The large number of novels written in the first person would suggest it’s an easy voice to pull off: that the closeness of ‘I’ to ‘me’ means it can be accessed by the novelist without much difficulty. But in fact, the writer must come up with a legitimate reason for why a character is giving a first-hand account of their experience. For fiction to thoroughly convince the illusion needs to be seamless — and if for a second the reader is jolted out of the narrative by wondering why this person suddenly decided to tell me this story, then the author has failed.
It is a voice that must justify its own existence. Why else are so many first-person narrators writers themselves? Why do authors so often use the epistolary or diary form to convey the first person? Occasionally, a writer locates an ‘I’ so unique and distinctive that it is the only way that the story can be told. Not every author pulls off the feat of convincing the reader, but this recent crop of debut novels shows that original and inventive things are still being done with this most traditional of narrative voices.
In Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi (Grove Press, £10), we meet Ada, who is inhabited by multiple voices. The book follows her progress from girlhood in Nigeria to college in America. The trauma of rape, self-harm and anorexia brings the multiple, divergent selves within her more fully to life. This is a novel as full of the violence of what it means to have a physical self as Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. When describing the motion of cutting herself Emezi writes, ‘the skin sighed apart’.
The spirits who crowd around inside her body speak at times collectively, at times individually, and sometimes they allow Ada to speak for herself.