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THE THIRD PERSON

Growing up is hard to do

By G.S. Williams, author of No Man An Island

Jul 31, 2011: The "Third Person" is absolutely brilliant from the very first chapter.

Elizabeth and her younger nine year old sister Helen are coping with their father having left them and their mother. He’s in New Zealand, while his former family is in the UK. The story is written from Elizabeth’s perspective, rather like an introspective teen diary, but with such depth of feeling and poignant images that it surpasses most examples of that genre in my experience.

Elizabeth is an intelligent protagonist. The thing that makes this story a breath of fresh air is that she doesn’t come across as a precocious, unrealistically smart girl—there isn’t that sense of trying too hard to portray a keener or a nerd. More, it’s a naturalistic part of her narration, she mentions details like her Rules for herself as needed, not as exposition, when a moment or an action illuminates the necessity.

And she’s a quirky character. She visualizes things in a very symbolic and emotional way that ties into reality, blurring the line between teen melodrama, imagination and exaggeration, and sometimes I wonder if she has an alternative perspective on the world. She’s so adamant about her Rules yet they’re intensely private and personal—for example, Elizabeth practices perfect Gothic script on common paper until she gets it right and can use the good stuff, first try, perfectly. No one else is involved in her decision, and she doesn’t care to show it off. I see traits of my own Asperger’s Syndrome in her, though I haven’t yet found if the author is going for something like that—but it’s done so effortlessly it doesn’t seem like a quirk tacked on to make a character, but a genuine component of a unique personality.

Here’s an example of her imagery in narration, discussing how her mother has become less fun since their father left: "Now all her love seems to dangle over our heads, just out of reach. It’s lucky that I’m taller and stronger than Helen. I can reach higher."

Another, when her mother is upset trying to cope with things—she’s a smoker, but Helen hugs her anyway: "Helen has climbed onto our mother’s lap and wrapped her arms round her sticky neck. A rope of smoke twists around their bodies, binding them together."

The images and the symbolism shows that the situation is upsetting and unhealthy, but also that there is still genuine affection and care in this family—and if they are strong, they might hold on to the love more than to the pain. It’s a brilliant weaving of action, narration, image and symbol, and I’ve seen few writers who can layer so many elements into a scene so smoothly.

The situation deteroriates—Mrs. Osborne, Elizabeth’s mother, is busy supporting her children alone working at the university, so the girls are often unsupervised. Elizabeth, feeling neglected, lashes out at her sister in various ways, some harmless and others dangerous. My sense of her as an atypical personality is strengthened throughout the novel by her ability to communicate what she sees with clarity and intelligence, but it’s clear she understands what she sees in naive ways.

When Helen ends up lured into a dangerous situation with the local shopkeep, Elizabeth’s jealousy of her sister, naive perspective and intense focus simply cause her to misinterpret their meetings as part of a game, while she herself wishes he would leave his wife and marry her. She only comes to understand what’s really happening towards the end of the novel, when her plans to create her ideal situation instead reveal the truth of how bad things have really become.

The novel does an artful job of balancing events with Elizabeth’s unique perspective, and so the reader will have certainty about what’s happening and all the menace it can cause while still understanding her narrative point of view. In this way the story becomes frightening, suspenseful and sorrowful, before ultimately becoming bittersweet. The brilliant thing about the writing is that it can convey so much of the bleakness of the situation without becoming graphic. And the symbolism throughout the narrative is wonderfully done.

Elizabeth and her family go through a dark time, but ultimately it seems she might learn how to face reality and grow up instead of living in her fantasies and hiding from everyone else.

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