I like to read many different kinds and genres of fiction: crime novels, literary fiction, YA/New Adult literature, even the occasional fantasy novel or science fiction. I’ve seldom read two novels in a row, however, that seemed completely different and yet struck me with the same issue when I was finished. Late this summer, I read Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight, (you can read my Goodreads review here) a literary novel based on a character’s memories of post-World-War-II London, and last week, I finished Claire Askew’s All the Hidden Truths, a crime novel (my Goodreads review of this one can be found here).
The points of view in these two novels couldn’t be more different. Ondaatje uses a single first-person narrator, and the entire story is told through his eyes. Now, this doesn’t mean that the entire narrative appears as his. In fact, many of the most important points of the plot come seemingly through other characters. And this, for me, is the central problem: this book, unexpectedly for this writer, is very suspenseful. It’s a spy novel, a crime novel, and finally a domestic drama. The POV doesn’t allow for the revelation of the suspense plot, because the narrator doesn’t actually know what happened. (I will try to avoid spoilers here.) The story is told in flashback and memory, and bits and pieces of the “truth” emerge, but there comes a point where the facts are no longer available to the narrator. And so he speculates. This speculative section is interesting, to be sure, but it’s difficult not to remember that this is all a construction by this narrator, who has been, until now, pretty reliable. And he’s still stable enough–he’s just trying to fill in the blanks. And the author is trying to end the book and resolve the suspense somehow.
Askew takes an entirely different tack. Her novel is divided among the primary DI, the perpetrator, a journalist, and two mothers, one of the criminal and one of a victim. Oh, there are some secondary characters, as well, who come on stage now and again. The narrative is partly regular prose, partly blog posts, partly diary entries. This allows for multiple points of view on a horrific event–a school shooting. It also provides for lots of meditation, self-doubt, and tortured attempts to make sense of the crime. That’s all good and expected in a crime novel. What doesn’t happen, though, is suspense. The criminal is identified very early on, and there’s no reason to doubt that he has done the thing that he has done. There is quite a lot of wondering why, but the revelation of potential reasons–and they’re not held until the end–doesn’t really seem adequate to answering this enormous and haunting question.
So while I enjoyed both of these books, for different reasons, they both left me feeling that the POV had interfered with the project of the novels’ stories. I almost wished that each author had done what the other one did with the story and the POV. And that made me cast back over my own current work in progress. I’m finishing up a series set in Tudor England (the third volume, just out from Penmore Press, is now available in Kindle on Amazon–click here to get your copy!), and my main character is also my POV, though I use third-person limited. This, of course, limits me to Catherine’s thoughts and observations. I thought a long time before I began with this POV, which is consistent throughout the series. I can’t delve into the minds of the Tudor royals and I can’t peek behind arrases or doors to see what’s up with the naughty kings and queens. I can place characters strategically to provide information, and I use letters and public documents fairly regularly for cultural events. Meetings are a little trickier, since not just anybody could waltz into a monarch’s presence, but I think I’ve managed to steer my Catherine into the Tudor circle plausibly enough, at least when it’s necessary.
I very much like other POVs, though, and I want to experiment in future projects with other ways of approaching plot through character. And I recommend both Ondaatje’s Warlight for its beautiful language and evocation of post-war London and Askew’s All the Hidden Truths for her sympathetic approach to the people involved in the kind of event that we see all too often in the American news (though Askew’s novel is set in Scotland). But I also recommend that readers pay attention to the way information is delivered, not so much to criticize these writers as to think about how we make our own realities–as we all do–through storytelling.