A few weeks back I saw Tony Birch speak about his Miles Franklin nominated novel Blood.I bought a copy of the novel due to Tony being part-indigenous (I have an evolving interest in novels written by Indigenous Australian or with indigenous characters in them) and also out of a sense of obligation for him coming all the way to Wangaratta to give his free talk to a one-third full room.
I am so glad I felt both the need and obligation to buy it. Blood is an excellent novel that tells a tragic but hopeful story, with a main character who is so real, his voice so authentic.
The novel is narrated by a Jesse a thirteen-year-old part-Indigenous Australian. The entire book is written in very simple language, the language a thirteen-year-old would view the world in. For example, instead of elaborate descriptions of his world, Jesse describes a room as dirty, or the scenery around a road as having a few pine trees. Jesse is aware that his mother has sex with strangers and a string of boyfriends, but he is not really sure what sex involves.
Jesse is protective of his eight-year-old sister Rachel and fears what would happen to her if he ran away. Rachel’s voice is also wonderfully authentic. With a response of “no” anytime she is asked to do something, which quickly changes when her brother or mother create a fear of being left out or left behind in her.
During his talk Tony Birch said when creating Jesse’s voice, as an author he not only had to try and think like a thirteen-year-old, but think like a thirteen-year-old in Jesse’s situation. A thirteen-year-old whose mother is a drunk and hooks up with men who are either drunks or criminals. A thirteen-year-old who has lived in poverty all his life, doesn’t know his dad, is constantly on the move, rarely goes to school, and has no peers to learn life from. And a thirteen-year-old who fears “welfare” forever separating his sister from him. Birch does a bloody good job of creating Jesse’s voice. I can see why it was nominated for the Miles Franklin.
Part of the reason Jesse’s voice is so convincing is the novel is written in first person, forcing the author to write with words that Jesse would use.
Writing in First Person.
The past three books I have read and the one I am currently reading are written in first person. The novels are diverse: How to Live Safely in A Science FIctional Universe by Charles Yu, Waterboys by Peter Docker, and I am currently reading 11.22.63 by Stephen King. In fact seven of the last twelve novels I have read have been written in first person.
Only a few years ago I was reading articles about how inferior writing in first person is to writing in third. I was also reading declarations from readers who would never read a novel written in first person. It was very much suggested that first person was lazy and for amateurs. But in the past few years first person has become very much used, especially in the world on non-genre literature.
I have attempted writing in both first and third person. I like the way first person allows me to really get into the thoughts of the narrator. But when I want to write ambiguous characters that need to hide their thoughts, I prefer third person. The current novel I am writing is written in a mixture of both – a method I really enjoyed when reading Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood. I am yet to see a novel told from multiple points of view written entirely in first person.
Do you have a preference?