Speaking through the pages…
The current book occupying my bag by day and bedside table by night is David Mitchell’s much-acclaimed Cloud Atlas, and reading it made me think about the often crucial element of narrative voice. I must admit that I wasn’t hooked on the book at first, because the initial voice was quite dry, dull and didn’t really appeal to me. But then as soon as I moved on to the next section, I found myself enjoying the read much more – largely because I now identified with the wry, humorous tone of the protagonist.
Getting the narrative voice just right can be the make-it-or-break-it detail of a book. Some of my favourites are defined by the characters imagined through nothing more than the way they ‘speak’ through the page. Here are my top five literary voices, the ones that have made me love their books!
Bartimaeus (Jonathan Stroud, The Amulet of Samarkand)
The first in a trilogy, this was one of my favourite reads as a young teenager. Large portions of the book are narrated by Bartimaeus, a very sarcastic ‘djinn’, who makes sure to explain that the reason he uses footnotes is because our puny human minds can’t work on as many levels as his. Brilliantly funny.
Pickleherring (Robert Nye, The Late Mr Shakespeare)
You might accuse me of being biased here because this is an A&B book, but I was honestly enchanted by the whimsical yet often subtly tragic tones of old Pickleherring – a man who knows more about Will Shakespeare than anyone else.
Hazel (John Green, The Fault in Our Stars)
A recent huge bestseller, and I think it’s largely down to the voice – Hazel’s matter-of-fact musings on her illness and the ups and downs of life make this book all the more tear-enducing.
Cassandra Mortmain (Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle)
‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.’ Possibly the best first line ever, and Cassandra is such a charming narrator – intelligent and penetrating, and yet somehow terribly, terribly naive at the same time.
The second Mrs de Winter (Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca)
You might think this final choice is a bit of a cheat – but I think the narrative voice of Rebecca is genius. The narrator is so bland, so passive (she isn’t even given a name) that she almost seems non-existent. It’s this that makes the figure of ‘Rebecca’, herself actually absent from the story, loom so large and terrifying.
Do you agree that a great voice can make a book? Which narrators would you choose as your favourites?
Sara Magness, Editorial Administrator