A friend of mine, the polymath genius Holly Yagoda, recently sent me an email which, amid ranting about the invisibility of female scientists in popular consciousness and some questions about writing, included this sentence:
I have just finished Protect Me From What I Want and need to talk to you at some point about ALL MY FEELS regarding the kind of narrator Hennessey is.
My ego being a vast and very fragile entity, I immediately replied:
Please do shout at me about Protect Me From I What I Want, I’ve had very little feedback about that one…
Holly replied – with some spoilers for the book – thus:
PMFWIW got me thinking about a particular type of narrator that I like, the reluctant confessor. Telling a story about something that happened to them, but kind of uncomfortable about the bits that involve them. They downplay their part, downplay themselves, and will only gradually, grudgingly tell you anything personal – or throw something horrible about themselves at you as a punishment for daring to be interested. Michael Marshall Smith has done that kind of narrator, one who wants you to know exactly how much of a cunt they are so you might not notice the string of pretty decent things they’ve done during the book. Maybe I just don’t trust narrators who don’t have at least a little bit of self-hatred festering inside. Ahem.
Hennessey may be a dreadful person, but he was a bloody joyous narrator to read. Very funny and foul, with moments that could be quite heart-breaking but Hennessey won’t let you dwell on them because he’s already done that and all that happened was more booze and no epiphany so why fucking bother and HEY HEY HERE’S A REPREHENSIBLE THING I DID NEXT PAY ATTENTION TO THIS INSTEAD OF THE SAD THING.
Now, as I am pretending to be a writer I seem to have acquired that terrible affliction of enjoying discussing my work with people, which is oft-parodied and with good reason; writers and other “creatives” can be terribly self-involved and self-important people:
[…] Your comments on Hennessey made me dig out my proof copy of the book and reread about a third of it. He’s oddly evasive and blunt at the same time, which seems to be a recurring character trait (certainly from fanfic characters I’ve written) and also … a problem with me. […] Overall I kind of pitched him to myself as a romantic tragedian who doesn’t quite accept that this is what he is; his self-hatred is down to older seeds and his decline, in steps, is just symptomatic of the deeper malaise. I think the original point of the story was actually consent, comparison of his relationship with Mon with the Haut de la Garenne boys, but it kind of got away from me a bit.
This is, I am sure you’ll agree, a little high-brow for a book which is effectively not even a detective story, but allow me my moment in the sun, because Holly had one final spoonful of honey to administer:
The idea of consent is still very much in the foreground – I think the scene with Mon’s parents really brings it home. Their raging decibels over a consensual relationship contrast with the hushing up of the very nonconsensual abuse of many children. And then there’s so much more to it; John and Mon’s relationship is legally nonconsensual because of her age, and is pretty drunkenly fucked up, but it’s the only place where she gets the attention she needs – non-judgemental, positive attention from another human. I think it was the “at least he helps me with my homework” line that sealed it for me. It ties together with Haut de la Garenne with the idea that the “official” best place for a child to be – with their parents, in a care home – is not always the best place for them in reality.
Outside of this baffling enjoyment of my work (I kid, of course, I wouldn’t be inflicting it on the public if I thought it was that bad), Holly Yagoda has pretty damn good taste, and has previously recommended to me: Memoirs of a Master Forger (William Heaney), The Raw Shark Texts (Steven Hall), and The End of Mr Y (Scarlet Thomas), the latter of which I enjoyed until the ending and the rest of which I enjoyed without reservation.