The large number of novels written in the first person would suggest it’s an easy voice to pull off: that the closeness of ‘I’ to ‘me’ means it can be accessed by the novelist without much difficulty. But in fact, the writer must come up with a legitimate reason for why a character is giving a first-hand account of their experience. For fiction to thoroughly convince the illusion needs to be seamless — and if for a second the reader is jolted out of the narrative by wondering why this person suddenly decided to tell me this story, then the author has failed.
It is a voice that must justify its own existence. Why else are so many first-person narrators writers themselves? Why do authors so often use the epistolary or diary form to convey the first person? Occasionally, a writer locates an ‘I’ so unique and distinctive that it is the only way that the story can be told. Not every author pulls off the feat of convincing the reader, but this recent crop of debut novels shows that original and inventive things are still being done with this most traditional of narrative voices.
In Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi (Grove Press, £10), we meet Ada, who is inhabited by multiple voices. The book follows her progress from girlhood in Nigeria to college in America. The trauma of rape, self-harm and anorexia brings the multiple, divergent selves within her more fully to life. This is a novel as full of the violence of what it means to have a physical self as Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. When describing the motion of cutting herself Emezi writes, ‘the skin sighed apart’.
The spirits who crowd around inside her body speak at times collectively, at times individually, and sometimes they allow Ada to speak for herself. The collective voice drowns out her better judgment and drives her to ever greater extremes. As a narrative device it is deft and ingenious, allowing the author to deal in new ways with what might otherwise feel indulgent. Whatever voice Emezi uses, her writing is never less than compelling.
The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon (Virago, £18.99) has three different narrative voices. Will Kendall offers a first-person account of how his girlfriend Phoebe was indoctrinated by an evangelical Christian cult while they were students at a liberal arts college in the Hudson River Valley. Phoebe’s story is told as reported speech: ‘I hoped I’d be a piano genius, Phoebe told the group.’ She is the daughter of Korean immigrants who loses her mother in a car accident in which she was driving. She meets John Leal, charismatic cult leader and son of a Korean mother. He had been interned in a North Korean prison camp, and his story is told in the third person.
It is difficult to tell what this narrative conceit actually adds to the book. One effect is that it keeps the reader at an ever-increasing distance from the terrorist attack at the heart of the story that is never fully explained. This is a book that could have been much longer than its 200 pages. But Kwon is capable of both economy and flourish and can show this within a single sentence: ‘I drifted the streets in the milk heat of late morning’, says Kendall, wandering Manhattan in summer. Kwon’s is a raw talent, and what is exciting is not so much what she has achieved here but what she might do next.
The narrator of Shaun Prescott’s Town (Faber, £12.99) is a writer who has arrived in New South Wales to research disappearing Australian settlements. If this sounds po-faced it is anything but. I was reminded at first of the voice of Faye, the star of Rachel Cusk’s auto-fiction trilogy. Faye is ever-listening, ever-aware, but so seemingly unwilling to participate that she can only act as a conduit for other people’s experiences. Prescott’s narrator is ever-listening but unaware. He is such a stranger to small-town life that its peculiarities are fascinating to him and the missteps he makes in trying to understand are often hilarious.
But this is a strange town by anyone’s standards: a radio station broadcasts without an audience; a bus driver drives a bus that no one ever boards; a pub opens daily without any patrons. And then random holes start appearing in the ground. If this novel really shares anything with auto-fiction, it’s that it is an interrogation of what fiction is and the limited means it has to give shape to our lives. Prescott manages to bridge these irreconcilable gaps with stretches of beautiful prose.
In Glenn Skwerer’s The Tristan Chord (Unbound, £16.99) our narrator, Eugen Rezcek, gives his account of how he became beguiled by none other than Adolf Hitler. He writes his story from an Austrian internment camp shortly after the end of the second world war where he is being interrogated about his relationship with the young Adolf. Rezcek is Hitlerjugendfreund or ‘friend of the Führer’s youth’. The two met in Linz in 1905 and bonded over a shared love of opera. Unsurprisingly, Hitler is an intense teenager with lofty ambitions. They go on to share a flea-ridden flat during their student days in Vienna where Rezcek studies music. At this time Adolf’s obsessions begin to consume him. When Rezcek has an affair with the mother of one of his music students, Adolf’s misogyny and disgust for sex drive them apart.
There are of course times when the reader will wonder why Rezcek ever became friends with someone who was quite clearly a crackpot; but the point of the retrospective narrative is that Rezcek is not only questioning why he did not see this but why an entire nation also failed to. It is an engaging and entertaining story and while this book and its use of the first person is by far the most straightforward of this bunch of novels, it overcomes a considerable challenge by giving a convincing portrayal of a historical figure we all feel we know — and almost manages to humanise him.
Subscribe to The Spectator Australia today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Subscribe – Try a month free