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25 September 2023

The Reading Doctor: Famous Last Words

Kia ora and welcome to the Reading Doctor! Each week, literary critic and devoted reader Dr Louise recommends books to us on a particular theme, or responds to reader questions. Submit your questions for her here:

Though, by definition, we become accustomed to literary conventions to the extent that they become invisible to us as readers, some of them become odd, even ridiculous, when we look at them, rather than through them to a text. First-person narration, for instance, is difficult to imagine functioning in any practical sense; how, exactly, does someone in the midst of the action take time to describe it for an audience? Most strange of all, perhaps, is the dying narrator – who is aware of the clock ticking – and manages to embark, then wrap up, a story.

  • Addie Bundren watches her firstborn craft her coffin in the opening chapters of William Faulkner’s Southern gothic novel, As I Lay Dying, and continues her stream-of-consciousness narration after her death.
  • Klara is an artificial intelligence with outstanding observational abilities and an acute awareness of her own impending obsolescence, in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun; it’s a feeling which neatly echoes Steven’s sense of himself as the last representative of a dying age in Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day.
  • James Poneke, on his deathbed, “tired and distracted and abstract”, asks for the attention of his unknown descendants as he tells his story and crafts a legacy in Tina Makereti’s novel, The Imaginary Lives of James Poneke.
  • A woman with terminal cancer writes to her daughter from Apartheid-era South Africa, in Age of Iron by J M Coetzee, as her change in circumstances leads to a change in her perception and understanding of the brutally racist society she lives in.
  • An elderly pastor, with the knowledge that his heart is failing, writes a journal about his life for his seven-year-old son, conscious that he will grow up with few memories of his father, in Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.
  • In the YA novel by Lauren Oliver, Before I Fall, the teenage first person narrator must relive the day of her death every day for a week, attempting to alter its conclusion.
  • William Styron’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner, is set in the prison where Nat Turner awaits execution for his part in a slave revolt.

Got a question for the Reading Doctor? Submit it anonymously here: