Five Naive Narrators

Margot McGovern names her favourite naive narrators. 

The much anticipated release of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman (2015) sent many of us, myself included, rushing to our reading chairs to revisit To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) and reacquaint ourselves with its precocious tomboy narrator, Scout Finch.

Scout is one of my favourite naive narrators—a sub-set of the unreliable narrator, these are characters who tell stories involving events beyond their comprehension. I’m sure some smart arse will be quick to point out that Scout is actually narrating as an adult and fully aware of what went down during her childhood summers in Maycomb, but she tells the story through the eyes of her younger self so let’s not nitpick.

Revisiting To Kill a Mockingbird got me thinking about other naive narrators and why they make appealing characters. They are often, though not always, children who witness complicated and upsetting events, and it’s usually a relief to know they don’t fully comprehend what’s happening, but it’s also interesting as a reader to see how authors reimagine these events through a naive lens. Naive narrators also offer readers a less directly confronting path into stories that would otherwise be raw and harrowing, or else didactic.

However, what most appeals to me about naive narrators is that they speak from the margins, looking in at a world just beyond their grasp. When we hear their side of the story, we put ourselves in the shoes of the innocent ‘Other’. We see our own actions reflected back distorted and are reminded that there is always another side of the story.

With that in mind, I went hunting through my bookshelves to seek out five of my favourite naive narrators. If you know of others, let me know in the comments below.

Jimmy Flick in The Eye of the Sheep by Sofie Laguna (2014)

The Eye of the Sheep CoverJimmy Flick sees the world differently to his peers. In his words: ‘When I was slow I should have been fast, and when I was fast I should have been slow. … I was eleven years old but at the same time I was not. How can opposite things be true?’ Jimmy has a keen interest in systems and finding the connections between things, and he spends hours pouring over instruction manuals. He views people as machines: his mum’s asthma is caused by dust blocking her valves, and his dad drinks Cutty Sark to relieve the pressure building around his heart.

Winner of the 2015 Miles Franklin Literary AwardThe Eye of the Sheep is a heartbreaking story, marked by tragedy, but also a story of hope, resilience and unbreakable connections, made all the more bittersweet by Jimmy’s telling.

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Jack in Room by Emma Donoghue (2010)

RoomFive year old Jack has always believed the world is no bigger than a single room measuring eleven by eleven feet. Aside from himself there is only Ma and Old Nick who comes at night. To discover that the world is infinitely larger than Room and that Ma once lived outside is almost too much for Jack to get his head around.

Inspired by true events, Room is a story of abduction, imprisonment and rape told from the naive perspective of a boy with no comprehension of the horror he’s born into. But far more than a clever exercise in point of view, Donoghue’s story digs deep into the bond between mother and child.

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Oskar Schnell in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer (2005)

Extremely Loud and Incredibly CloseNine-year-old Oskar is grieving for his dad who was killed in the World Trade Centre on 9/11. Before his dad died, their favourite game was Reconnaissance Expedition, in which Oskar’s dad would send him on treasure hunts. Sometimes he might be told to find ‘something from every decade of the twentieth century’ other times he might only be given a map. One day Oskar finds a mysterious key in an envelope labelled ‘Black’ at the back of his dad’s closet. He’s certain it’s a clue, that his dad is sending him on one last Reconnaissance Expedition that will give him the answers to all the questions he’s been left with.

Oskar is incredibly bright with a knack for solving puzzles. But he’s better with facts than feelings, and he’s too preoccupied with collecting clues and solving the mystery of the ‘Black’ key to see the bigger picture building.

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Briony Tallis in Atonement by Ian McEwan (2001)

atonementAs a precocious thirteen-year-old, Briony thinks she understands a great deal more about the world than she does, especially when it comes to matters of the heart. But with her sister, Cecelia, home from university, Briony is keenly aware of her childishness and eager to prove her maturity. So when she catches an illicit glimpse of the adult world, she’s quick to tell what she’s seen. However, she’s not entirely certain of what she saw and the consequences for speaking up are devastating and far reaching.

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The Girl in A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride (2013)

A Girl is a Half-Formed ThingMcBride’s unnamed narrator speaks in half formed thoughts and fragments of dialogue, narrating her life from babyhood to her twenties. She speaks in present tense and the early stages of her story, in which she describes growing up with a strict religious mother and a sick brother in rural Ireland, are coloured by naiveté and the reader must poke through the clutter to find the shards of meaning.

Winner of the 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for FictionA Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is an experimental read that plays with the stream-of-consciousness style pioneered by Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. It requires active participation on the part of the reader, but the girl—bold, confused and just a little deviant—and the story she has to tell are well worth the effort.

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