Wednesday, March 20, 2013

It had to be you?

Most stories are told either in first or third person, and for good reason. Storytellers are either talking about themselves or somebody else. In two novels I've read recently, Michael Frayn's Spies and Matthew Flaming's The Kingdom of Ohio, the narrators alternate between first and third persons, although each narrator is talking about himself the whole time. In The Kingdom of Ohio, it comes as something of a surprise that the "I" and the "he" are the same person, while in Frayn's book, "I" usually refers to the adult telling the story, while "he" refers to himself as the little boy the story is about.

When writers use second person, it generally refers to "you the reader." It is seldom used. Korean author Kyung-sook Shin, however, tells the story in her international bestseller Please Look After Mom mostly in second person. The tale is about an elderly woman who goes missing in a Seoul subway station. Her husband boards the train assuming his wife is right behind him. When he finally looks back, the train is underway and she is not there.

Several members of the family narrate their versions of the story, and usually they relate it in second person. The "you" may refer either to themselves or to someone else. Often it gets confusing as to who "you" actually is.

The story is compelling. The family members tell about their part in the long search for Mom, but mostly they look back on their life with her, recalling incidents that take on new meaning to them now that she is missing. As the story unfolds, both you (the reader) and the other family members begin to see that this woman is much more complex than she appears. She has devoted her life to her family, yet she has had dreams and fears and pains and secrets that she has kept buried her entire life.

Please Look After Mom has been a popular novel, and deservedly so. I have to believe, however, that it is more in spite of than because of the author's decision to use second person to tell her story.

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