To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the world’s best loved books, with its powerful themes, evocative setting and memorable characters, to say nothing of the writing. But one of the things about it that I love best is the voice of young Scout the narrator. Currently reading When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman (why had I forgotten to read this gem before?), which is also written from the point of view of a child, I got to thinking about other books with child narrators. It seems very powerful to me to write about issues that plague us as adults from the point of view of childhood innocence. Here are some of my favourite novels with a child narrator:
God on the Rocks by Jane Gardam is only one of several by this author – possibly my favourite novelist of all time – featuring child narrators. But it really fits the bill of describing aspects of an adult world through the eyes of innocence. In this case, we have Margaret Marsh, daughter of a soap-box evangelist who goes on an outing with the family maid (this is 1936), who is really wanting to meet her boyfriend, and stumbles upon a crumbling manor house which now houses the insane. This book is impossible to describe coming from such an original pen and was short-listed for the Booker in 1978.
The Starlings by Vivienne Kelly was a favourite read from last year. Young Nicky Starling is caught in the crossfire of a bunch of family problems – his grandfather falling in love with his late wife’s nurse; his sister climbing out his window at night to meet her boyfriend; the breakdown in his parents’ marriage; his father’s heart-breaking obsession with the footy. All set in 1980s Melbourne.
Room by Emma Donoghue was shortlisted for all the major prizes and it’s no wonder really. Not only does Donoghue get into the head of a young boy, she gets into the head of a child who has seen nothing of the world except the confines of the room of his and his mother’s captivity, apart from a bit of telly. It isn’t an easy read for this reason, but it is exhilarating and thought-provoking.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Hadden is a novel with one of the most engaging narrative voices I have come across. Fifteen-year-old Christopher has problems fitting in with ‘normal’ society, and finds the barrage of sounds, sights and other stimuli of living in the city a lot to contend with. When he decides to investigate the death of a neighbour’s dog, he opens a can of worms with far-reaching effects for himself and his family. A stunning novel about trust and being different.
The Wish Child by Catherine Chidgey takes you to Germany during World War II, describing the lives of two children, and told from the viewpoint of a mysterious third. The Nazi regime comes to life in this original way, the propaganda, the oppression, the imminent death. A superbly crafted novel with eloquent prose that is at times chilling and at others deeply moving.
The Orchard on Fire by Sheena Mackay is another novel shortlisted for the Booker which takes an apparently quiet chapter of a 1950s childhood and steadily builds to a powerful conclusion. Young April moves to Kent with her parents who have given up their city pub for a country tea-room. While there are some dark undercurrents to the novel, the story is told through April’s eyes with a light touch and moments of humour, which I always find particularly appealing.