Doyle creates a 10 year old narrator, Patrick Clarke, who regales the reader with the comforting certainties of random fact: 'Snails and slugs were gastropods ... the real name for soccer was association football ... Geronimo was the last of the renegade Apaches.' (p53) This kind of narrative hopscotch, the staccato sentences, together with his misapprehensions and mind-games, capture the perspective of a child trying to come to terms with the uncertainty of his parents' failing marriage. Paddy absorbs vocabulary from the school-yard and the streets of Barrytown. But he's also fascinated by the language of adults - vigour, labyrinth and the strange way in which different families to refer variously to the 'front room' (drawing room, living room, television room p 137). By letting Paddy observe and the reader interpret, Doyle creates a gap between Paddy's understanding and our own, which lends the book its distinctive emotional timbre. It is, if you like, a classic demonstration of the old writing adage: 'show not tell'.
Here's Paddy asking his father when they're going to see Granda Clarke (p 23):
- When are we going to Granda Clarke?
My da looked like he'd lost something, then found it, but it wasn't what he wanted.
He sat up. He looked a me for a while.
- Granda Clarke's dead, he said. Do you not remember?
He picked me up.
What moves me most is the amount of unspoken emotion conveyed by that simple sentence: 'he picked me up'.
And here's another example - a quarrel that erupts between his parents when Paddy announces that he wants to be a missionary (p53):
- I didn't encourage it, she said.
- Yes, you bloody did, he said.
She looked like she was making her mind up.
- You did!
He roared it.
She went out of the kitchen, beginning to run. She tried to undo the knot of her apron. He went after her. He looked different, like he'd been caught doing something. They left me alone. I didn't know what had happened. I didn't know what I'd done.
They came back. They didn't say anything.
The weight of 'what's not said' increases incrementally until, in the middle of Paddy asking his mother to explain a disruption to the household routine, the full burden falls (p 178):
It was Thursday morning now. Wednesday wasn't our dishes night. She should have done them. I asked her.
- Why did you not do the dishes?
Something happened when I was asking it; it was in my voice, a difference between the beginning and the end. The reason - it fell into me. The reason she hadn't done the dishes. I'd been in a lift once - twice - up, then down. This was like going down. I nearly didn't finish: I knew the answer. It unwrapped while I was talking. The reason.
- I didn't have the time.
She wasn't telling me a lie but that wasn't the right answer.
- Sorry, she said.
She was smiling at me. It wasn't a real smile though, not a full one.
They'd had a fight again.
Of course, the book is so much more than this. Doyle's perception, humour and his ear for language - not just English - are a treat. As someone who tends to 'overwrite', I found it not only a delight but an education.
And, two texts are often better than one - it can be easier to distinguish contrasts and draw comparisons than to analyse what is distinctive. Other authors who adopt a child's perspective include Michael Frayn, 'Spies'; Susan Hill, 'I'm the King of the Castle' and, of course, LP Hartley's 'Go-Between' (which I remember studying with an 'A' level set in the 1980s!).
Alongside regular writing practice, writers benefit hugely from reading widely - and listening!
Hear Radio 2's 500 word short stories http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0205wsv
Next Monday 22 Sept at 3.30 on Radio 4: a chance to hear one of the shortlisted stories for the BBC National Short Story award: http://www.booktrust.org.uk/prizes/1
NWP outreach director