A short story I recently read

The Case of Death and Honey, by Neil Gaiman

Read it here in less than an hour.

Thinking about narrative point of view…

This story is a lot of fun. It’s divided into two narrative strands, each using a different narrative perspective. The voices created in the two strands sound completely different to each other, and the relationship between them remains a mystery until the end.

The story opens with the omniscient 3rd person narrator talking about ‘the old white ghost man’, and Old Gao and his bees. This section sets up a mystery, reporting the disappearances of the white man and Gao, and the suspicions of the people in the town. At one point the narrator talks directly to the reader, saying ‘ you understand’, to make the events and their order clear, thereby drawing attention to them.

The next section is written in the 1st person, narrated by none other than Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock writes in his diary about how easy it is to solve murders, and how much he loves a challenge. We’ve read Sherlock, we know how stories work (in general, and crime mysteries too), so our natural reaction is to link the first and second sections together – the white man and Old Gao were murdered; Sherlock will become involved somehow, and solve this challenging crime, because he’s a genius… Sherlock speaks to the reader in a formal manner; he’s scientific, rather than poetic. There’s a sadness about him.

Back to the Old Gao narrative strand. We have moved backwards in time, to before the disappearances of our two characters. This stand is now limited omniscient to Old Gao, after opening as wholly omniscient. We have some lovely descriptions of the bees and hills, using rhetorical devices including repetition (‘misty hills, hills so high’), personification (‘the bees were earnest, hardworking’), and simile (‘ shiny as bullets’) – the foreign setting and characters are highlighted by this beautiful language. The dialogue is sparse and simple, more so than in the Sherlock strands that follow, which, again, highlights the foreignness.

Then we switch back to Sherlock’s strand. Then to Old Gao’s. And so on. In this way, the story is built up. We see a link between the threads through the mention of bees, and at the end, when we have all the information we need, we can finally piece the story together. And we have a satisfying twist, too.

Can you suggest any short stories that use vastly different narrative voices?

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