I used to work with an educational advisor who was always looking for ways to help children develop their own voice in their writing. It’s not an easy concept to get over to primary children, especially those who find it difficult enough to write anything at all in the first place, leave alone characterising it with their own particular style. Possibly the best way to explain what you mean is to offer them examples of writers whose written voice is so distinctive that they are able to recognise who the author might be even if they haven’t encountered the particular text you’re reading from, but that argues the type of wide acquaintance with authors that an eleven year old is unlikely to have developed. I have tried it with Dr Suess but I’m not certain how well the experience translates from those who write in regular metric verse to those who write in prose.
Truth be told, I’m not sure how good I would be at recognising the style of a particular novelist. What I am aware of, however, is a small number of writers whose individual voice is so strong that for hours, sometimes days, after I have finished reading their work I find myself thinking, speaking and even writing in their particular idiosyncratic rhythms.
I first noticed this during one summer holiday when I was in my teens and for the only time in my life read Jane Eyre. The only time, not because I don’t think this is anything less than a remarkable piece of work, but because the music inherent in Charlotte Bronte’s writing was so pervasive that all my postcards home were written as if Jane herself was penning them. I got some very pointed comments from the people who received them and, given that much of my life is spent writing in one form or another, have never dared go back to the novel again.
What brought this to mind currently was a re-reading of Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Gilead, for a book group meeting later this month. Circumstances meant that I was able to get almost halfway through in my first session, so the narrative voice had ample opportunity to seep into my consciousness.
This morning a splendid dawn passed over our house on its way to Kansas. This morning Kansas rolled out of its sleep into a sunlight gradually announced, proclaimed throughout heaven – one more of the very finite number of days that this old prairie has been called Kansas, or Iowa. But it has all been one day, that first day. Light is constant, we just turn over in it. So every day is in fact the selfsame evening and morning.
Whether this is the voice of Robinson, the author, or John Ames, the narrator, it is characterised by that slow development of an idea into something greater than it started out as; a propensity to take nothing at face value but rather to dig further and deeper into every thought through an unhurried revealing of the notional layers that shroud a fundamental nugget of truth. And, not only do the rhythms of the piece reflect this but so strong are they that for several hours afterwards so also did my speech. My own voice was subdued by that of the novel.
I don’t know about you, but when this happens I find it disturbing. I am used to getting lost in the world of a book, or so wrapped up in its plot that I spend time away from the text speculating on how the action might turn out. That is part of the pleasure of reading. When, however, I find that I am losing myself not in the book, but to the book I feel very uncomfortable. Possession by another being isn’t quite what I signed up for when I took the novel down from the shelf.
Something that I have found myself reflecting on while writing this piece has been the fact that both of these novels have first person narrators and I wonder if this is significant. Would a third person narrator, necessarily at a further remove from the action, have the same potency? I am just about to start Robinson’s second novel in the Gilead trilogy, Home, which is not told simply in the voice of one person. It will be illuminating to see if has the same influence.