Peter Domican | February 19, 2013, 21:11
      • Interesting, Pete. I had almost the opposite reaction, finding the room bit almost unbearable and the rest more readable. However, I thought the whole escape part was completely far fetched. It just wouldn’t have succeeded. For me, it also raised questions about how acceptable it is to milk very unusual personal traumas for the sake of fiction. We all do death, love, etc in more general sense but I would feel very uncomfortable using the experience of an identifiable individual.

        Posted by Isabel Costello | February 20, 2013, 16:48
      • It’s not a comfortable read, I made a conscious decision when I started Room just to read it as a novel and not as a dramatisation of particular events but I understand completely what you’re saying.
        In both Room and The Night Rainbow, I tended to go with the flow in terms of whether a child of precisely X years would do Y and think Z unless there was a real jar or the author dropped out of the child voice. I think if I went back and read the two books again, I’d find more problems with Room.

        Posted by Peter Domican | February 20, 2013, 19:52
  6. Oh no, yet another book to add to the mountainous TBR pile! I’ve read tweets about the book launch and was intrigued to know more. Child narrators are notoriously difficult to pull off but the feedback from twitter is that Claire has done a fantastic job. It sounds like a great read. I tried some first person writing for my MLItt course in the voice of my teenage self and enjoyed it so much that I’m attempting a new novel from a 17yr old’s POV. I think a small child’s POV would be sooo much harder so I’ll stick to cynical teenage perspective which is proving easier than I thought to write but time will tell whether I can sustain it over a novel length…

    Posted by helenmackinven | February 18, 2013, 11:37
    • Hi Helen, Yes I’ve been really lucky, there’s quite a buzz on Twitter at the moment and lots of people are taking the time to leave very considerate reviews which I really appreciate. Some people have expressed their initial hesitancy at reading a child narrator, and how they were pleasantly surprised. I suppose what I hope, like any writer, is that the voice of the narrator quickly becomes ‘invisible’ and the story takes over.

      Posted by claireking9 | February 19, 2013, 20:38
  7. Hello Isabel, Sorry it’s taken me a week to get back over here, it was launch week and quite a whirlwind. I’m only just finding my feet again. It’s lovely to see all the comments here. I’m off to reply!

    Posted by claireking9 | February 19, 2013, 20:08

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Pingback: A Launch Party Mingle - Claire King - February 12, 2013

  2. Pingback: The Night Rainbow book launch « isabelrogers.org - February 14, 2013

  3. Pingback: Book Launches & Black Vodka | Isabel Costello - March 5, 2013

  4. Pingback: Word of Mouth – Isabel Costello interviewed by Claire King on Book Blogging | Isabel Costello - May 7, 2013

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