While once upon a time the use of the first person narrator in fiction was seen as “barbaric”, that time is long past. It is now a popular narrator voice, and it fits well with the feminist opposition to so called “objective” knowledge—something embodied in omniscient third person narrator. Moreover, we are all keenly aware of the strengths of first person narration. It is or can be exceptionally intimate; it is experiential; and it tends to take us solidly into the narrator’s world. This notwithstanding, it can present real problems. That is, it can leave us as readers feeling like we are drowning in the head of the narrator. Just as seriously, we may need to know something that the narrator is no position to convey.
It was precisely problems of this ilk that I faced when writing my novel The Other Mrs. Smith. As an electroshock survivor, the central character and first person narrator (Naomi Smith) is an individual severely traumatized as well as someone with acute memory loss, which together raises the risk of the reader being overwhelmed, also of not finding out what they need to know. My solution was combining a strong first person narrator with viewpoint characters. It is this combination that I am exploring in this article, using the novel as an example.
What can the combination offer us as authors? A deeply intimate novel where the reader nonetheless does not drown. A way of informing the reader about information not available to the narrator. A caveat and a word of advice, using the third person viewpoint narration sparingly or you endanger the intimate connection with the main narrator.
In The Other Mrs. Smith, there are three characters who sometimes act as viewpoint characters. These are Naomi’s mother Ida, her daughter Ruth, and her best friend Gerald. In all three cases, these characters facilitate our learning parts of the story that Naomi cannot tell. Additionally, we are given respite from being inside Naomi’s head; and whole new perspectives emerge. The pieces narrated from such a perspective are very short, with only Gerald having more than one such passage associated with him. Correspondingly, there is an interesting play between Gerald and Naomi, for while this novel is initially narrated from the vantage point of Gerald, it quickly switches to Naomi narrating. Additionally, even in that opening section, we have a strong sense of being inside Naomi’s head for half of the section is dedicated to her written recollections of electroshock as found in a binder of hers known as Black Binder Three. In this respect, we hear Naomi’s voice loud and clear as Gerald reads through Black Binder Number Three. Here we find such intimate words of Naomi’s as:
Eyes peer at me, then quickly look away. Because they are afraid. Because they sense the humiliation. Because they know not what else to do. Stretchers in front of me, stretchers behind me. Some poor soul being dragged where none of us want to go.
Who would have thought that a single shriek could fill the universe? (The Other Mrs. Smith, p. 9)
Pound. Pound. Pound. What am I? I am a totally blank wall (The Other Mrs. Smith, p. 10)
Immediately upon Gerald finishing reading the binder, correspondingly, we find ourselves with the uniquely penetrating gaze of Gerald. Note in this regard this passage:
All the while that Gerald was reading, his face was calm, his gaze steady. Now the time was when he would have shaken his head in dismay. When he would have objected that the woman had never been crazy and cried out, “So why?” But not today. He simply took each passage one by one, scrutinizing them, repeating the odd word aloud, pausing to consider… He was proud of what Naomi had achieved and what intent on doing whatever he could to help her accomplish more. But it wasn’t this that made Gerald’s eye sharper. There was something of monumental importance in this binder. Not so much on the surface as tucked away. Something in the words or underneath the words. Something beyond the obvious. Beyond the anguish, the damage, the terror, the sheer stupidity of it all. And maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but sure as his name was Gerald Smith, sooner or later, he was going to find it. (The Other Mrs. Smith, p. 10)
Should third person narration attached to viewpoint characters incorporate a “limited viewpoint”, or should the passages associated with them slip now and again into omniscience? It all depends on what you are trying to accomplish. With Ida and Ruth we are almost exclusively treated to a limited point of view, though with Gerald, point of view varies dramatically.
How any given author uses and varies this combination, of course, is their call, their judgment. That said, do consider adding some variant of this combination to your repertoire. It is a powerful combination, however you work it. There are legions of experiments you can conduct. And who is to say what marvels you might be able to accomplish?
Dr. Bonnie Burstow is a professor at University of Toronto. An antipsychiatry and a trauma theorist, she mainly writes nonfiction but she has also written two novels—The House on Lippincott (Toronto: Inna Press) and The Other Mrs. Smith (Toronto: Inanna Press). See http://bizomadness.blogspot.ca/
Follow her on Twitter @BizOMadness
About THE OTHER MRS. SMITH
This novel traces the life experiences of a once highly successful woman who falls prey to electroshock and subsequently struggles to piece back together her life. Naomi suffers enormous memory loss; additionally, an estrangement from her family of origin that she has no way to wrap her mind around.
The novel begins with her wandering the corridor of St. Patricks-St Andrews Mental Health Centre (St. Pukes) faced with the seemingly impossible challenge of coming to terms with the damage done her, as well uncovering the hidden details of her life.
It moves back and forth between a relatively happy childhood in the legendary north-end Winnipeg of the mid-1900s and post-ECT adulthood in Toronto. An exceptionally kind man named Ger who befriends Naomi comes to suspect that important pieces of the puzzle of what befell her lurk beneath the surface of writing in a binder of hers, which comes to be known as Black Binder Number Three.
What Naomi progressively comes to do, often with Ger’s help and just as often with the help of a very different and eerily similar sister named Rose, is find ways to do justice to her life and to the various people in it. Filled with a vast array of colourful and insightful characters from a variety of communities—Toronto¹s Kensington Market of the 1970s, the 1970’s trans community, north-end Winnipeg Jewry, and the ingenious and frequently hilarious mad community—this novel sensitizes us to the horror of electroshock, takes us to new levels in our understanding of what it means to be human, and, in the process, leads us to question the very concept of normalcy.
“Bonnie Burstow’s The Other Mrs. Smith is a first rate, emotionally powerful novel. Her writing is vivid and personal, spiced with pungent Jewish expressions. The scenes with Winnipeg’s North End have a life-like, photographic intensity, also important social history. The portrayal of Jewish family relatives is very personally involving, and some of the psychiatric inmates are so sharply sketched, they bring back my own early memories.”
—Don Weitz , Toronto psychiatric survivor, social justice activist, and co-editor of Shrink-Resistant
“Forced electroshock left me bereft of my life’s purpose, until I spoke out. Though the testimonial facts of the struggle up from brain damage are mine and those of other survivors, this powerful story and the sheer artistry of its handling is all Bonnie. A gem of a novel and a “must-read.””
—Connie Neil, author of Aftershock: Raised Consciousness Crumbles SHAM Psychiatric System
“Burstow’s writing style is clear, stark, and informative, allowing the abundance of characters the space to become fully animated. She moves the reader back and forth in time metaphorically strengthening our ability to consider the history of electroshock. Read it to meet the characters and be in these rich Canadian locales. I encourage you to read it to consider how we can better the human condition.”
—Spencer J. Harrison, artist, activist, educator at OCAD University