A Whisper to a Scream: Books with Compelling Narrative Voices

“Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with deeper meaning.”—Maya Angelou

As a reader, I crave an emotional connection to the story and the characters in it, and that sense of closeness seems inextricably linked to narrative voice. It is not just what is being said, but how. Voice is so much more than interesting characters or good dialogue. It is found in the ineffable qualities of style, as well as in technical elements like syntax, cadence, and tone. It is nestled in the details of what a narrator reveals—and what they leave out. It is the way in which specific words intersect with universal feelings. A compelling narrative voice can run the gamut from subtle and seamless, to smack-ya-upside-the-head brashness, but it always resonates in an emotionally intimate way. Voice is what draws me in and pulls me through a book. The following is a list of eight books by Canadian authors with narrative voices that grabbed hold of me—and never let go.

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We’ll All Be Burnt in Our Beds Some Night, by Joel Thomas Hynes

This book centres around the cross-country journey—and the narrative voice—of a hardscrabble Newfoundlander named Johnny Keough. I knew guys like him, even dated a few in my rocky teenage years, so this voice was a familiar one. Rather than being shocked by Johnny’s life and language, I was rooting for him from beginning to end. Buried within the swearing, the snarling, the scuffles, and the bravado is genuine pain, vulnerability, and love. Johnny Keough broke and mended my heart, and the powerful narrative voice of We’ll All Be Burnt in Our Beds Some Night stayed with me long after the final page.  

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Heartbreaker, by Claudia Dey

Heartbreaker is a funky, twisted family saga about the disappearance of the mysterious Billie Jean Fontaine. The book—and the narrative voice—splits into three separate perspectives: Girl (Billie Jean’s teenaged daughter, Pony Darlene), Dog, (Billie Jean’s fiercely faithful dog, Gena Rowlands), and Boy (a young man called Supernatural). Dey is a master of crafting and shifting between these three distinct but interconnected voices. Each has a different style, but all give us vivid insight into who Billie Jean was, and why she may have gone missing. The way the three voices and perspectives are woven together makes Heartbreaker one wild and wonderful story.

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13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, by Mona Awad

Mona Awad also alternates narrative perspective and voice in 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl. It is subtle and very emotionally effective as the story moves between first and third person in ways that add complexity and depth to Awad’s main character. We meet her first as a young woman named Lizzie, but over the course of the story she goes by Beth, then Elizabeth, then Liz depending on the state of her body, her mind, and her life. Even as she loses weight, Lizzie/Beth/Elizabeth/Liz gains internal and external struggles, and I could feel her physical and psychological changes in the story’s narrative voice. At times, deeply intimate and at others, imbued with an uncomfortable detachment, the deft shifts of voice in this book make for a raw and moving read.  

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No Great Mischief, by Alistair MacLeod  

Full disclosure: I initially read No Great Mischief out of a sense of duty, because, well…I’m a Cape Bretoner. The voice of this story is tamer and more leisurely than I tend to gravitate towards, but sometimes I need that. Sometimes I need the soothing lilt of the rural Highland Cape Breton cadence. I need a story that feels deeply rooted in a tradition of oral storytelling. Plus, a smattering of the Gaelic doesn’t hurt. The voice of Alexander MacDonald’s takes the reader through the multi-generational stories of his family, clann Chalum Ruaidh, with an undercurrent of nostalgic peacefulness, even when the stories themselves are fierce or sad. It brought me back to holiday visits at my Aunt Isabelle and Uncle Tunney’s house, listening to the Scottish side of my family tell stories about our ancestors. And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a good sniffle at the ending of this book.

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The Weather Inside, by Emily Saso

One of my favourite types of narrative voice is that of the unreliable narrator. Avery Gauthier, the traumatized heroine of The Weather Inside, is indeed unreliable in that she finds herself contending with weather events—and deep-seated pain—that no one else can see. The voice of Avery Gauthier is both sharply comedic and undeniably vulnerable as she doggedly tries to make sense of her past, herself, and the weirdness of the world around her. As she takes us through her personal storms, be they internal or external, the lines between what is real and what is imagined may become blurred, but Avery’s narrative voice comes through with crystal clarity.  

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Malarky, by Anakana Schofield

There are some books with a voice so powerful and unique, they seem to take on a life of their own, and Malarky by Anakana Schofield is certainly one of them. Malarky is the story of a middle-aged Irish farm woman coming to grips with sex, rebellion, grief and unravelling. The narrative voice—which includes the tragi-comically blunt first-person brogue of Philomena as she recounts her thoughts, perceptions, and conversations with others, as well as the detached third-person voice that fills in the gaps in perspective and detail left by “Our Woman”—drew me in close. Like I was sitting across the table from a woman who was both deeply familiar and fascinatingly strange. I found myself wanting to read chunks of Malarky out loud because the voice felt so engaging and visceral. 

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The Marrow Thieves, by Cherie Dimaline 

Given that it is billed as a YA novel, it comes as no surprise that the voice of The Marrow Thieves is a youthful one. An Indigenous teenager named Frenchie takes us through a gripping and harrowing story of survival in a devastatingly dystopian world where the environment has been destroyed, and Indigenous people are hunted for their bone marrow. Fear, rage, tenderness, resilience, and deep wisdom echo through the story, and the narrative voice of Frenchie—and the people he is travelling with—convey a very real sense of urgency. That urgency of voice is what made me finish reading The Marrow Thieves within 48 hours. I just couldn’t put this book down, and I think everyone, young and old, should pick up.

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Fifteen Dogs, by Andre Alexis

The voice that leads us through the lives of the titular fifteen dogs—upon whom human intelligence is bestowed, as part of a bet between Apollo and Hermes— is one of powerful omnipotence, as though it retains the elevated perspective of the deities who initiate the story. It is poetic and poignant, even as it details ordinary dog-things like scrounging for food, a scratch behind the ears, chasing a ball, or sniffing urine. Along with the intriguing premise, the style of the narrative voice of Fifteen Dogs is part of what makes this story so compelling. The voice moves fluidly between the mundane and the transcendent, bringing to life a world where dogs think, feel, and articulate the complex miseries and joys that come with consciousness, language, culture and relationships. 

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About Crow

"Ridiculously good."—Globe and Mail

This Crow will ruffle a few feathers.

When Stacey Fortune is diagnosed with three highly unpredictable—and inoperable—brain tumours, she abandons the crumbling glamour of her life in Toronto for her mother Effie's scruffy trailer in rural Cape Breton. Back home, she's known as Crow, and everybody suspects that her family is cursed.

With her future all but sealed, Crow decides to go down in a blaze of unforgettable glory by writing a memoir that will raise eyebrows and drop jaws. She'll dig up "the dirt" on her family tree, including the supposed curse, and uncover the truth about her mysterious father, who disappeared a month before she was born.

But first, Crow must contend with an eclectic assortment of characters, including her gossipy Aunt Peggy, hedonistic party-pal Char, homebound best friend Allie, and high-school flame Willy. She'll also have to figure out how to live with her mother and how to muddle through the unsettling visual disturbances that are becoming more and more vivid each day.

Witty, energetic, and crackling with sharp Cape Breton humour, Crow is a story of big twists, big personalities, big drama, and even bigger heart.

August 1, 2019
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