May is Mystery Month at 49th Shelf, and we're having fun highlighting suspense-filled titles coming out this spring. Today it's The Merit Birds, by Kelley Powell, a YA novel about an angry young man who is wrongfully accused of murder and ends up in a Laotian prison. Powell builds suspense by having her narrative inhabit multiple points of view, and here she shares other titles—many also with international themes and some intrigue—that similarly use a variety of voices to enable their reader an experience of multiple dimensions.
Like any split personality, multiple-point of view (POV) novels can get messy and challenging. But when they are done right—ahh—it’s like having all of your friends in the same room at the same time. Multiple perspectives help to create suspense, ramp up tension and give the reader a fuller understanding of a situation. Here are some that stand out:
Barney’s Version, by Mordecai Richler
When polling friends and random strangers on the bus about Canadian POV novels, this one came up most often. The 2010 movie may have had something to do with it, but the thrice-married, satirical Barney Panofsky does have a way on getting into your imagination and staying there. When he is accused of fraud, wife abuse and even murder, Barney sets out to tell his own life story. But we’re treated to another point of view when his son, Mike, adds footnotes and an afterword to his dad’s unforgettable memoirs.
The Beauty of Humanity Movement, by Camilla Gibb
I wish Camilla Gibb was my bff. I love her. Her work has taught me how to create believable characters with cultures and languages different than my own. I also love to eat—pho (Vietnamese noodle soup) in particular—so any novel that centres around food already has my vote. The Beauty of Humanity Movement is told from the point of view of Huang, a old and dedicated pho seller; Maggie, a Vietnamese-American looking to solve the mystery of her long lost father; and Tu, a young and questioning tour guide in Hanoi. I love this novel for its testament to the enduring impact of art.
Through Black Spruce, by Joseph Boyden
Joseph Boyden is a master of POV novels. The Orenda should be required reading in all Canadian high schools, but I love Through Black Spruce best. Annie, a skilled hunter turned fashion model, is among my favourites in the pantheon of great Canadian characters. Only a master could juxtapose her unique point of view with that of her uncle, a former bush pilot, whose narrative reveals the dramatic changes and challenges of Aboriginal life, not to mention how he came to be in a coma.
Unspeakable, by Caroline Pignat
Based on a fascinating episode from Canadian history, this is another novel that all our school kids should read. Unspeakable tells the story of the sinking of the RMS Empress of Ireland, a disaster that lost more lives than the Titanic. Written by fellow Ottawa YA author, Caroline Pignat, it is told from the perspective of Ellie Ryan, a stewardess on the doomed ship. Ellie falls deeply in love with Jim, a quiet fire stoker, who she often finds writing in his personal diary on the ship’s deck. Jim’s point of view is revealed when his diary falls into Ellie’s hands and leaves her questioning what she once believed and desperate to uncover the truth.
Circle of Stones, by Suzanne Alyssa Andrew
Circle of Stones is a love story with a unique POV twist: instead of being told from the couple’s viewpoints, we learn of their tale through a cast of intriguing and innovatively imagined characters. Nik, an art student, and Jennifer, a dancer, essentially fade into the background of their own story. When Jennifer disappears, Nik sets out across the country in a desperate attempt to find her.
Tell, by Frances Itani
Tell, which is also written by an Ottawa author, is an intimate depiction of two marriages, told through the unique perspectives of several characters. World War One has ended and Kenan, an injured soldier, has returned to his life in small-town Ontario with his young wife, Tress. Their marriage is burdened by Kenan's inability to leave behind the physical and psychological horrors of war. Meanwhile, Tress' aunt Maggie and uncle Am are facing their own marital struggles, including the impact of a long-held secret, and new pursuits that are pulling Maggie further and further from Am. The multiple points of view in the novel serve to highlight the many things that are left unsaid between these characters. The reader is privy to honest, uncensored thoughts and feelings that characters can't seem to share with each other.
419, by Will Ferguson
Here we have some serious POV ambition. This novel kept me up at night as I navigated through its four narratives: Laura, an Albertan who travels to Nigeria to avenge her father’s death; Winston, who becomes a cog in the wheel of "419" scams; Amina, a pregnant woman seeking sustenance as she flees in search of a better life; and Nnamdi, who becomes mixed up in Nigeria’s dangerous petroleum black market. Like Camilla Gibb's, Ferguson’s characters have taught me how to create compelling characters with cultures and challenges so starkly different from my own.
The Secret Daughter, by Shilpi Somaya Gowda
Talk about a successful debut! Gowda’s first novel is a NY Times bestseller with foreign rights sold in 23 countries. Like Gowda, I too worked at a Child Haven International home in India, so I have a keen interest in her portrayal of Indian children living in poverty and the terrible choices their families must make (not to mention her subtle reference to Child Haven International founder, and truly great Canadian, Bonnie Cappuccino). The Secret Daughter alternates between several points of view: a young American woman who was adopted from an orphanage in India, her birth mother and father, and the woman who raised her.
The Merit Birds by Kelley Powell
A list wouldn’t be complete without my own novel, right? Told in alternating chapters, The Merit Birds is a story of a young Canadian’s escape from anger into a place of peace. Cam’s narrative is told in first person because I wanted to set him squarely as my main character. Nok, an intelligent Laotian girl who must work as a masseuse instead of going to school, and her goofy brother, Seng, are told in third person. Cam’s life takes a dramatic turn when tragedy strikes. Thanks to the alternating points of view, readers know who is responsible for the disaster, but Cam doesn’t and ends up in a Laotian prison. I hope you’ll read it and be my bff. Lol.
Kelley Powell's writing is informed by a variety of diverse experiences, such as losing her home in a tornado and living in a one-room house with a family of six Indonesian villagers. She has worked at a home for impoverished women and children in India, on a domestic violence research project in Laos and with the Canadian government’s family violence prevention unit. She taught English in South Korea and has a Master’s degree in international development. She lives in Ottawa with her husband and three children.
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