A more comprehensive review of this book is in the works, but life intervened and this section outgrew itself. So.
Is “Anglo-American” still a legit label? I read it in a very old-school YA novel and thought it was pretty nifty.
Would it be totally pretentious to use it for myself? Aside from being nifty, “Anglo-American” just sounds a lot cleaner than “I have an American parent and an English parent and was born in the US but spent a lot of time in England and around English people growing up and I’ve lived in England for a year. (Plus Ireland for eight months if that’s relevant, which it is right now.)”
Anyway, whatever I call it, that’s the way it is. This hardly makes me an expert, but it means I recognize some words as common to one culture’s English vs. the other.
Like how all our recess group said “bangs”, except for our Australian friend and I, who said “fringe.”
Or things like, “Yes, Mummy calls them ladybugs, Daddy calls them ladybirds.”
That was actually a family my siblings and I overheard on a plane once—our parents are the other way around—but we’re talking stuff on that level.
This in turn means when I read fiction, I read characters’ accents in what they say. Sometimes I also read an accent in the narrative voice. It plays a big role in grounding me in a setting.
Nothing special here, by the way. I suspect this works for loads-and-loads*/lots-and-lots** of readers (*UK/**US).
Last week I finally read Room. In case you missed the buzz back in 2010, this novel’s the story of a heinous crime told through a child’s voice. It was kind of a big deal.
I knew going in that the author, Emma Donaghue, was Irish (Irish-Canadian, it turns out). For the first few pages, I assumed the characters were also Irish. Later I decided they could just as easily be English, though I wondered why the kid was watching only American cartoons. Then the latter part of the book makes clear the whole thing is meant to*/supposed to** take place in the States.
A hazy setting isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It works for the right story. At least one reviewer believes it works for this one, that it adds to the unsettling quality of the whole book, which is after all all about being dislocated.
I don’t disagree. What bugs me is how unlikely it seems that this was the author’s intention.
By its nature, the story relies on key details (like rhythmically creaking bed springs) whose significance the narrator misses but the reader can catch. A few of these (like an up-close view of a nickel, a brand new sight for the viewer seem designed for Donaghue to let the reader know where we’re supposed to be, nation-wise.
Also, Donoghue tries for American speech a few times, (“sucker”, “Mom”, and at least once, “butt”)– it just doesn’t go far. And a Irish character turns up at one point (and very welcome she is too), and her dialogue shows an attempt at contrast.
But these details are as far as the authenticity of the American setting gets. This leads me to believe that it was chosen because this is where one of the high profile cases that inspired the book took place.
The language/diction/word choice/minor cultural details were a big part of why the setting didn’t feel natural, or worse, too natural, like the book was written in the author’s default setting.
In her defense, she had the five-year-old’s voice to focus on, which is certainly a project in itself. But if you’re taking on the task of writing a five-year-old American’s perspective, why not take the extra step to make sound American as well as five?
If that won’t work out, there’s no shame in making all these folks Irish or Canadian. No one’s going to complain something like this story would never happen in one of those countries.
Finally, this could be oversensitive, but it seems a little disrespectful to just assume Jaycee Dugard says “fringe” when she means “bangs”.
These are nitpicks. But nitpicks are easy fixes, which is why it gets to me so much when they’re not fixed. It got to me enough that near the end of the book, I started writing down words Americans wouldn’t say or concepts that don’t quite fit the culture, both as I remembered and as they came up.
I;m due at the bar** in a few minutes, so without further ado, here’s a non-exhaustive list of non-Americanisms in Room. (**Like, “bar” as the American. equivalent to “pub”. An American “pub” is what this place is trying to be.)
-“Fringe” (vs. “bangs”, though in this context, “cut in a fringe”.)
-“meant to” (vs. “should” or “supposed to”)
-Construction: “Will you go play”? (vs. “Do you want to go play?”. Like, “Will you build a snowman?” doesn’t have quite the same metre.)
-“bits of”/”bit of” (vs. “parts of”/”pieces of”)
-“a bit modifier” (vs. “little”/”kind of”)
-“beside” (vs. “next to”)
-“Duvet” (That’s what it says on our duvet packages, but “quilt” or “comforter” are more likely to be used casually. I think?)
-Construction: “Sentence sentence sentence, yeah?” (vs. “sentence sentence sentence, right?”)
-“Any joy?” (“Any luck?” is the best translation I’ve got.)
-“partner” (vs, in this case, “wife”/”girlfriend”/”woman with whom he’s had a child and still lives.” When I first moved to England, I was used to hearing “partner” to refer, euphemistically, as someone’s boyfriend or girlfriend of the same sex. It took time adjusting to the broader meaning in England. Meanwhile the middle class in my part of this country is still in the habit of getting married before they have kids. Otherwise why bother with marriage equality?)
-Cheap veggie curry in a can (Someone want to hook me up with an American source of cheap veggie curry in a can?)
-“LEGO”, i.e “box of LEGO”, “play with LEGO”, “life without LEGO” (vs. “legos.” This brings back repressed memories of English Cousin possibly saying “LEGO” as plural. I’m all for lingual diversity but without “legos” how do you distinguish a single “lego”, such as the one you just stepped on?)
(FYI the original Legoland is in
England DENMARK, the home of LEGO/what we call legos. Thank you vRob in comments! The Windsor Legoland is pretty cool, and the real original Legoland has gotta be pretty cool too.)
-“Safe as houses” (If you’re American and didn’t just go “Bwuh?” let me know so I can buy you a Guinness.)
-Canberra (As a place a stressed out fifty-something American man would retire to for a fresh start. Guy that adventuresome is not going to play the stock uptight family member who can’t accept the reality of the situation.)
-“Stabilizers” (vs. “training wheels.” I did not know this before. Thanks, Goodreads reviewers!)
-Bronwyn (as toddler name) (an American toddler named Bronwyn would raise a few burning questions, such as “Should we be adding an “Anglo-” or “Irish-” on there?”)
Basically, if you have a manuscript you’d like read for stray British/Americanisms that fall where they don’t belong, hit me up. This needs to be a standard editing position, outside early Harry Potter (and that was different).
The Wednesday Woman
Born: 1 small male relative
Still Grateful He Was Born “Outside”: One blogger, who was kept awake by Room all last week. Hey, if it weren’t worth it, this post wouldn’t exist.