Multiple First-Person Narration
The good and the bad.
I just finished reading The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. The story used a three-person narration structure to indicate to the reader who was talking and when the action occurred. I did not like it. I liked the plot, or rather the concept of the plot, but the story was distracting and was tedious to read.
The story’s main characters, the three wives, each narrated their part of the story, analogous to Eleanor and Park, Nick and Nora, Dash and Lilly, etc., but there were significant differences that didn’t work in The Girl on the Train. While E&P, N&N, D&L narrated either the same scene or contiguous scenes, each from their own perspective, the three wives in The Girl on the Train narrated completely different, detached scenes. And the order in which the scenes were presented in the story was temporally mixed. I understand the need to not present the climax, the key scene, before the set-up, but it was very distracting. The author had to not only label each chapter with the name of the narrator, but also had to tell the reader on which day the narration occurred. The book read like a series of scattered journal entries. Additionally troublesome, each chapter mixed current action (present) with recollections and memories (past). I had trouble not only remembering who was talking, but also when they were talking. Mixing tenses, times, and voices made the book difficult to read and enjoy.
This is not to say that I dislike the idea of separately-narrated chapters, or multiple first-person narration. When I read Nick and Nora, I gladly accepted it as Cohn/Levithan’s style. It worked. And it worked for Dash and Lilly. But as I read Eleanor and Park, I started to feel as if the use of multiple first-person voices was an easy way out of writing complex scenes between two leading protagonists. Yes, separate narration is a way to climb into one person’s head and shut out the other’s inner thoughts so you get to hear only one side at a time. And it can be very effective as long as the chapters form a continuous story line that the reader can follow without labels or annotations.
When used well, separately-narrated chapters are effective. But when not used well, it spoils that book’s story and calls into question use in future books. Call me old-fashioned, but If effectively written, a story can be told from either a single first-person point of view or an intimate third-person point of view to tell the story of two leading characters. If the story truly has a leading character, a single protagonist, narrate in first-person. If there are two equal protagonists, use third-person. The use of dialogue, gestures, facial expressions, and even (dare I say) italics for thought will allow the reader to get inside the characters’ heads. In my opinion, The Girl on the Train could have been told entirely from Rachel’s point of view, or even in a third-person voice, and would have been a engaging and thrilling story.
After reading both good examples and bad examples of multiple first-person narration, I hope that the trend does not continue, or is at least used sparingly.