Points of View

Hunters in the Dark by Lawrence Osborne and In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner are both, as it happens, set in Cambodia. And there the similarity ends – but there are plenty of reviews that will explain why. What prompted this post was the points of view from which they were written, and how I think they could both have been a little better with a little more attention on this point.

Vaddey’s book, as the Author’s Notes state, is based on her own experience growing up during the Khmer Rouge era. The author was five years old when the Khmer Rouge came to power, and escaped when the regime collapsed four years later. Her protagonist was two years older.

The book is written from the first person – “I.” However, it’s pretty obvious from the first few pages that the “I” writing the book is not a seven year old, but an adult remembering the time when she was seven. In other words, and unlike Peter Cary’s True History of the Kelly Gang in which he writes as a barely literate uneducated immigrant would, Vaddey writes using the voice of what she is: a literate adult.

The result, to my mind, detracted from the work. The “I” became a distraction, a give-away that “I” was going to survive the genocide, a device that lost its purpose very early in the work. Using a third person would have left open the possibility that the protagonist wouldn’t make it, increasing the tension.

This was needed. Despite some very moving writing, the emotional heart of the book is the relationship between the main character and her father, who is disappeared about a third of the way through the book. By half way through, it is obvious that her father won’t come back and, with the use of “I” closing off the possibilty that the main character wouldn’t survive, the dramatic tension of the book weakened.

Lawrence’s book was a take on today’s Cambodia, and almost self-consciously avoids “atrocity tourism.” The problem I found with this book was that the many points of view made the author lazy.

The book starts with an undistinguished backpacker crossing the land border into Cambodia. The first ten or so chapters are told from his point of view: we see the world through his eyes.

Chapter 11 is therefore a shock because, a quarter of the way through the book, there is an abrupt change and we see the world through another character’s eyes. It was a few pages before I picked up on this, and I had to go back and re-read it to make sense of what was going on.

From this point, the discipline collapsed. Forget about one character’s point of view per chapter – there was one sequence where we got three character’s points of view in as many pages. While it would be exaggerating to say that these changes came thick and fast, trying to work out which pair of eyes I was seeing things through was a distraction.

It also took the onus off the main character, who ought to have been baffled at events around him. But because I, the reader, knew so much that he didn’t, the sheer terror that someone in that situation would find themselves in didn’t come across.

Of course, one of the reasons I have started writing this blog is to remind myself of what I liked and I didn’t. And there’s a whole stack of classics from the 18th and 19th centuries which have a narrator to guide us along. But I guess my point to me is to choose the rules and stick with them.