A strong, active narrative voice is a joy to find. Yes, I read and enjoy books that aren’t written in first person, but a strong, first-person narrator rocks my world, so it’s not surprising that many of the books on the “Essentials” shelf are written in first person. I thought I’d say a bit about a few of my favorites, in hopes of convincing you to spend some time with these characters I’m so deeply fond of.
• The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller—When Melissa began reading this book, I found her choice quixotic. The Trojan war? Really? A bunch of men killing each other on a grand scale over a woman? But this books absolutely sings—appropriate enough given the title. The narrator is Patroclus, best friend and lover and Achilles, son of a human father and sea goddess mother. Patroclus knows he lacks the warrior’s skills and temperament of Achilles, yet when Achilles leaves for Troy, Patroclus does as well. The love the two share is exquisitely rendered and counterbalances the violence of Greek society even as the characters remain firmly planted within that society. Patroclus’ clear, quiet, gentle voice will haunt you after you’ve read this novel. Achilles may be semi-divine, but Patroclus is wonderfully, self-consciously human.
A taste of Patroclus’s voice: This feeling [for Achilles] was different. I found myself grinning until my cheeks hurt, my scalp prickling till I thought it might lift off my head. My tongue ran away from me, giddy with freedom. This and this and this, I said to him. I did not have to fear that I spoke too much. I did not have to worry that I was too slender or too slow. This and this and this! I taught him how to skip stones, and he taught me how to carve wood. I could feel every nerve in my body, every brush of air against my skin.
• Fair and Tender Ladies, Lee Smith—I’ve written recently about this book, so I’ll be brief here. Ivy, the narrator, is an intelligent woman growing up in Appalachia, where her intelligence isn’t necessarily appreciated. She says what she thinks, she does what she wants, from childhood to old age. Hearing Ivy’s voice as she matures, spending time with the woman she becomes is, quite simply, one of the greatest pleasures I’ve experienced as a reader.
A taste of Ivy’s voice: My hair is long and yaller-red it comes down to my waist and Silvaney holps me to wash it, we spread it over a chairback to lift it to dry in front of the fire. Momma came in last night when we was all drying our hair, Silvaney and Beulah and me and Ethel. Silvaneys hair is real long and curly and wellnigh white, and Ethels is a real light yaller, and Beulahs hair is as red as that sourgum tree rigt now up on Pilgrim Knob. She takes after Daddy the mostest.
• The Colour of Milk, Nell Leyshon—Like Fair and Tender Ladies, this is a book about a brilliant young woman with very limited options. The novel is set in 1830s England, and the narrator, Mary, has been sent by her father to work as a housemaid for the local vicar. On the one hand, the reader is glad to see Mary out of her father’s house, where she’s been subjected to his sudden, violent outbursts. On the other hand, as a housemaid, Mary still finds herself vulnerable to the whims of others. The one apparent blessing in the midst of her uncertain life is the reading lessons the vicar gives her, but I call it an “apparent blessing” for good reason. The book is written in her country dialect and the voice is rushed and troubled, as if Mary’s story is pouring out of her more quickly than she can set it on the page.
A taste of Mary’s voice: in this year of our lord eighteen hundred and thirty one i am reached the age of fifteen and i am sitting by my window and i can see many things. i can see birds and they fill the sky with their cries. i can see the trees and i can see the leaves. and each leaf has veins which run down it. and the bark of each tree has cracks. i am not very tall and my hair is the colour of milk. my name is mary and i have learned to spell it. m. a. r. y. that is how you letter it.
• Never Fall Down, Patricia McCormick—This book straddles the fiction/non-fiction divide. It tells the story of Arn, a boy struggling to survive the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia. Arn survives through quick thinking and a willingness to do what’s necessary, which comes to haunt him once he’s left Cambodia and is first in a refugee camp in Thailand and then in the U.S. His story is told in his voice as rendered by McCormick, who knows him personally and has spent extended periods of time listening to him recount his childhood. McCormick attempts to recreate Arn’s voice exactly, writing English as spoken by this immigrant, short sentences, grammatical infelicities, and all. In the abstract, I would expect this to make the book feel condescending—the Western author playing at the broken English of an immigrant—but this isn’t the case at all. The voice is genuine and gripping. I particularly appreciate that the book follows Arn to America and lets us see the difficulties he has transitioning to life in this country.
A taste of Arn’s voice: We walk three day. One long line of kid, all in black, one black snake with five hundred eye. Very tire, my leg heavy like boulder, my mind think only of the next step, then one more step, just walking, no thinking, no caring. Some kid die on the way. They die walking. Some kid cry for their parent or say they tire, they hungry.
• I, Iago, Nicole Galland—I had my doubts before I began this book, but it was on sale and I figured I’d take a chance. Iago? The most evil of all evil literary villains? But this book works. At the beginning we like Iago not just despite, but because of his cynicism. Then we watch how this cynicism ripens, becomes something deeper and worse. We see someone we liked transformed into someone we despise. And we do despise him, and we can’t do anything but despise him, but we can’t forget that we liked him once.
A taste of Iago’s voice: They called me “honest Iago” from an early age, but in Venice this is not a compliment. It is a rebuke. One does not prosper by honesty. One does not rise in the social ranks. One does not curry favors. Honesty causes upset, and Venice is serene. The Serene Republic. It says so right there on the seal of state, which I could read when I was two, or so claimed the governess who struggled to keep up with my precociousness.
I offer you this taste of my favorites. Enjoy!