I’m reading The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley. It’s the first in a series of (children’s) books about a Flavia de Luce. Set in 1950, Flavia is a scion of a decaying gentry family, whose mother is long-since dead, whose father is eccentric, and whose sisters are largely inimical to the young heroine. Flavia herself is obsessed with chemistry, which she practises in a lab built for one of her mad (deceased) relatives. And, best of all, a body is found by her in the garden: she becomes detective.
All this is bung-full of potential, and should be right up my street. I am obsessed myself with ‘tec stories, generally of the decades up to 1950. I love books about children in big houses – The Secret Garden, The Box of Delights, The Children of Green Knowe, Mistress Masham’s Repose (which the author must, I think, have read, not least because his Malplaquet Farm is a direct nod to this book).
The plot seems fine. The characters are a bit exaggerated, but ok – although there’s no one really likeable, not even Flavia. Flavia would be more likeable, I think, if she were not the narrator.
The huge problem with this book is that it’s in the first person. Unless you’re a really good writer, the first person should be avoided, especially if it’s an historical novel (even if only set in 1950). With third-person narrative, there’s always going to be some ambiguity about the protagonists: like living with someone, you know them well, but ultimately you don’t know what’s going on in their heads. This is useful for the author: it means the avoidance of anachronistic thoughts or phrases, or, more particularly in this case, the avoidance of an adult trying to sound like a child and failing. It also means that you can characterise your hero/ine more easily and sympathetically – unless you’re that special author, who can characterise by the merest utterance, rather like Rembrandt can sketch a whole person with two lines.
Here’s a small excerpt which highlights some of my problems with this book:
“I slashed away at the foliage with a bamboo walking stick pinched from an elephant-foot umbrella stand in the front hall. Back here in the kitchen garden, the high, red-brick walls had not yet let in the warming sun; everything was still sodden from the rain that had fallen in the night.
Making my way through the debris of last years’ uncut grass, I poked along the bottom of the wall until I found what I was looking for: a patch of bright leaves whose scarlet gloss made their three-leaved clusters easy to spot among the other vines. Pulling on a pair of cotton gardening gloves that had been tucked into my belt, and launching into a loudly whistled rendition of ‘Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo’, I went to work.” p.10
Things that grate: a) a child, albeit an intelligent teenager, would never have written this – there’s too much detail, for a start. b) The detail would work fine in a third-person description, but a first-person would not be so objective about what the place was like etc., as they would take it for granted. For example, the bit about the gardening gloves is such a third-person description that the ‘I’ is a sad substitution for the ‘she’.
A really good demonstration of how and how not to do first-person narrative in an historical novel is Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, which is fantastic and superbly done, compared with C. J. Samson’s Dissolution, which is terrible.
Back to this book. It became clear to me early on that the author was American. Actually, I got that wrong – he is Canadian. There are various things that an English gal of the 1950s just wouldn’t say. This is another first-person problem: unless you have a really instinctive feel for your person’s class and situation, don’t go first-person. He makes the classic mistake of saying ‘Thursday through Saturday’, when as eny fule kno it’s ‘Thursday to Saturday’ (as a third-person, we could forgive him this North-Americanism, but his narrator is supposed to be English). He writes, in the excerpt quoted above, ‘an elephant-foot umbrella stand’. ‘An’? How many did they have? There are occasional swearwords – ‘bugger’, ‘bloody’. Again, third person, ok; English girl of the ’50s, no way. She says something is ‘an army of Hottentots’ (p.270) – Hottentot is American, and not part of our language. The ‘poison ivy’ that she tries to disfigure her sister with – would that be toxicodendron radicans, the American plant, rather than hedera helix, the English ivy? I think so. Flavia alludes to a book by someone called Stephen Leacock, p.317. I, not badly read by the age of 11, had never heard of this man by the age of 35. That may be because he’s a Canadian author who has never made it over here. Then there’s the description of the Rolls Royce – the over-emphasis that it’s called a ‘Royce’ and not a ‘Rolls’. Again, you can do that in the third person, but this would be such a natural fact to Flavia that she wouldn’t mention it, unless being condescending to some unfortunate constable. (Actually, she’s not nearly condescending enough.) I know that the poor, benighted Americans don’t appreciate the subtleties of English snobbery, but they can be explained less clunkingly. There are other, less tangible, ways in which you can tell Bradley is not English, although he does quite well, on the whole.
Then there are odd moments where Flavia makes some joke or leap of imagination which completely leaves the reader behind. E.g. p.19: “‘Milk and cucumbers…’ he said. ‘Cucumbers and milk…’ ‘Poison!’ I shouted, jumping up and down and flapping my arms like a chicken, to show him that everything was under control. ‘Deadly poison!’ And we both laughed a little.”
??????? I didn’t laugh. I still don’t get any joke there.
These creakings would all be solved if he wrote in the third person. Damn his editor for not pointing this out.
I shall finish this book, but I am not inclined to read any more.
PS. There was something I didn’t quite understand: Flavia goes to the river which has a towpath. She then crosses it on stepping stones. If it’s a navigable waterway, which a towpath suggests, it couldn’t have stepping stones.