Review of This Much Huxley Knows, by Gail Aldwin, pub. Black Rose Writing 2021
“Dad sits on the armchair in the lounge. He’s reading a newspaper with the pages out wide so I can only see the top of his head. He’s had a busy morning buying paint to fix the ceiling and now he needs a good rest.”
From a slightly older narrator, this might be sarcasm, but Huxley, our protagonist-narrator, is seven and repeating what Dad has undoubtedly told him. This is a novel aimed at adult readers, but with a child narrator, and not one looking back at the past, but narrating in the present. A dangerous proceeding for an author, for there is an infuriatingly lazy assumption that anything with a child narrator or protagonist must be aimed at children. But the benefit is that it gains you an unusual first-person narrator: not only can he show your readers a perspective on things they do not usually see, but he is necessarily sometimes an unaware narrator (particularly since the adults around him give him only partial and sometimes downright mendacious information), and since your readers are adults, they may be ahead of him, which is a great way to ratchet up the tension.
It also, in some ways, makes this hard to review, because throughout the novel there are doubts as to whether Huxley or the adults are right about certain things, and it wouldn’t be proper for a reviewer to make up the reader’s mind in advance. The title must always be borne in mind; we are inside the head of someone who is bright, curious but not always au fait with all the facts or experience he needs. At the end, it would be easy for a reader to conclude that Huxley was right about one very important plot strand, and that the adults now agree that he was. This is what Huxley himself concludes, but I think an attentive adult reader might well differ about both assumptions.
It is, however, fair to say that one thing Huxley becomes aware of during the book is that few situations are completely black and white, and people can be more than one thing at a time. The bullied can also bully; parents can make fools of themselves; a teacher can be both a bit of a humourless control freak and a good storyteller. The grandmother of Huxley’s friend Ben is always kind to him; she is also a racist whose views embarrass her family: “Ben’s Nanny Phil says everyone from Miss Choi’s country looks the same. When she says stuff like that Paula tells Nanny Phil to shush or she’ll get a reputation.” Huxley, who has imbibed his school’s inclusion and anti-bullying policies, is puzzled as to what the right course of action is here:
“Paula and Mum begin to chat and they’re not including Nanny Phil in their talk. I really don’t understand but it’s to do with Samira and what Nanny Phil says. I think Paula and Mum are leaving Nanny Phil out and that’s not kind. If Nanny Phil is saying not nice things about Samira that isn’t kind either. Oh dear, oh dear!”
Having a child narrator always raises questions of credibility: is the voice convincing? Obviously no seven-year-old could actually write a novel; we must assume that what we are doing is listening to Huxley’s thought processes, and mostly I had no trouble believing this. He is quite an engaging narrator, bright, sometimes funny and usually well-intentioned. I doubt all adults will take to his favourite trick of deliberately mispronouncing words to make others – “rip-you-station” for reputation, “sent-a-ball” for sensible. His parents and teachers frequently find it infuriating and I don’t altogether blame them, but there is a narrative point to it: his insistence on seeing things his own way.
This novel is gratifyingly ambitious in its narrative techniques; it is always good to see an author deliberately choosing the difficult path, particularly when by and large she is successful. Of course, being ambitious doesn’t in itself make a novel readable, but in this case the use of a narrator who is less aware than his readers makes for a tremendous amount of tension as we wonder if he is unknowingly putting himself in danger, and I do not see how this could have been achieved without this particular method of narration. At the book’s heart, always, is a gap: the gap between what Huxley knows and what we know, or think we know.