Monday, March 22, 2010

The past brought richly into the present (Books - Thursday's Child by Sonya Hartnett)

I so enjoyed Sonya Hartnett's Surrender and What the Birds See that I have come back for more. Thursday's Child displays some of the qualities I am beginning to think of as her trademarks - it is a sophisticated narrative written in a retrospective voice yet specifically for young readers, it takes on serious subjects such as death, poverty, the experience of the outcast, and childbirth unstintingly without lecturing or romanticizing them, it does not produce caricatures in the place of characters.

Let me say why I find the retrospective voice she opts for here so richly complex. This point-of-view always is because it takes on one human being from two time periods, creating perspective as one is innocent of the events before them and the other is knowledgeable. Furthermore, we generally know who a present-tense voice is by what they do, or what an omniscient narrator tells us about them. Here, we steadily build our knowledge of who the 7-year-old Harper is through her actions and her dialogue, however we have the mystery of the contemporary and much older Harper - who is she? What are the intervening events between this story we are hearing of her childhood and her telling of it? What occasioned her telling us this story? Is she 'the writer' or someone else? And Harnett believes that young readers can and wish to handle a story with those elements in it. Kudos to her.

In this story, set during hard times, Harper's younger brother Tin undergoes a transformative experience. I won't tell you what it is because, although only 20 pages from the book's opening, I found it very suspenseful. This leads him to burrow underground, literally to dig himself further and further beneath the house in which Harper and the rest of her family live. What a active image for a writer to choose, what stark circumstances she writes of, although she does so with warmth, insight, and even humor sometimes, and what a strong premise on which to base a novel. I am not through the story yet, so I will leave you with the opening of Hartnett's Thursday's Child:
Now I would like to tell you about my brother, Tin. James Augustin Barnabas Flute, he was, born on a Thursday and so fated to his wanderings, but we called him Tin for short. He wasn't my youngest brother, because it's right to count in Caffy, but I never saw Tin an old man or even a young one, so he stays just a boy in my mind. Tin's bound up in childhood forever, as far as my recollection goes, although the last time I saw him he was wizened and looking ancient as the hills. Memory is eccentric, how it stalls when it wants to. The dogs that we owned - I don't remember a single one of them ever being a puppy. they were born antiquated and rickety, those hounds, whelped under the veranda with their prime well and truly past them...
Immediately I hear that voice in my head. I'm not reading print, I'm hearing a speaker, and if I think about it, she has a specific age, a hair color, a vague face is even beginning to form. Writing that lives.

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