Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Book Dissection - slicing up 'Shine' by Candy Gourlay

By Elen Caldecott

A little while ago I managed to insult Candy Gourlay. Not on purpose, she’s too lovely for a deliberate dis. But during a fast and frenetic twitter chat ( #ukmgchat) with Candy as the guest of honour, I said something like ‘who in their right mind would write MG in second person?’…and Candy raised her hand.


Intrigued by the notion, I sought out Shine, a book (partly) written in second person for middle grade readers. For those wondering, second person refers to the second person pronoun ‘you’ (first person is ‘I’, third person is ‘he’ or ‘she’). Very few books are written using this form. Partly, it’s to do with convention, but also it’s quite disturbing, implicating the reader in the action, maybe even telling the reader how to feel. 

Here’s a section of the text from Shine for us to consider:

‘You stumble on the broken promenade. Your breath is coming in gasps and I can hear the thump thump of your heart. You’ve been running.
It’s a beautiful day. The sky is high and not too wet, the sea is broad, the sand white and untrodden, and the mountain gazes greenly over everything like a contented matriarch at the end of a long family table.’

There is a spectrum of options available to a writer using second person. An epistolary novel might use ‘you’ in the context of letters, not implicating the reader at all. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, the reader might be entirely implicated, a little like a text-based rpg game (the first chapters of Half Bad by Sally Green are an example of this).

Candy’s version is closer to the epistolary model – the ‘you’ character is identified at a certain point in the novel, but their identity is not revealed immediately, nor is that of the narrator. This means there is a very interesting interplay at work between ‘you’ and the narrator who is observing ‘you’. 

Look at the opening sentences. The narrator sees stumbling, hears gasps, and can even hear the beat of the runner’s heart. Notice how emphatically they are observing: ‘you stumble’, ‘your breath’, ‘you’ve been’, a form of repetition called polyptoton. ‘You’ is pinned under a microscope. The boundaries between the observed and the observer are thin, and the narrator inhabits the liminal space between them.

But the narrator also has breadth of vision. The scene pans out to take in the sky, the sea, the mountain. ‘You’ is lost for a while from the narrator's God-like perspective. The reason for the running, the gasping, the stumbling isn't considered at all, as if 'you' is actually of no consequence. So, there's a tension: 'you' both fascinates the narrator, and does not affect the narrator.

I won’t tell you who the narrator is, as that would be a spoiler, but I will say that this tension between the narrator, and the ‘you’ character is a tension which beautifully mirrors the plot. 

The setting also provides an interesting device, helping to define both these slightly shadowy characters. ‘You’ is positioned on a broken promenade. I often advise my students to use the setting in order to describe their characters, and that adjective ‘broken’ might equally apply to the running figure, coming so closely after ‘stumble’, as it does.

The narrator, on the other hand, has the bucolic vision of the sky and the mountain attached to them. It’s idyllic. And, without spoilers, suits the narrator well. There’s a delicate word choice given to the narrator ‘untrodden’. It suggests solitude, but not loneliness. It also counterbalances nicely with the ‘running’ being done by ‘you’. The subtle implication is that ‘you’ is more physically present, more aggressive, while the narrator is more ethereal.

Finally, it’s worth noting the metaphor, ‘the mountain gazes greenly over everything like a contented matriarch at the end of a long family table’. Mothers and maternal protection are a strong theme in the novel. Here the mountain is personified, by the narrator, as a mother. It’s a satisfying detail for the reader to enjoy.

I hope that this close reading of an assured second person story goes some way towards erasing my faux pas. Candy proves it’s not such a crazy stylistic choice after all!

Elen Caldecott is the author of children's fiction, including the Marsh Road Mysteries.
Her website is, her twitter name is @elencaldecott  


  1. That was really interesting, Elen - I must reread the book now!

  2. Shows that a good writer can make anything work. That's a poor choice of words since 'make' implies some tension and forcing which doesn't produce good writing. When the sound of a tin xylophone is appropriate the adventurous musician goes to Woolworths (I don't want to give publicity to Poundland.) I'll admit I can't resist head hopping sometimes. My readers bear it stoically.

  3. Thank you, Elen. You've got me re-reading my novel too!

  4. Thank you, Elen. You've got me re-reading my novel too!

  5. Thank you, Elen. You've got me re-reading my novel too!

  6. Fascinating. Must re-read. Such a beautiful, multi-layered story.