N.M. Browne’s The Story of Stone

Posted: August 8, 2008 in alternating narratives, binary opposites, children's and young adult literature, N.M. Browne, past and present, variation

Browne, N.M.  The Story of Stone.  London: Bloomsbury, 2005.
There are two quite separate narratives–or at least they appear to be quite separate for most of the book, and in fact, the two focalizing narrators have only a peripheral relationship to each other even at the end–connected by their relationships to the same (third) character, one in marriage and the other in a psychic contact through a magical stone, but never actually in contact with each other.   Furthermore, the two focalizing narrators turn out to be living in different times–different historical eras–and are related across many generations; and while the two fantasy societies they occupy and evoke share some similar language, they are in fact quite different from each other, and represent two quite different lifestyle: one urban, one rural, one akin to actual primitive hunter-gatherer societies, the other more like what we know ourselves now.   So for a reader, this is a clear case of puzzle-solving: what on earth can these two different characters in different settings and in different stories have to do with each other?  The clues are objects (like the magic stone) that appear in both narratives–but since they appear in the midst of two such complex and strange sets of social assumptions, you have be alert to catch them.  Much is being, not so much taken for granted as just described sparsely–and yet the specific events all imply a larger and more complex set of social assumptions they nest into and that only become clear as the novel progresses and a lot of unexplained information about the way the societies work gradually comes together.  The central question–how do these two so different stories connect–then turns out to be the main mystery for a reader to solve, and the solution turns out to be also the solution to the mystery that has engaged the girl in the more recent story–a sort of anthropologist looking for clues about the origin of her society.
When this girl hold the magical stone, she finds herself entering into the thoughts once thought by the girl in the past who eventually becomes involved with the boy through whose point of view the other narrative is focalized–and so in a way there is a third narrative, focalized through this girl of the past.

A fascinating aspect of this book for me, in the context of exploring how alternating narratives work, is how it implies a world built so thoroughly on alternates–on binary oppositions.  The boy in the past, a blonde giant (?), worships a sun god, the girl he eventually marries after she undergoes a magical transformation is a small night creature who worships a moon goddess.  their relationship marks an end to old demarcations, and is viewed as a serious mistake by everyone around them–and is a serious mistake until the breach can be healed by their ancestors in the other story, who can bury the stone and the past and bring the world alive again.  They too represent as binary–a master and a slave–and their willingness to transcend the taboo against their friendship represents a re-inscribing of what happens in the other plot.  In any case, it’s fascinating that an author drawn to depicting these binary sorts of world-views  would then use the alternating narrative form so much, and thus, in this case, e.g., add even more binaries: boy focalizer/girl, focalizer past/present.

All of this, obviously, can be read as an allegory of racism and multiculturalism, etc., a story of how people move past the boundaries of their restrictive prejudices.  Something similar happens in Browne’s Basilisk, e.g.

There’s also a lot of variation going on here: material similar thematically but being expressed in different ways.  While the boy and girl in the alternating narratives lead quite different lives, there are echoes of each other in what happens to them.  Both have difficult and distant fathers; both hope to follow in their father’s footsteps and are thwarted in that desire; both interact with and then fall in love with an alien.  So there’s a way in which these apparently-ever-so-different stories do intertwine and interconnect with each other even before a reader solves the puzzle about their connections, at least structurally.

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Comments
  1. N M Browne says:

    Hi again!
    Stone was originally conceived as a fairy story about giants and fairies – from whom human beings were derived. It was about contrasts and oppositions but also about the tensions which are real for every adolescent between following the wisdom of family and teachers and striking out for oneself; between accepting conventional belief and finding one’s own truth. Stone and Jerat mess up horribly for all their good intentions: the world was not quite as they thought it was and yet without their couragious breaking with the past there would have been no Nela and Moss.
    I don’t think I made things easy for the reader in this book, there is a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty. Everyone believes something different about the way their world works and none of them were right. It was really interesting to write.

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