Little People v Erotic Despair

I’ve admitted before that I have irrational prejudices which often turn out to be nonsense and I caught myself at it again today. This morning I finished The Land of Decoration, a powerful debut which publishes next March. It is about a ten year old girl called Judith whose Father takes her knocking on doors to tell people that the world is going to end. As she sits in her bedroom waiting for Armageddon and worrying about getting her head flushed down the toilet at school, she starts having conversations with God and becomes convinced that she is his instrument.

It is a wonderful novel, beautifully written with flashes of absurd humour and an uplifting ending. I urge you all to read it.

So, does my urging make you want to read it? I’ve had a copy for a while and a couple of people I trust told me it was really good. But I didn’t start it for a while. I was thinking this morning about why that was and I realised that I think that I don’t like child narrators. I didn’t think I was in the mood for a book narrated by a ten-year-old girl. Thought it might be twee.

Hang on! I said to myself. You like lots of books that have child narrators. You loved Room, you loved The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, you loved My Sister Lives on the Mantlepiece, you loved Wonder.

True, I said back. So why do I think I don’t? I didn’t come to much of an understanding but did start thinking about constructing themes around child voices and that kept me happy for a bit.

Later on I followed a tweet link to the the excellent introduction to Damage that Josephine Hart wrote before she died in which she discusses erotic obsession. Damage is one of my favourite books and is horribly compulsive. You know that the madly destructive desire that the unnamed narrator has for his son’s girlfriend is going to ruin him but you can’t help reading and reading and reading. I like books like that. When I worked in bookshops I was always very keen on the anti-Valentine’s Day display – the books about driven, selfish, shitty behaviour with narrators who either destroy or are destroyed. Damage was always in my display, so also was The English Patient, Hangover Square, Of Human Bondage, Before She Met Me. My kind of books.

And I realised that whilst I still do like a good old bad love story I have broadened out my tastes because back when I was putting up my bad love displays nearly ten years ago I probably would have turned my nose up a bit at a gentler book that was unlikely to contain hefty portions of betrayal and despair. Back then I was uninterested in children and didn’t think I’d ever have any. Now a large chunk of my time and heart belongs to my small dude, and a lesser slice to all the other small dudes and dudettes that we hang around with. How could I not be interested in books about the dilemmas that children face, now? Well, I am. I’m just stuck in the habit of thinking I’m not.

Back to Room which is about a little boy and his mother who are kept in a room by a bad man. I first read it when I was on maternity leave and thought about mainly from the perspective of the mother – ‘how would I feel if?…’ As time goes on and I have the joy of watching my child acquire language I often think of Room from the perspective of the little boy, of how well the voice was captured, of how my little one says things in very much the same way.

We read for different reasons. Some people like to be transported to other worlds. I tend to want to see my own experience amplified, reflected, informed by what I read. Rather nice, perhaps, that these days that is a little more about how small people make their way in the world and a little bit less about how big people treat each other incredibly badly.

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7 thoughts on “Little People v Erotic Despair

  1. I agree completely with your last two sentences. Before I started to study creative writing with the OU, everything I wrote had a third person, omniscient, past tense narrator. Now, most of what I write is in the first person and the present tense. Most of my best pieces feature narrators who are children, people with learning difficulties,some kind of mental impairment, or are (as Michael Stewart said in his introduction at the ‘Grist’ launch) “in extremis personae” – nutters, in other words.

  2. I think the problem with child narrators is that they are rarely done well. You have to read through twenty poor books to find a convincing child’s voice and so I tend to avoid them too. I agree with the comment above about the best ones being those with some kind of mental impairment. My favourites are Flowers for Algernon & When I Was Five I Killed Myself – I highly recommend that you give them a try. 🙂

  3. I’m intrigued by The Land of Decoration! I’ll definitely look out for it 🙂 I know what you mean about child narrators, I often find them really irritating…. and I have to say I hated Room. I was having this discussion with a colleague the other day, and she said ‘well kids are irritating aren’t they?’ …;) Which is very true, but for me it does make me like the book a little bit less when I find the narrator annoying!

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