torsdag 3 oktober 2013

Wanted - a likeable and reliable narrator

Autumn is a tough time. There's a lot of work to be done and little excuse not to get on with doing it. Therefore, you long to spend your free time as cosily as possible, curled up on a bed or sofa with oceans of tea and a book - or TV programme - that gives you a warm, glowing feeling. Easier said than done.

I was longing for a safe bet reading-wise after Tigers in Red Weather, which was accomplished but not my thing, and so I started on the second novel by Jane Harris, whose Observations I liked so much. Only, sadly, with her new book Gillespie and I she has decided to do Something Completely Different. All right, so not completely. We're still in 19th-century Scotland. One of the themes is still deep, largely unrequited affection. But whereas Bessy - though a self-confessed liar - was an engaging heroine and frank in her own way, the narrator of Gillespie and I, Harriet Baxter, is both unreliable and hard to like.

This is intentional, of course. For the last century or so, there has been a craze for The Unreliable Narrator. And like so many ideas, it sounds brilliant on paper. It is pleasant for the reader to have the rug pulled out from under his/her feet now and then. That's one of the enjoyable things about Christie whodunnits with their clever, surprising but seldom cheating solutions. And who should be in a better position to fool the reader than the narrator his- or herself?

Only, unreliable narrators aren't always such a treat. For one thing, we want to know what actually did happen, and that's hard to achieve when you can't believe in your one source of information. And then, for another, unreliable narrators tend to have one problem. Like Harriet Baxter, they are, quite often, not very nice.

It may be unsophisticated, but the prospect of spending 600 pages in the company of someone I'm not remotely fond of is not something to gladden my heart. Of course, I could do what I normally do - ignore the author's supposed intention and determinedly root for a character I'm supposed to despise. But with Harriet, it's plumb impossible. Even though I'm disposed to feel kindly towards spinsters in their mid-thirties who have strange crushes, women called Harriet (I like the name Harriet, mainly for Middlemarch- and Doctor Who-related reasons - remember Harriet Jones, Prime Minister?), and for that matter, people called Baxter (as in the Efficient Baxter in the Blandings books), I cannot appreciate her. She is officious, irritating, ponderously ironic instead of witty, and so unlike the forthright Bessy as it is possible to be. At most, I can feel sorry for her in her neediness - her childhood, if her horrid stepfather is anything to go by, was plainly a love-starved affair, and her (by herself unacknowledged) love for the oblivious and already happily married artist Ned Gillespie is going nowhere fast.

What makes matters worse is that the other characters are also hard to sympathise with. Ned's wife Annie is all right, but the rest of the Gillespie family is trying in the extreme, and Annie herself doesn't help matters by not being able to control her daughters (troublesome Sibyl and whiny Rose). It is quite a while before Harriet gets to know her admired Ned properly: his family tends to get in the way of both the conversations about art she longs to have with him and the production and promotion of his pictures. As for Ned Gillespie himself, he remains rather a shadowy figure. Good-humoured, yes, but not so remarkable that you can understand why anyone should be spending time with his hopeless family for his sake.

It's a frustrating read, and on top of it all, you know from the start that the whole thing is going to end badly. Harris can still spin a plot all right, but without a single truly attractive character, I'm not sure I want to know how it all unravels. As for the unreliableness, I get irritated rather than feel clever when I catch Harriet out with deceiving the reader (and herself). With a truly unashamed liar as narrator, we wouldn't know if he or she was lying through his/her teeth, and then the whole conceit would be no good. Instead we get scenes like the one where Harriet claims that she doesn't remember the first minutes of conversation she has with her stepfather when they see each other after a long while. There are two possibilites: either she truly doesn't remember, or she does but found the experience too unpleasant to relate for some reason. In both cases, you wonder why she mentions the forgotten minutes of conversation at all. It is merely a device to make the reader think "Aha, there's something going on here that we don't know about".

Maybe it's time for the honest, reliable narrator to have a renaissance? And maybe he or she could be likeable too, while we're about it?