Emily Koch on Unforgettable First-Person Narrators
Emily Koch is an award-winning journalist living in Bristol. She is a graduate of the Bath Spa Creative Writing programme. In her debut If I Die Before I Wake, everyone believes Alex is in a coma, unlikely to ever wake up. As his family debate withdrawing life support, and his friends talk about how his girlfriend Bea needs to move on, he can only listen. But Alex soon begins to suspect that the accident that put him here wasn't really an accident. Even worse, the perpetrator is still out there and Alex is not the only one in danger. As he goes over a series of clues from his past, Alex must use his remaining senses to solve the mystery of who tried to kill him, and try to protect those he loves, before they decide to let him go. Below, exclusively for Foyles, Emily introduces some of her favourite and most memorable first person narrators.
The narrator of my novel If I Die Before I Wake is living his worst nightmare. Alex has Locked-in Syndrome – which he says is like being buried alive. He can feel pain, and hear everything that goes on around him, but he cannot see, move or talk.
I suppose this is what has led people to say he is an ‘unforgettable’ narrator. But, at the time of writing, this wasn’t a word I would have used to describe him. Difficult, yes. Challenging, certainly. Writing from the perspective of someone who can’t see properly, and who is confined to a hospital room for the entirety of the story, was a tough task. But, after several drafts, I got there, and I’m really proud of the version of Alex who now guides the reader through.
A first-person narration is sometimes looked down upon as an easy option in writing circles, but there are some amazing and memorable narrators out there in the literary world. Here are some of my favourites.
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold: When I started writing from Alex’s point-of-view, I had this novel in mind. I didn’t always know Alex had Locked-in, and at first I tried playing around with his voice as a more supernatural, omniscient presence. In The Lovely Bones, 14-year-old Susie Salmon is raped and murdered, and narrates the story from the afterlife as her friends and family cope with the aftermath of her death.
Before I Go to Sleep by S J Watson: I love this thriller, narrated by amnesiac Christine. She cannot form new memories, so every night when she falls asleep she forgets everything that has happened to her that day.
Nutshell by Ian McEwan: This re-telling of Hamlet shouldn’t work, but it does. The story is narrated by Hamlet, re-imagined as an unborn baby, growing increasingly alarmed about his mother’s plot to murder his father. I read this one when I was pregnant, and found it rather unnerving to think about how my unborn daughter was experiencing the world through me.
Room by Emma Donoghue: This story is told by 5-year-old Jack, who is trapped with his mother in the same small room where he was born. He knows nothing of the outside world – and this perspective is what makes him so unforgettable as a narrator.
Vernon God Little by D B C Pierre: It is the voice and unique character of this novel’s narrator, 15-year-old Vernon Gregory Little, which made it stand out for me. Vernon’s life falls apart when his best friend shoots their classmates before committing suicide, and Vernon is pulled in for questioning. It’s a grim scenario but the way he tells his story is hilarious – and you feel like he is sitting across the room chatting to you.
* Emily will be talking about her debut novel at the Vintage New Writers event at Foyles, Charing Cross Road on 6th February.