Do you sometimes read a book and want it to never end? Sometimes I fear that I’ll never find a novel as keep-me-up-all-night good as the one I’m currently reading. It feels like nothing I pick off the shelf will be as absorbing, as transporting. In the last few weeks I’ve had that feeling twice, in one novel after another. The first one was The Rip by Mark Brandi. The second was The Shepherd’s Hut by Tim Winton. I tried to work out why.
What these two magnificent novels have in common (besides being Australian and about characters pushed to extremes) is a first person narrator – the voice of the story is ‘I’. This isn’t uncommon in literature, but both of these novels do it so well.
So how did they keep me hooked?
Neither has a complex plot or a huge cast of characters, but both were irresistible. If I wrote a novel, I thought, this is what I would want to do. So how? How could I possibly draw the reader in so intensely, keep them there, right inside the head of a complex and damaged main character?
It’s all about narrative point of view
In The Rip, the protagonist and narrator is a homeless, drug-addicted young woman, name unknown, living in the parks and streets of inner-city Melbourne. Mark Brandi has used the present tense as well as the first person, making the reading experience both immediate and personal. The Shepherd’s Hut is narrated by Jaxie Clackton, the ‘hardarse the kids run clear of all over the shire’. Tim Winton writes the young man’s voice absolutely authentically, bad grammar and all. So we see the world and hear the story totally from their point of view. They are the main character as well as the narrator. Logically, it may seem that a first-person narrator would be the least engaging, and an omniscient or third-person narrator would add more nuance to the story. In the hands of these first-class writers, the first-person point of view puts us inside the world and the mind of the main character but leaves room for us to wonder how reliable they are. We see what they see, experience their world with them, but also bring to the story our doubts about if the world really is as the character experiences it. Our own imaginations fill in some of the shadows, and foresee where the character is going to end up. Until we don’t.
In the hands of lesser writers first-person narration can be limited and self-indulgent. Both these recent Australian novels are well worth examining for lessons in first-person point of view. But read them first as wonderful stories, masterfully told.
Read more about Mark Brandi in 8 things an award-winning author can teach you about being a writer.