Seeing and Understanding: Narrative Technique in Berlie Doherty's Dear Nobody

By Dunmore, 4th Earl of | Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature, March 2005 | Go to article overview

Seeing and Understanding: Narrative Technique in Berlie Doherty's Dear Nobody


Dunmore, 4th Earl of, Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature


Berlie Doherty's young adult novel Dear Nobody was first published in 1991 and won the Carnegie Medal in the following year. It has since been made into a radio play, a television screen-play, and a theatre script, and has been translated into sixteen languages. The novel is still to be found in classrooms and school libraries; it deals sensitively and conservatively with the important social issue of teenage pregnancy and offers a gallery of characters whose reactions to it are varied but credible in modern Western societies. Doherty's dedication to the novel and comments about it on her website relate primarily to its personal and moral aspects, and these are probably the central considerations in classroom discussions of the text. A review by Nancy Vasilakis in The Horn Book Magazine in 1993, however, makes a brief reference to the structure of the narrative before going on to the usual consideration of theme and character:

    The novel's structure is distancing at times, although the traumatic
    events take firm hold of the reader. Doherty's well-drawn
    characters, believable in their indecisiveness and self-interest,
    cope with the consequences of their actions and lurch toward
    solutions.
    (1993, p. 727).

More than a decade later, the distancing that Vasilakis seems to dislike might well be considered a virtue, and the complexity and artifice of the narrative would probably elicit much more comment than it did in 1993. Distancing is usually invoked in current discussion of the ethics of the relationship between author and reader in Young Adult fiction, and the application of narrative theory to literature written for children and young adults is also increasingly common in critical writing today.

Distancing discourages young adult readers, whose freedom to respond to literature should ideally approach that of adults, from too readily identifying with the focalizers of a narrative, and encourages 'the constitution of a reading self in interaction with the other constituted in and by the text' (Stephens 1992, p.81) thereby helping to establish a 'horizontal' rather than a 'vertical' power relationship between young adult readers and the author (Cadden 2000, p. 146). Dear Nobody goes some of the way toward providing a 'horizontal' rather than a 'vertical' power relationship between the author and young adult reader by means of a narrative that is surprisingly complex.

Dear Nobody shows many of the usual features of the Young Adult novel. Chris Marshall and Helen Garton are intelligent, lower middle-class students in their final year at school in Sheffield. Helen's pregnancy and the reactions to it of Chris's and Helen's families raise matters of sexual morality, illegitimacy, marriage, divorce, abortion, adoption, limitations placed on women--all of them involving questions to which there are no simple answers in a pluralist society, but all of them issues that are common in Young Adult fiction. Doherty employs the usual first-person narrative voice; when the novel opens with an unpaginated prologue the narratee seems to be close to the young adult reader. The narrator's 'burn off across the horizon' sounds like the talk of a young adult male; the reference to going into 'unknown territory' to 'meet ourselves' reinforces that impression, and in conjunction with comment about a journey and the narrator's being 'just a kid' ten months before, encourages the anticipation that the text will deal with the common theme of growing to adulthood. As the main body of the novel develops, however, the first-person narrative divides, some of it recounted by Chris, some of it by Helen. Each of these narratives contains reported narratives from Chris's father, aunt, and mother, and from Helen's grandfather and mother, and each of these has some bearing upon the situation of the protagonists. Such narrative complexity in a comparatively short novel produces predictable effects. …

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