Where do I start? If only my ideas were straightforward. Instead, here I am scratching my head and trying to unravel too many different lines of thought.
‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said gravely, ‘and go on until you come to the end: then stop.’
Chapter XII, Alice in Wonderland
That seems like sound advice. It’s certainly simple.
So, perhaps I’ll start with the source of my inspiration for this week’s ramble. Aptly enough (says she, with wide eyed disingenuous simplicity) it was the opening lines of a novel, Behind the Scenes at The Museum, by Kate Atkinson.
I exist! I am conceived to the chimes of midnight on the clock on the mantelpiece in the room across the hall. The clock once belonged to my great-grandmother (a woman called Alice) and its tired chime counts me into the world. I’m begun on the first stroke and finished on the last when my father rolls off my mother and is plunged into dreamless sleep, thanks to the five pints of John Smith’s Best Bitter he has drunk in the Punch Bowl with his friends, Walter and Bernard Belling.
Who exists? Why Ruby Lennox, a narrator who has such an all-seeing god-like view of events that from the moment her life begins, she knows everything about her family. I’m not just talking about her great-grandmother’s clock here, look at what Ruby knows about her father’s movements prior to this conception: what he drank, where he was and who he was with. To top that off, she also knows that his sleep is dreamless. If you’ve ever wondered what an omniscient narrator can do, here’s a good example.
Trouble is, Ruby’s not exactly a standard example of omniscience, because she’s a central character in the story. In fact she’s also a first person narrator, recounting the events of her life, like Tristram Shandy:
‘I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, minded what they were about when they begot me.
and David Copperfield (‘Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life…’) .
Far from god-like, Ruby’s as fallible as the rest of us, with opinions, prejudices, likes and dislikes that colour the way she sees and recalls her life.
“‘Bunty’ doesn’t seem like a very grown-up name to me – would I be better off with a mother with a different name?”
So, engaging as her story is, there’s always room for a little bit of doubt about what we’re reading. We want to trust her. After all, the narrator’s role is to show us the way in the story. That role of route-master can include everything from placing only relevant story scenes in front of us, to directing what angle we view them from and even, making sure we read it as the narrator wishes us to. It’s easy to forget how much manipulation is taking place when we’re speeding our way down the page.
Okay, this is fiction, and in the world of fantasy, especially this kind of magical-realist text, anything can happen. We could just accept and enjoy it as comic exaggeration. But this story’s also littered with misdirection. Our narrator seems to suggest that fictional characters existed in the same way as historical figures, ‘Robinson Crusoe, that other great hero, is also a native son of this city.’ She’s also under the impression that her birth is so important an event that ,’outside the window, a dawn chorus is heralding my own arrival.’
You could call that ego, perhaps. She wouldn’t be the only one to believe the world revolves around herself. The thing is, once we see that, shouldn’t we be a bit wary of taking her at face value?