Finding a book written in second person is like finding a shark with no teeth: rare. That’s because the second person narrative is a difficult undertaking, like surviving in shark-infested waters with a severely bleeding wound. Attempts may be made; a hard fight might ensue but in the end, the narrative dies a bloody, frustrated and messy death. Laura Wiess handled the second person narrative beautifully.
Wiess had some difficult decisions to make with this book. The story would not have been the same without the dual narrators from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Most authors would have chosen to write the story in third person. Third person is a great way of getting multiple points of view across without confusing readers. It is a popular format for such situations. However, it also tends to distance readers from the characters and the story.
Wiess could have tried writing the entire story in first person narration, with the girls switching back and forth, on who was telling the story. First person allows readers to get deeper into the head of a particular character and there have been successful cases where the story switched between two narrators with such a narrative. However, this frequently means readers are temporarily jarred from the story when the narrator changes and can make some readers put the book down.
The second person narrative practically requires the reader to step into the identity of the protagonist. This is because the reader becomes a character in the story told. Second person narrative allows readers to get deeper into the character’s heads than any other narrative. There are risks in doing this. Some readers simply cannot get past the “you” aspect of the narrative. The word “you” can often be overused. Although we use second person narrative in many different forms of writing, like pamphlets, essays, speeches and cards, it is extremely rare and hard to write in the second person narrative for the length of a book, which shows how much skill it takes to write in the second person. Otherwise, it would be more popular in literature. However, as Wiess demonstrates in Leftovers, if the author has the skill, second person narrative allows multiple protagonists, multiple points of views, and deep characterization.
The second person narrative also allows readers to feel that a friend, someone they care about, is telling them a story. When we tell fairy tales to kids, we often stick with third person. “The big bad wolf huffed and he puffed.” But when the story is about ourselves we use a mixture of first and second person. “You know how I get tipsy when I drink? Yeah. Well, you know that I went to the bar…” Wiess takes advantage of the story-telling feel of second person by turning Leftovers into a frame story.
The book switches between past and present tense. When the story is in present tense, the characters are speaking to a police officer, reacting to the story they just told or are about to tell and defending their actions. When the story is in past tense, readers are learning about Ardith and Blair’s stories, they are learning a new element of why they did what they did, without knowing until the end what they did. All we know, through some flashforwarding is that the story they’re telling is what led to their actions.
This switch between past and present also gives readers a chance to prepare for the other girls story, her perspective on what happened that contributed to their loss of innocence and to their crime. The switch between times also gives readers an idea of what happened and raises the questions up. The officer they’re confessing to is wearing a neck brace, and, apparently, in need of pain medication. And yet, readers don’t know what happened in the past that put him in that condition. So, readers keep reading to figure out what is happening, to understand the plot and to uncover the horrific crime.
Through a high-level of skill and some clever ingenuity, Wiess manages to write a fantastic book using the second person narrative
Wiess, Laura. Leftovers. New York, NY: Pocket, 2008. Print.