THE CHILD’S PERSPECTIVE AS NARRATOR

You return to that earlier time armed with the present, and no matter how dark that world was, you do not leave it unlit. You take your adult self with you. It is not to be a reliving, but a rewitnessing –  Michael Ondaatje, ‘Warlight’

This is the epigraph to my new novel, MAD HATTER, chosen from the text of Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight for its aptness to my own process with Mad Hatter, which I describe on my webpage as “a fictionalized memoir that marries the clarity of childhood perception with the wisdom of adult recall.

The child narrator has a long tradition in both literature and film, from Dickens’ David Copperfield and Great Expectations to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, Emma Donoghue’s Room, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, with the twin narrators, Rahel and Estha, Ian McEwan’s Cement Garden, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table and Warlight – the list goes on and on. Interestingly, many of these books have been adapted for film or theatre, confirming that the child’s perspective is innately dramatic.

Years ago I saw a film called Luna Papa, released in 1999 by director Bakhtyar Khudojnazarov

in collaboration with Russia, Tajikistan, Germany, Austria and France.

In a small village in Tajikistan, not far from Samarkand, seventeen-year-old Mamlakat, who is beautiful and vivacious, dreams secretly of becoming an actress. One moonlit night, she is seduced by a mysterious stranger who claims to be a friend of Tom Cruise. He disappears, leaving Mamlakat pregnant. For her father Safar and brother Nasreddin, restoring the family honor is a question of pride, and they set out together to find the culprit.

The story is told by the unborn child who has chosen Mamlakat as his mother even before he is conceived. This child has extraordinary power, as does any storyteller who can hold their audience.

I was inspired by Luna Papa, and by my own mysterious emotional memories, when I began in the early 2000s to write Mad Hatter in an attempt to discover my father. The novel begins with the italicized voice of a child. That voice recurs intermittently, identified by italics, until the moment on page 183, at the end of Part One, when Mary Byrne ceases to be narrator of the story and Katie, now aged 15 months, takes over.

Mad Hatter’s two narrators – the Irish immigrant, Mary Byrne, and the child, Katie Brooke – are intertwined within the story in a most interesting way. Mary continues to tell her own story even after Katie becomes the principal narrator and, because this book has a large cast of characters, there are some omniscient objective-narrator sequences that report on scenes where neither Katie nor Mary is present.

Katie speaks, from her adult narrator perspective, of the child’s experience and observations, which are not so removed from Mary Byrne’s outsider observations. After all, Katie is recently arrived in a world at war, January 1942 – the family is her world at that time – and she has nothing to compare it to, so she accepts everything as normal, the way that children do. Mary, though she has strong opinions, has an innate intelligence without the bias of an educational system. She has basic family values and a huge and loving heart. She has the Sight, something that guides her through the minefield of her life as housekeeper in the Brooke household.

Some of Katie’s first words as narrator:

I had found him, the man with whom I’d shared a prison cell, a straw palliasse at Ascot inhaling the pungency of ghost elephants and lions in our sleep, the hopelessness of Latchmere, not knowing if we would ever escape, and now I lay in his lap exhausted from a bout of crying. Mary Byrne was gone, and the story was mine to pick up and tell. Charlotte might better have spoken up but she was biased. She had knowledge of him and I had only longing, without the capacity yet for opinion, though I speak to you now with the benefit of maturity and reflection, and I will tell you more than Mary who could give only the factual report allowed her as the Brooke family’s housekeeper, involved though she was, especially in her friendship with my mother. Undoubtedly between the two of us you will have a good story for we each have a lively imagination and understand the division of labor. And if you’re wondering what is to become of Mary let me assure you that she will return to the narrative, perhaps not quite within it as before, but as a vital artery branching from the heart of it.

There are three strands to this story. One is the thread of my own quest as an adult, and I will start here; there is the life of our family in that haunted house, with the homecoming of my father and the events that followed; and in between we will take up the third thread and follow our darling Mary to find out what has become of her, exiled from paradise by her own vulnerability, leaving us children with the legacy of her whole-heartedness during that terrible wartime which turned out to have been a far better time for us than what came later.

 

It is not a simple thing to tell a story from a child’s perspective when you are an adult. This has been perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of writing Mad Hatter, the question of voice. The marriage I mentioned earlier, between the clarity of childhood perception and the wisdom of adult recall, is a juggling act. As children we can see that the Emperor is naked, and only gradually do we lose that clarity as we weave our way into the social construct and take our place amidst the irrational agreements that constitute our functionality as a collective.

In Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, according to Wikipedia, “The world sometimes impinges on childhood itself, and in any event becomes known through ‘experience,’ a state of being marked by the loss of childhood vitality, by fear and inhibition, by social and political corruption, and by the manifold oppression of Church, State, and the ruling classes.”

Childhood innocence, despite its clarity of vision, is characterized by ignorance. Ironically, we lose our transparency as we gain knowledge and experience. The remarkable thing is that as we approach full circle, especially as women who generally have little to lose, we begin to shout once more about the naked Emperor, and from a perception based on a lifetime of experience, i.e. wisdom.

In a culture rife with ageism and sexism, bent on re-inventing the wheel, it is healing to remember the inevitable and inescapable circle upon which all life is dependent.