I’ve just completed “The Way I Found Her” by the English author Rose Tremain, and was struck by the author’s ability to write convincingly as a 13 year-old boy. Time and again, I’ve read comments by Literary Agents, Publishers and jury members from major literary prizes, in which they emphasise the importance of ‘voice’ in a novel. In order to grab your reader from the first page, paragraph even, it’s absolutely essential to ‘get the voice right’. Tremain’s naïve, yet philosophical Lewis is a tremendously strong voice and I feel she gets the tone of the narrative exactly right too. These two elements, as well as her masterly evocations of Paris in late summer, and a cracking plot, kept me returning to the book every spare moment I had last week.
“The Way I Found Her” (1998, Vintage) reminded me of two other novels I’ve read and enjoyed in which the first-person narrator is a young boy – the Irish/German author Hugo Hamilton’s “The Speckled People” and the Norwegian author Roy Jacobsen’s “Child Wonder”. I read Hamilton’s book years ago, but Jacobsen’s earlier this year, so perhaps it was on my mind when in July, I wrote a short story from the point of view of an adolescent boy. I entered it in a competition, the results of which have not been announced, but after reading Tremain’s book last week, I started to think about my story again. Did I get the voice right? I’m not sure, but I felt confident enough about it at the time to send it off for someone else to scrutinise. No doubt, when the competition results are out, I will re-read my effort and edit it heavily as I often do on returning to a piece I’ve submitted or shelved.
Here are some short extracts from the published books I’ve mentioned. I unreservedly recommend Rose Tremain, Hugo Hamilton and Roy Jacobsen. If you’ve not come across their work before, you can read samples on Kindle. I’ve pasted links to reviews of the three books mentioned and in the case of “The Way I Found Her”, the New York Times review has a link to the first chapter.
“… the ball squirted away from under my feet. I chased after it, but I could see nothing with the sun in my eyes and I fell over a man lying on the grass with his mouth open. He sat up suddenly and said, ‘What the Jayses?’ He told me to look where I was going in future. So I got up quickly and ran back to my mother and father. I told them that the man said ‘Jayses’, but they were both turned away, laughing at the sea. My father was laughing and blinking through his glasses and my mother had her hand over her mouth, laughing and laughing at the sea, until the tears came into her eyes and I thought, maybe she’s not laughing at all but crying.”
“We found that we were looking down at a cemetery. Didier said nothing. We all three of us stared at the cemetery, which looked as though it had been filled up long ago, because it was chock-a-block with graves. I think this was the first French graveyard I’d seen and I noticed that, instead of having flat slabs put over them, the dead here were put inside proper stone buildings with roofs on and railings round some of them and tiny gardens planted with plastic flowers. It was like looking at the Afterlife Housing Estate. All it lacked were TV facilities. Then Didier suddenly said: ‘My father is buried here.’ Alice said she was sorry, and I immediately thought that Didier seemed too young to have a dead father. I’d worked out that he was no older than about twenty-seven, so his father might only have been fifty or fifty-five. Not many people seemed to die at this age. I made a note to ask Didier whether his father had been a roofer and if the mortality rate among roofers was high.”
“It all started when Mother and I had some decorating to do. That is, I painted the lowest part of the wall, as I was rather lacking in height – it was a struggle – while she stood on a kitchen chair and concentrated on the bit below the ceiling. At that rate it would actually take several months to finish one wall. But one evening fru Syversen came round, eyed our handiwork, her arms folded across her ample bosom, and said: ‘Why don’t you try wallpaper, Gerd?’
[…] On the sitting-room walls of the Syversen family flat we saw for the first time the large-flower pattern wallpaper that would in the course of the Sixties turn Norwegian working-class homes into minor tropical jungles …”