Who tells the story?

This question looms large when setting out to circumnavigate a novel. Indeed, it might be the most important question of all. The narrator is everything to a story. The lens for the reader’s view. The grasp of the reader’s hand. The whisper in the reader’s ear. Get the narrator right and a lot of bumps on the road may be smoothed out. Get the narrator wrong and you’ll end up in a ditch, calling for a tow truck.

In my previous work, the question of who tells the story tended to have ready answers. Kindling was always going to be the alternating voices of father and son. The fabulist fable of Infinite Blue would only ever be served by a Brothers Grimm-esque third person. In Most Valuable Potential and Munro vs the Coyote / Exchange of Heart, the narrator needed to be a guide for the reader as they engaged with experiences outside of the mainstream for many: those of the the immigrant and the disabled. Are You Seeing Me? wasn’t quite as straightforward — the original draft had much of the third act delivered from mother Leonie’s perspective; during it’s two and a half year struggle to find a home, that approach was abandoned in favour of focusing solely on the twins (a decision that played an enormous role in the work finally securing a deal).

Overall, choice of voice? Relatively painless.

Then along comes Boy in the Blue Hammock.

It was difficult. As discussed in a previous post, the novel’s protagonists — a dog, Tao, and an intellectually disabled young man, Kasper — meant cognitive and communication challenges would be front and centre in the story. Could either carry the narration load? Not in first person. Tao telling the tale ran the risk of gimmick, and of alienating readers with boundaries to their suspension of disbelief. Kasper? The very narrow parameters of his functional language made it nigh impossible. And regardless of his communication limitations, I didn’t want Kasper driving the narrative — his perspective on the events that unfold needed to be occasional for the story to work.

Unable to have the lead characters in charge, I considered a secondary figure: Kasper’s mother, Bess. Bess was already present and influential — at the beginning of each chapter, she gives brief, diary-like insights into the time leading up to the fatal home invasion. Could she be the voice for the entire novel? No, she couldn’t. Without getting into spoilers, her job was to set the scene, not take the journey.

A narrator is out there…somewhere...

In the end, there was really only one option: third person.

Not the standard third person, mind you. A mix. Omniscient here, Tao limited PoV there. And an occasional dash of Kasper limited PoV, just to give the reader their glimpse of a unique mind in motion. Did this narrator hopscotch-by-design work? Ultimately, the audience will decide.

For what it’s worth, I think it came together well. Better than well, in fact. If I’m any sort of reliable narrator for my own career, I feel it’s the best work I’ve ever done.

Boy in the Blue Hammock will be released in CAN/US Spring 2022. It is available for pre-order here.