Multiple Narrative Voices in Rex Shelley's Island in the Centre

Anthea Fraser Gupta, School of English, University of Leeds

Island in the Centre uses multiple narrative voices. Some sections of the novel are written in the form of the first-person diary of the principal Japanese character, Nakajima, and represent various stages in his learner variety of English. Here he is early in the book:

Must try to write some every day. (31)

But today I have no vacancy. All day full occupied. After my evening meal I must go and fix generator in Estate which is winking all the lights. Just like starlight. Up-down. Because the engine is hunting. (This is correct word. It is technical, scientific word. But I do not know why.)

These sections include many diagnostic features of Standard English (this short extract has 4, with 2 complex verb groups, and 1 instance of verb morphology and 1 of noun morphology). They have few of the features of the contact variety (Singlish), except at points where Nakajima is learning it without knowing what it is, or at points (as in the PRO-drop of the first sentence in this extract, ^ must try to write) where the features of the contact variety might be expected to coincide with those of a Japanese learner variety, or indeed with the diary genre. Nakajima's English teacher, Mrs Lee, is constantly vigilant for Singapore Colloquial English:

I must not say "lah" and "man" like others. Mrs Lee saying it is poor language. She is my purloiner of good English. (35)

The rest of the novel is in a third person narrative, using Standard English, but often is "narration from a point of view within a character's consciousness" (Fowler 1986:135). The main points of view used are those of the three principal characters, Dominic (Da), Nakajima, and Vicky, and the perspectives of Da and Nakajima are signalled by a variety of linguistic devices, some of which (especially the naming of characters and lexis) are fairly soon apparent to a reader, but others of which (especially sentence length and complexity) are inferred as Shelley trains the reader to recognise them. Here, for example, we have the point of view of the disreputable Eurasian, "Da" (p43):

Communion time did not bring up anything special either. He always woke up from his reveries and thoughts at Communion time. It was the parade of the devout of the parish to him. He had picked up all sorts of little details watching the people walk up to and from the Communion rail. Mrs. Machado's new expensive hat. The Cornelius girl's low neckline. She had never dressed like that before. Peter Dorale's started thinning on top. Not much, but it has started. Bernard's not with his missus today. Probably needs to go to confession. Basil's still going with Matilda, it seems.

Here we get the "fluid version of free indirect thought" (Toolan 1990:73) that places us in Da's consciousness. The naming of other characters is appropriate given Da's relationship to them. As the book progresses the reader learns to identify informal locutions like the Cornelius girl, missus and going with as signals (Fludernik 1996) that are associated with Da's point of view. Da himself is referred to as Dominic in these sections.

Shelley also uses a range of Englishes in his representation of speech. The reader is made consciousness of ethnicity and of what language characters are supposed to be speaking. Features of the language in both narrative and dialogue allow the reader who is aware of the sociolinguistics of language in the region to identify characters and to place them social and ethnically. For example, here is the educated Hardial Singh at a small hotel in Malaya (p82):

"Achar!" Hardial Singh exclaimed as he looked at the book which was the hotel register. "Hoi, Mr Chin, how is it that the surname is squeezed in so small here? And in a different kind of writing too."

"He forgot, lah. So he put it in later, lah. Making small writing to fit in, lah," the hotel keeper replied, smiling, and added as he looked at Hardial Singh, "You wan' drink?"

Hardial Singh speaks a Standard English with interjections (achar, hoi) that reflect his Indian ethnicity, while the hotel keeper uses a variety of the local contact variety, which in his case shows him to be a speaker of limited proficiency, as he is in a setting where Standard English would be preferred.

Note: This material forms part the author's "Marketing the voice of authenticity: a comparison of Ming Cher and Rex Shelley," which will appear in Language and Literature (2000).

Postcolonial Web Singapore OV Singaporean Literature Rex Shelley