It’s the 1980s. Lizzie, our narrator, is 14. Her father has left home and her mother doesn’t seem to be coping too well in his absence. Lizzie spends an unhealthy amount of time holed up in her bedroom, practising her calligraphy, tending her Victorian bottle collection and making devious and elaborate plans. These generally involve eloping with Mr Phillips, the shopkeeper (if only he would stop being so obtuse and realise that he and Lizzie are destined to be together), or exacting revenge upon people who have displeased her (there is no shortage of candidates, although her younger sister provides a particular focus for Lizzie’s ire). But things don’t turn out quite as Lizzie hopes – and although the novel contains a fair amount of humour, it ends up exploring some fairly dark territory (which I won’t say any more about for fear of spoiling the plot).
I found Lizzie’s narration utterly compelling – despite the
fact that she is far from sympathetic as a character. In this respect, the novel reminded me of two
other novels with first person narrators.
The first was Zoe Heller’s “Notes on a Scandal”, which features a much
older narrator, but one who is similarly manipulative, judgmental and emotionally
damaged. The second was Iain Banks’ “The
Wasp Factory.” I thought of this not
just because of the adolescent narrator but because I felt that certain
elements of “The Third Person” gave it a similarly weird, slightly macabre feel
at times – for example, Lizzie’s obsession with old bottles which she dredges
up from the mud of a local creek and the bone-processing plant, whose unpleasant
odours waft over the village where she lives. But I freely admit that my Iain Banks
comparison is a bit left-field – and even the Zoe Heller comparison is perhaps
not the most obvious point of reference.
What all 3 novels have in common though is that they manage
to keep you reading despite the unsympathetic qualities of the narrator – you
are carried along more by fascination with their state of mind and the desire
to know whether they are going to get away with what they’re planning to do (or
what they’ve done). This is not an easy
trick to pull off, but it’s very skilfully done here – to the extent that I
found the novel hard to put it down. The
1980s setting is also faithfully evoked, reminding me of numerous idiosyncratic
details which I hadn’t thought about for some time (maybe subconsciously I was trying
to blank them out…..). So, overall, an impressive
and unsettling literary novel.
“The Third Person” is available free on Smashwords or Feedbooks. It is published by Philistine Press, a not-for-profit publisher whose entire output is available free (although appreciative readers are asked to make a donation if they feel so inclined). That site also led me to this handy list of non-profit publishers.
In : Book reviews
Tags: "stephanie newell" "the third person" "philistine press"
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