Past the Shallows – when seeing through two eyes can be better than one
by Aaron Cox
When it comes to writing fiction, few choices are as important than the choice of point of view. Who is telling the story? If they are a character in the story, what is their role and how to do they perceive events? If the third person is adopted, what is the narrator’s attitude to the story or it’s characters? Does the narrator see over the shoulder of one character (i.e. close third person) or is the narrator an omniscient god-like figure?
The answers to these questions will help inform the sort of voice that is adopted. It will influence the tone of the narration, how narrow or expansive the narrator’s worldview will be and therefore how much the reader sees. It can have an impact on issues of a narrator’s reliability and whether dramatic irony might be used.
From my experience, it’s not an easy decision. Getting point of view wrong can really kill the writing. But when you get it right, the narrative possibilities can really open up before you.
Favel Perrett uses point of view to great effect in her novel Past the Shallows and that’s the topic of today’s blog. She adopts a “close third person” style. This form of point of view involves looking over the shoulder of a character and is thus more limited in vision than an omniscient style of narration. Close third person creates intimacy. Flaubert, the master stylist, famously used this style to great effect in Madame Bovary.
What is interesting about Parrett’s use of the close third person is that she employs it with two characters rather than one and this point of view shifts between chapters.
Before going on, a rough outline of the book may be necessary for those of you who haven’t read it. Spoiler alert: I’m going to talk about the end of the novel, so you may not want to read this blog if you plan to read the book.
Past the Shallows is a harrowing story of two boys, Harry and Miles, who live with a violent father, an abalone fisherman in southern Tasmania. Harry is the younger of the two and I figure he is around eight years old. Miles is presumably a teenager. The story chart’s the boys’ quest for survival and their journey to find out more about the suspicious death of their mother, who died in a car accident. Questions remain about whether Harry is in fact the child of their mother’s lover, which adds to the sense of risk for him in the household: the father figure treats him more disdainfully than he treats Miles. Their harsh domestic existence is matched by the precariousness of life on the sea.
The close third person point of view shifts between Harry and Miles (they have an elder brother, Joe, who has a more minor role than the other two). This works really well to control the flow of information and to show differences in how they understand and negotiate with similar experiences. The contrasting lenses also convey tension; for example, when Harry defies Miles’s wishes and disappears to find solace at the home of George, an ambiguous character who lives an unobtrusive life alone in the bush. The dual points of view also allow Parrett to carefully control time and the unveiling of information: for example, she uses ellipses to great effect, although the story can seem too elliptical at times, at the expense of some character development. Many events occur off screen, including the potential death (or otherwise) of Dad in the climatic fishing accident in which Harry dies. Interestingly, we are left hanging about Dad’s fate.
However, the device is most powerful when Harry dies at the end. By implication, one of the points of view is killed off. As a reader, I felt the loss of a narrative position gave his death greater immediacy. I no longer had access to his point of view.
Parrett could have achieved something similar by using two first person points of view. This might have been quite effective. Given how young the boys are in the story, Parrett could have exploited dramatic irony, allowing the reader to understand more than the characters. However, the Parrett’s evocative, dreamlike narrative voice would have been lost if she’d chosen to write in first person and field of vision of each character more limited (a third person, even a close one, allows a certain amount of peripheral vision). Overall, I believe Parrett’s use of dual close third person points of view works.
There is more to be said about how point of view works in Past the Shallows, which I will leave until my next blog. That discussion will look at point of view in terms the particular way a character sees the world. I will look at a section early in the book where I feel the narrator seems to impose a certain perspective on Harry, making his way of seeing appear somewhat contrived rather than an observation he might make himself. It will hopefully be an interesting discussion. Thanks for reading.