Okay, so the Friday posts thing didn’t last terribly long. I’m a little bit sorry, but not very much; my inadvertent hiatus was filled with lots of non-book-related fun in my life. I’ve been drawn back into the world of blogging, however, by some recent thoughts about the power of narrative voice(s), and the profound effects that point-of-view characters can have on my understanding and appreciation for a novel. Although this applies across fiction, and even some forms of non-fiction, the book that started me thinking about it was Brighton Rock by Graham Greene.
This was another one of my Classics Club choices, and although I read it back in December (I am, as ever, extremely punctual with my review), it left a strong impression on me. It’s the first Greene novel I’ve read, and I didn’t really know what to expect. It follows the fortunes, or otherwise, of a woman named Ida Arnold, who is investigating the death of Fred Hale, a man she met shortly before he was murdered. Despite her lack of detective experience and the briefness of their acquaintance, she is incredibly dogged and insistent. Ida’s narrative, in many ways, forms the heart and warmth of the novel.
Despite the humour and compassion included in Ida’s narrative, it was not that which fascinated and appalled me. The strength of the novel lies in the sections written from the point of view of Pinkie Brown, a teenage sociopath involved in one of the Brighton razor gangs. Although the novel remains in the third person, the narration rotates between perspectives, and the reader spends a fair chunk of time sharing headspace with Pinkie. His utter inability to feel love or compassion, or at least to reconcile those feelings into a format that he can understand, should be completely repellent to the reader. Of particular note is the fact that he marries a young, naive girl (Rose) purely in order to take advantage of the legal exemption that prevents wives from having to give evidence against their husbands. He is abusive towards her almost from the start of their relationship. He is a thoroughly unlikeable character, and viewing the plot from his perspective ought to be unremittingly unpleasant. At times, I felt physically grubby reading the book, and had to put it down and do something else for half an hour.
However, Greene’s writing is so accomplished, and Pinkie’s character so well-drawn, that at times the storytelling can almost draw you in. This slots in well with Greene’s primary concern, which is to discuss the nature of good and evil (or right and wrong)–Pinkie and Rose are Catholics (as was the author), who discuss the concept of good and evil, and, despite Pinkie’s own awareness of his faults, he feels himself to be superior to non-Catholics and finds justification for his more abysmal actions. Ida, who is not religious, thinks in terms of right and wrong, and does generally the right thing, albeit for selfish reasons. Thus far, it would appear that Greene’s thesis is that good, or right, is something that is inherent: some people are good or right, like Ida, and have predominantly good instincts; some people are inherently evil, like Pinkie; some are weak and easily led either way, like Rose.
The careful crafting of Pinkie’s character and point of view, however, prevents this from being a clear-cut message. His point of view is streaked through with just enough tenderness, for Rose and for himself (as he looks back at a disturbing childhood), and just enough depiction of his more “normal” thought processes (his reluctant attraction to Rose, for example), for the reader to experience sympathy for him. There were times when I found myself, completely contrary to my intentions, half-warming to him, almost rooting for him… and then he would do or think or say something so abhorrent that I felt cold all over. This being drawn in, the development of sympathy for such an unsympathetic character, suggests a more complex message than that which could be drawn from an exclusively literal interpretation of the text. It highlights, to the reader, a certain capacity for darkness inside anyone, a root of bitterness that could have been drawn out by an upbringing like Pinkie’s. It’s also a searing criticism of the Catholic doctrines surrounding forgiveness and atonement; Pinkie and Rose have been brought up to believe that they are simultaneously redeemed and irredeemable, which conflict leads to all sorts of nastiness inside each of them.
All this reflection is brought about, not by the language used, or the long sermonising discussions the characters have about the nature of good and evil, but by the fascinating use of different perspectives. I’ve realised, recently, that the way points of view and narrative voices are used is absolutely paramount to my appreciation and interpretation of a book, and this was a fascinating example. So many of my favourite books, past and present, make use of different viewpoints in order to tell a more layered story, but this one did it particularly well. I can’t wait to read more of Greene’s work.