Thoughts on second person narrative.

I just read the book Often I Am Happy by Jens Christian Grøndahl, which is written in a combination of second and first person. Overall, the narrative is in second, as the narrator is the also the main character, writing down her thoughts to her long-deceased friend, Anna.

Writing a book in second person and making it work can be tricky. But as the reader I can get confused as to my role. Am I supposed to believe that I’m reading an old woman’s journal that I stumbled onto, intruding into her private thoughts, or am I taking on the role of Anna myself? The old woman even acknowledges the absurdity of talking to her dead friend, that Anna probably can’t hear what she’s thinking. Still, am I supposed to stand in for her friend?

I would say not in this case, but it wouldn’t be the first time that I’ve had to take on another role than just “reader” (or the more pretentious “dear reader” that I’ve read far too often) when reading a second person narrative. What sticks out in my memory are the Choose Your Own Adventure books that I read as a child during the eighties. They try to personalize the books in a way by not ascribing certain character traits to the reader throughout the writing itself. However, every book was illustrated, including sometimes a detailed depiction of “You” as the character in the book. Apparently when I’m taking on the role of a hero of the old west, I’m a blond cowgirl. I suppose this softens the blow when something bad happens to the character; I kept losing and ultimately getting killed by Native Americans, and it would probably be less traumatic to a child to see a picture of the poor cowgirl getting the arrow in her belly as opposed to a picture of myself.

Anna died tragically too, in a skiing accident, but I didn’t experience her life through her perspective. The intent is different here than a children’s “gamebook.” It’s really about the life of her friend Ellinor. By addressing her friend we learn of Ellinor’s thoughts on their relationship as well as other relationships throughout her life, and what they mean to her. By writing in a second-person narrative Grøndahl makes these thoughts even more intimate.

As I said, writing an entire book in second person can be tricky but it can be pulled off well. For whatever reason—letting ourselves into a person’s innermost thoughts as they re-examine their life, or taking on a character in an adventure game—if it is done well, the experience can be rewarding… well, except for that poor cowgirl I kept getting killed.


By the way, you’ll notice that this isn’t a full book review. I borrowed Often I Am Happy from the library in order to review it, but I didn’t feel the strong urge yet to do so. This is the second new book I read since I put my reviews on hiatus with the intent on reviewing it. Am I going through a dry spell? At least this time I got a topic for a blog post out of it. I’ll just say that the book was a little right-wing for my taste but well-written anyway.

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