Sugar and Spice and…well…arsenic, possibly: What this little girl is made of

The thing which struck me most strongly about the way the story is told in our book of the month, The sweetness at the bottom of the pie, is that it highlights the narratorial conceit. You know what I’m talking about. Books are mostly written as if someone, in this case Flavia, is recounting what she’s already done, to an audience.

Now, in many books, the narrator is omniscient, unnamed, and has no particular audience. We just pretend, because that’s the way stories are told in our culture, at least in novel form. Not in some other forms, though: I read a lot of graphic novels, and “Then I did this…” is not very common, because its mixed textual and visual medium and you, as reader, pretend to be a spectator, and the pictures pretend to be the spectacle.

My point is, that reading a novel, or worse, as in my case, listening to an audiobook, you are accepting that Flavia is speaking to you about what she has done, in her past. You may imagine yourself in her place, seeing the world through her eyes, or you may see her as a sort of three dimensional television character in your mind, but the narrative is her, as narrator, telling you, as audience, a story.

Now, this assumption can be played with. In one of my favourite series, The Amber Chronicles, its clear the narrator is lying to you at times, and that he has a motive for that, which he does not explain. He drops hints that the audience isn’t “you” from his perspective, until at the end of the story you discover he is speaking to a son that he did not know he had fathered, via an affair with a noblewoman of his family’s ancestral enemies. He’s either trying to look good in front of his son, or he’s censoring his narrative because his son may be an enemy agent, or both.

Now, the thing which strikes me about Flavia’s story is that I’m not sure we are meant to believe that the narrator is an eleven year old girl. I think, and I hope this proves true in later books, that the narratorial Flavia is actually a far older woman, recollecting what she did when she was eleven. This, for me, makes the books stronger, because the one thing I didn’t find charming about Flavia is that she went from bright to precocious to polymathicc as the story went on.

This thought first struck me in one scene where she talks about something being like a, and I apologize if I misrecall, in audiobooks it’s hard to mark the place, dyspeptic bishop’s mistress doing something or other elegant with her silk stockings and her long legs while he looked on. At that point, I thought “No, I no longer believe you are an eleven year old girl.”

Now, I’m not claiming that 11 year olds don’t know about sex: that’s not my point at all. What I’m saying is that it struck me that the metaphor she’s using doesn’t just show that she’s aware of the facts of life. She goes on from there: she knows about the social role of the mistress, the eroticism of costume, and spiritual hypocrisy. She knows about the objectifying power of the male gaze, rather before anyone has written about it, I believe, although I’d have to agree that early feminist writing wasn’t my strong suit. She knows what sexual envy is, and she’s developed a sort of ironic cynicism about the whole thing.

I can’t accept that in a bright eleven year old, because bright, as in intelligent, does not translate to emotionally experienced, and so I think her way of talking about not merely sex but everything, music, art, crime, and so on, isn’t sufficiently childlike. She sounds like a child who, every so often, has an adult script her thoughts, layering them impressions, and value judgments, which I can’t accept from a small girl from a relatively isolated upbringing, regardless of how clever she is, or how many books she’s devoured.

Reading about what a strumpet is, and having the cultural experiences to find the word amusing enough to befriend someone based on their use of the word, are two different things, in my opinion, and I hope that this is a clue that Flavia’s an older narratorial voice, because otherwise I think the characterization’s a little…off? Not bad exactly, just taken a step too far.

Despite all this I really enjoyed the book, and I’ll be happy to listen to the second one. I’m not sure that there’s a mystery in it at all, in the sense of a puzzle story. I hope someone else posts about that, because I’d really like to know how the rest of you felt about it, as a puzzle.