The best narrators are unreliable and unintentionally deceitful. The best stories bring us in not through the front of the building, but from a side entrance with an unmarked door. The more a narrator knows, the less involved we become in the text—in this sense, the best kind of narrator is just as much in the audience as we are. We come to understand as they come to understand; we understand the story as they understand their lives. With a narrator who is ignorant as we are, who possesses the natural biases inherent in being a human being, we access the story through an unavoidable filter, a filter that can open a story more than it seems to limit it.
Flavia de Luce is an eleven-year-old amateur but remarkably able chemist and unexpectedly gifted super-sleuth living in a smallish English village during the 1950s. She makes her first appearance in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley, the first in a mystery novel series wherein the narrator is both dangerously clever and pre-pubescent. Of all the books I have read (which, dear reader, I think we can assume is a fair number) I don’t think that I have ever encountered a narrator who jumps higher off the page, who seems to sit next to me while fidgeting, telling me that I’m doing it wrong (whatever it is), you daft fool, and if I would just do it properly we jolly well might be back in time for tea.
Child narrators provide the most curious insight to stories that, if narrated by an adult, would be somewhat interesting but otherwise fairly mundane. Entering a story through the mind of a child forgoes the front and side entrances and instead accidentally lets you into the building across the street and leads you up to the roof. The angle a child narrator imparts to the story is indirect, even if they are directly involved with the action of the story. Flavia de Luce, for all of her cleverness, is still eleven years old and has a very eleven-year-old’s view of the world. She doesn’t understand double entendres; the cruel teasing and bullying from her sisters is more than a thorn in her side: she reacts the same way any kid whose siblings told her that their mother’s death was her fault. She’s devastated.
When we read from the point-of-view of a child, we understand the world outside the burden (and security) of experience. Each story told through a child is a story pits innocence versus discovery and disillusionment. The child peels back our jadedness while developing his or her own. It’s a strange and someone tragic dichotomy, that in order for the reader to experience the virtue of youth, the child narrator must confront the realities of life and learn to survive in a confusing world.
Flavia isn’t the only precocious child to narrate stories of adult experience. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a classic example of a child who confronts not only his position in the world, but the nuances and prejudices of the society he lives in. Jane Eyre, the titular character in Charlotte Bronte’s classic novel, must also navigate the hardships of her own life and contend with actions and behavior of people who are fundamentally unlike herself. In Jane Eyre’s case, we witness her understanding of the world both broaden and narrow as she ages into adulthood. The knowledge she has of herself expands—the concept of Jane Eyre as an individual who exists in the world solidifies, becomes a definable and principled thing, but as she experiences disappointment and heartbreak, her view of the world narrows. The world becomes a projection of herself onto a landscape, as if she has cast her heart onto the moors and colored the wilderness with her soul, and that, indeed, is all she is able to see.
And that is the crux of the child narrator, the pattern of the bildungsroman (which does not necessarily have to be narrated in the first person): to define the world within the core of who they are. The bildungsroman emphasizes the turn, the point that they become part of society as much as break through its confines and patterns. But I think that the real value of the bildungsroman lies before the turn, as we wander hand-in-hand with the child narrator teeming with possibility and fresh perspective. There is so much to learn from the child narrator, so much clarity inherent in his or her voice. The child narrator is at once part of the story and just outside it, not fully aware of every social nuance, ignorant of the world beyond the Pale, and yet exempt from the prejudices imposed by age.