I decided to write my second contemporary novel for adults This Much Huxley Knows with a seven-year-old narrator because I enjoyed developing the young character who goes missing in my debut novel The String Games. As a writer, entering the mind of a boy takes me so far away from my own experiences that I was confident in creating a unique voice. To do this, I used several techniques which form the five steps to capturing the voices of child narrators.
It is possible to suggest that all novels written from the viewpoint of a child include elements of unreliable narration. Young and inexperienced characters are left to interpret the words and actions of the adults around them, sometimes with sinister or hilarious results. The limitations of this style of narration mean the vocabulary choices and dialogue must be in keeping with the age and stage of development of the character. With a more limited palate of words and language to draw upon, the writer has to be nimble in the story telling process. It also encourages readers to pick up on hints and clues provided through the text to understand more about what’s happening in the novelthan the young narrator. In This Much Huxley Knows, the layering allows readers to worry about Huxley’s wellbeing and anticipate his successes.
Use of present tense
When I started drafting This Much Huxley Knows, my writing group were sceptical I’d be able to sustain use of first person, present tense throughout the novel. I must admit it was a daunting task at the beginning. But, the more I got into the novel, the more I was able to see things through the eyes of my young narrator. Drafting in present tense allows scenes to unfurl at the point of writing. It makes the story more immediate and somehow, more consistent with the character. Using a young narrator, I wanted to capture the intensity of a child’s experience and the exuberance of Huxley’s voice. I’m delighted early reviewers have commented on the convincing quality of my young narrator.
Children are playful and so it is no surprise that their language reflects a sense of fun. I drew upon an idea developed by Christopher Wakling in What I Did, where his six-year-old narrator, Billy, gets in a muddle when copying the talk of adults. Billy transcribes figures of speech in his own humorous way: it’s a different cuttlefish and drives him to destruction. In This Much Huxley Knows, I took this idea one step further. Huxley is a lonely boy who thinks telling jokes will help him to make friends. His sense of humour involves corrupting words so we have chicken car-crash for chicken carcass, new-moan-ear for pneumonia and breaks-it for the notorious Brexit referendum. Sometimes this brings a smile to the faces around him, at other times, Huxley is simply annoying.
Onomatopoeia and repetition
Found frequently in poetry, onomatopoeia is a feature of language often enjoyed by young children where a word also reflects the sound it makes, such as zip, crunch, snap. This is used many times in novels with child characters and is also incorporated into This Much Huxley Knows. My young narrator whaps a coin onto the table, his feet plonk as he walks up the stairs, fireworks hiss. Novels with children also use repeated words for emphasis and to highlight the onomatopoeic quality of the language. When Huxley uses a rude word, he says it three times piss-piss-piss to squeeze every bit of naughtiness from the repetition.
This Much Huxley Know is written from the viewpoint of Huxley as he experiences the high points and pitfalls of life in his community. His observations include the use of figurative language that is informed by his experience. To express Huxley’s state of being, I began to use comparisons relevant to a child. For example, when Huxley is in class and puts his hand up ready to answer the teacher’s question, ‘my arm is the stem of a daisy with fingers for petals. She chooses a girl at the front to answer and my flower dies.’ By writing in this way, readers are tuned into the powerful emotions of a child.
Although the focus of this piece has been on the development of a child narrator, the strategies can also be applied to child characters. As with any writing, it takes experimentation to get the voices right. For writers and readers, it’s important to enjoy the playful quality of children’s language.
About Gail Aldwin
Gail Aldwin is a novelist, poet and scriptwriter. Her debut coming-of-age novel The String Games was a finalist in The People’s Book Prize and the DLF Writing Prize 2020. Following a stint as a university lecturer, Gail’s children’s picture book Pandemonium was published. Gail loves to appear at national and international literary and fringe festivals. Prior to Covid-19, she volunteered at Bidibidi in Uganda, the second largest refugee settlement in the world. When she’s not gallivanting around, Gail writes at her home overlooking water meadows in Dorset.
About This Much Huxley Knows
I’m seven years old and I’ve never had a best mate. Trouble is, no one gets my jokes. And Breaks-it isn’t helping. Ha! You get it, don’t you? Brexit means everyone’s falling out and breaking up.
Huxley is growing up in the suburbs of London at a time of community tensions. To make matters worse, a gang of youths is targeting isolated residents. When Leonard, an elderly newcomer chats with Huxley, his parents are suspicious. But Huxley is lonely and thinks Leonard is too. Can they become friends?
Funny and compassionate, this contemporary novel for adults explores issues of belonging, friendship and what it means to trust.
‘Read this and feel young again’ – Joe Siple, author of The Five Wishes of Mr. Murray McBride
‘Moving and ultimately upbeat’ – Christopher Wakling, author of What I Did
‘A joyous novel with the wonderfully exuberant character of Huxley’ – Sara Gethin, author of Not Thomas