Author’s note: there are spoilers in this review.
In Sarah Doughty’s Focus all hell is (metaphorically and literally) let loose. This is not your typical novel, due mainly to how the story is told – it is nobody’s tale as several narrators tell it. This is not your typical novel because the first-person (omniscient) narrators have more than one level of point-of-view (POV) in the observation of self and situations. This is not your typical novel because Sarah Doughty is more than a narrator, she is a great storyteller – period. Usually, narration is a clinical and dry way of stating a series of events – a flow of events connected to a theme. Usually, narration is a method and means of constructing the events of a story into a plot, which concerns itself with the sequence of the events, the medium on which they are told, and the way these events are put together into one coherent unit. Usually, storytelling is the conscious ordering of these events to elicit meaning. For me, storytelling is an art form that separates a gifted or skilled writer from a poor one – the ability to compellingly tell a story. This is exactly what Sarah Doughty does in Focus. I will touch on other things, incidentally, but my focus in this review will be on the voices through which Doughty tells the spellbinding plot of this story. In other words, my focus will be on narrative voice. Any other kind of analysis will not do this work any justice – there is no getting beyond the collective narrative voice in Focus.
Focus tells the story of the kidnap (in Indiana) of Aisling Green, a pure Earthen witch, and her fiancé, Connor by the Kramer Scholars who take them to a dungeon in Berlin. Aisling and Connor escape, and with the help of Liam, the venerable vampire, they go to Austria. Soon, they learn a demon has been summoned to kill Aisling. They must find and destroy the demon before he reaches the power source, a black diamond located in a vault in Hoopeston, Illinois. The demon, Bilu, needs the black diamond because “The rise to ascension cannot be achieved without the power source, a black diamond hidden within the vault at the center of a mystical circle,” (Chapter 43, p 149). As they go in search of the demon, who now resides in the body of a human host, Bannerst, the demon, Bilu, is busy collecting human souls with the help of an escaped convict, Jasper Wills. Souls he needs to boost his power in preparation for the destruction of Aisling, humankind, and his summoner.
That said, Sarah Doughty’s Focus is polyphonic – it involves a myriad of narrative voices that include Aisling Green, Bannerst/Bilu, Jasper Wills, and Officer Rodriguez – interestingly both Aisling and Bannerst/Bilu are first-person omniscient narrators. So, close your eyes and imagine a narrative with two first-person omniscient narrators with personality and attitudes to burn – fascinating isn’t it? You just get the feeling when either Aisling or Bannerst is narrating that the other is aware of what’s going on. Before Focus, the other writer I enjoyed her use of omniscient narrators with personalities and ‘attitude’ was Jane Austen. I find Austen’s narration quite ironic and funny in her creation of humor through hyperboles, deflation, and witty sarcasm. For instance, in Emma, the narrator sometimes undermines her by showing the reader Emma’s perspective of the events. In fact, all the events of the plot, with the exception of Chapter V, are mainly seen through Emma’s POV. Even though the POV is Emma’s the narrator’s intrusions provide humorous commentary that contrast with the heroine’s views, and warn you not to rely too much on the delusory inventions of the protagonist, who she considers less clever. This doesn’t happen in Focus. Aisling doesn’t undermine Bannerst’s POV, and Bannerst doesn’t undermine Aisling’s POV.
Using multiple first-person narrators isn’t new. Robert A. Heinlein does this in The Number of the Beast where the first chapter introduces four characters, including the initial narrator, who is named at the beginning of the chapter. The narrative continues in subsequent chapters with a different character Heinlein identifies as the narrator for that chapter. Heinlein introduces other characters later in the book who also have their “own” chapters that they narrate. However, there’s a difference with Doughty’s use of multiple first-person narrators in Focus. Heinlein’s story proceeds in linear fashion, and no event occurs more than once – no two narrators speak “live” about the same event. This isn’t so in Focus. One good example of this difference is the Jasper-eating scene – this episode is told twice, “live”. Plus Aisling and Bannerst are first-person (omniscient) narrators – each, in the other’s head.
When Aisling and Bannerst’s narratives cross it is always a beautiful occasion of mind games, for instance, where Bannerst sees Aisling’s reflection as he devours Jasper. I love this cross narration in this moment: “Staring into the windshield, I saw my reflection as the sun took its position at the top of the sky. She was there, looking out from my eyes. I breathed fire as it burned within my chest from the surge of new souls coursing through my body. “Hello, Aisling,” I crooned, smiling impossibly wide for a human, my new pointed shark teeth in full view,” (Chapter 35, p 121). Other than this overlap, the main narrator is the quintessential Aisling Green, with help from a supporting cast of evil, psychotic, and corrupted characters. Now, in what ways do the different narrative voices in the novel serve different purposes in conveying meaning? How does Doughty unfold the major thematic knots through the perspectives presented by the different voices? In Focus, Doughty does this by urging the reader to see that identities are never built individually but are constructed temporally, relationally and socially. Therefore, a compelling characteristic of Focus is the fact that the transmission of Aisling’s traumatic experience resists a single point of view and involves herself, her deceased family, friends – human and non-human, the community, the cultural ideals, the endorsement of such ideals and the traumas of history.
Structurally, the novel is divided into two parts – the Prologue, and the rest of the novel broken into 63 chapters. Let us now focus on the beginning of the novel – the Prologue, narrated by the Imprisoned One, Bilu, a demon. Bilu invites us to share a piece of ‘gossip’ on what’s in store for humankind. “Humans were feeble creatures. They did not listen to us like before. And it was getting very, very irritating. Over time, the lore about demons changed into something they called religion, but we were far, far older than that. We walked on Earth before man, and then man trapped us. We were not forgiving … A name, an essence, was given to me. Find her, the voice said. Kill her,” (Prologue, 7). Much of the narration in the Prologue is by the demon, Bilu and this brings into play the voice of a repressed, angry, unforgiving demon. A narrative voice that has a “back fence” connotation that creates a sense of intimacy between the reader and the story, as both demon and reader shares a secret – the impending destruction of humanity, but specifically the only known pure Earthen witch, Aisling Green. This creation of a sense of intimacy is necessary in preparing you for the gripping story that follows – a story of centuries-old deceit, hate, rape, revenge, torture, violence and destruction.
Chapter 1 of the novel introduces Aisling Green as narrator. She is an omniscient narrator whose omniscient voice creates great psychological intimacy:
“First of all, my life was never easy. I was abused when I was little. Not just emotionally, but physically as well. All by the hands of a man who hoped I’d become his lover when I hit my teenage years. I didn’t … It was no wonder post-traumatic stress disorder plagued me … I never believed I was pretty, let alone beautiful … Flashback after flashback of memories hit me like tidal waves. I was a child, shivering, praying, while I listened to the drunken footsteps of my stepfather ascending the stairs. Years later, frantic over a dog he poisoned with antifreeze. I was powerless to stop his death. To end his suffering. All I could do was cry, and say goodbye to my only friend. Then I was a teenager, always looking over my shoulder, wondering if he was out there, coming for me. Always feeling unsafe in my own skin. Always withdrawn. Careful with my emotions. I was everywhere. Everywhere else but in that dark dungeon with the man torturing me. I thought I beat the flashbacks. Overcame them. But they came flooding back with a vengeance that I, for once in my life, embraced. It was the one time I welcomed them” (Chapter 1, 9-13).
Aisling and Bilu/Bannerst as omniscient narrators are not detached, impassionate observers with a distant voice but observers that give insights into the feelings of characters and occasionally interpret hidden intentions, associations, fears, motivations. For instance, Bannerst, as omniscient narrator, knows what had happened in Jasper’s life with Jenny and can read his soul – “from what I could tell of his soul … “I could see him in my mind’s eye…” he knows Jasper actually kills his girlfriend for doing nothing “The best part. The part he didn’t know. Jenny never cheated on him at all. She was designing a tattoo for him. She was innocent, and he murdered her for his own insecurities. He was perfect. Exactly what I needed,” (41). Also, when the omniscient narrator, Aisling, narrates her own pain (Chapter 27-27) after the vampire, Varick poisons her with his blood, we can perceive her mental anguish, physical pain and elaborations:
“… Liam warned me about taking blood from another vampire. And I believed him. I didn’t want Varick’s blood. But I was going to suffocate. It felt like I was drowning. Not that it mattered anyway. As my reflex kicked in, I swallowed. And it was the biggest mistake I ever made … I gagged, as my body tried to expel it before it reached my stomach. The unwelcome liquid caused a deep debilitating pain to erupt through my body. Beginning with my stomach. It felt as if it were being ripped open from the inside while thousands of tiny knives sliced me from the inside. I thought the torture in the dungeon was bad. Thought the pain from the poisoned bullet was bad. But those were nothing compared to the pain coursing through my system in that moment. Having my skin sliced by rusted metal blades and odd instruments that burned or carved into my flesh was like butterfly kisses compared to the feeling of swallowing a grenade that was exploding within me … But it hurt so much more that I would be leaving behind the man I loved. His life was full of loneliness and pain. We found each other in the dark and we brought each other to life. It would be him I would miss the most. And I knew he would be ruined because of my loss. I tried to apologize. Tried to tell him I loved him. But my body wouldn’t cooperate. I didn’t know if my aura was reflecting my love to him, like I hoped. After everything we went through together, in such a short time, I knew he would never be the same without me. I was the one that brought him to life. And I would be the one to take it away again. That would hurt him the worst. I failed. I couldn’t tell him goodbye. I couldn’t even look at him one last time. At last, Connor scooped my writhing body into his arms. The last thing I noticed was the smell of wood smoke before my body went still and I fell into oblivion, knowing I would never see his face again,” (98-101).
Assessing a fictional technique common in eighteenth and nineteenth century novels — that of telling different sections of the story through different characters — E.M. Forster, in Aspects of the Novel, notes that the effect of changing viewpoint is less important than the power of the writer to bounce the reader into accepting what he says and having a proper mixture of characters. So, what is fascinating about this segment, for me, is not only who narrates it, or Doughty’s exceptional power of description, but that the character undergoing the trauma narrates it – we get to see and feel more than the outward physical description of the character’s pain, we get to feel her own narration of what it is to be riven with poisonous blood and a sense of failure. This establishes a rapport between Aisling as character and the reader, and underlines her responsibility as omniscient narrator in shaping the overall structure of the novel. It fosters credibility, and makes her a reliable commentator upon other characters, actions, and situations. In this manner, the several narrators in the novel also serve as a lens through which we view all events and characters – reliably through such devices as Aisling’s sights or Bannerst’s night shades.
One reason I feel Doughty does this is to create an element of self-discovery or self-reflexivity through the narrator – one engendered by an open discussion between reader and narrator. Placing the name of whoever is narrating the section just below the chapter heading (Prologue The Imprisoned One; Chapter 1 Aisling; Chapter 10 Jasper; Chapter 24 Bannerst etc.), each (named) narrator discusses issues including revenge, the corrupted nature of fallen man, the dangers of mind control, the purpose of chivalry, love and selflessness. Each narrator uses such commentary as a means of immersion, reflection and self-awareness: “I saw everything. As Bannerst prepped Jasper, inciting his darkest desires … My mind was gone as I saw everything happening as if I were Bannerst. I felt his pride, heard his thoughts, saw the souls that surrounded Jasper in a wildly glowing aura around him, despite the fact that he was only human. I never saw such a thing on anyone, human or other. I never wanted to … I watched the reflection in the windshield, the change Bannerst’s body took as he prepared to eat Jasper. I tasted the dried blood. Tasted Jasper. Heard the bones crunching in my … no, Bannerst’s teeth. I felt the joy and the adrenaline coursing through his veins. I felt the souls filling him, increasing his power,” (Chapter 36, p 132); notice the three levels of narration in this description – of Aisling as observer, self and Bannerst. We also see a sense of immersion when Officer Rodriquez narrates his own death. “Sweat poured from every pore on my skin, but it wasn’t enough. The heat rose and melted my clothes over my blistering skin. And then the meat began to melt off my bones. The heat was too much to bear. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t speak. With wide-eyed horror, I saw the officer to my left was suffering the same fate. I took one last look at the escaped prisoner standing over the lifeless body of Officer Adams before the light boiled my eyes out of my head. And all I became was nothing,” (Chapter 10, pp 41-42); notice the shift from Officer Rodriquez describing his own pain to narrating what’s going on around him. While in the prison truck with Bannerst, Jasper reflects on his life. “I chuckled. “How the fuck do you call gettin’ caught lucky?” I shook my head, didn’t care what he had to say. Assholes gave me six months for boostin’ a car, but I’d be out in no time. Just needed to keep my head down ‘n follow the rules,” (Chapter 10, p39). Notice how Jasper is a limited first-person narrator. He doesn’t care what Bannerst has to say, but he doesn’t know what Bannerst thinks to say. And we get a sense of self-awareness when Aisling says, “After everything they saw over the years, everything that happened, it made me wonder. Did that society have any influence on politics? On wars? Did they push countries to violence so they could gain some advantage in their quest to rid the world of others? I didn’t know, and I wasn’t sure if the answer would ever come. But it didn’t really matter. What I did know was that they would never stop until I and every last supernatural being was dead. Something needed to change. I was that change. I was that hope,” (Chapter 11, p 43). Notice how she holds back on what society thinks – drawing you to make the assessment, asking you to intrude. Notice how she says she doesn’t know. If she can be in Bannerst’s head, mind and see through his eyes, what’s the intention of this admission? And then suddenly she knows what they think about supernaturals. It’s a trick, a subtle one, but one all the same that lures you, as reader, to narrate, to converse with the character.
Doughty’s narrators try through methods both subtle and apparent to influence how you read this novel. In doing so each narrator nudges you toward certain ethical or ideological conclusion and establishes himself/herself as the creative center, while providing direction to the narrative as a whole. Perhaps the greatest intrusion of the narrator, one that forces you to reckon with the narrator as the figure in complete control of the novel, are the narratives by Jasper Wills. Instead of revealing the outcome of his potentially tragic situation as it unfolds, Jasper essentially laughs at you and pursues a discussion of modern man in the supposed interest of comic interlude. Jasper’s attitude is both comic and serious. You may enjoy Jasper’s comic relief, but ultimately he convinces you of his serious ethical intent. “Fuckers nabbed me for stealin’ a car. They dunno the rest I done,” I finished quietly. I spent my time dealin’. Over the years, I learned to trick people a little bit at a time. It started out small, I ‘spose. But eventually I got into to stealin’ cars, sellin’ dope, ‘n even found me some ladies. Bitches always said no, but I did ’em anyway. Made ’em come, too. Usually right near the end when I got close. I hammered into ’em ‘n either punched ’em or strangled ’em just a bit ‘n they clamped down ’round me, cryin’ out like the little whores they were,” (Chapter 10, p 39). A collection of the verbs in Jasper’s speech tells you he is a psychopath – a heartless one, if that’s even possible. Jasper is daring you to judge him. He is laughing in your face in his clipped-speech register. These two functions (the comic and the ethical) are constantly undercutting one another – Jasper’s ironic, comic comments juxtaposed to the serious, ethical comments become important at many places in the novel as he and Bannerst spread carnage.
We can extend the basic framework further within the fictional world of this novel as each narrator uses his/her ability to merge with and distance himself/herself from characters and events. Aisling’s assessment of Bannerst is fear inspiring. “Out of everything I ever experienced in my life, I never came across something that terrorized me on a deep, cellular level. Until Bannerst,” (Chapter 25, p 90); “There was something about the man who called himself Bannerst. The way he killed those men. He was different. Evil. The dream-sight surrounding Bannerst was different. I was nothing. I was a complete bystander. No thoughts. No feelings. Except for theirs,” (Chapter 11, p 43), and “Panic travelled through my system, adding to the debilitating fear and cold that gripped me. It was as if I could hear Bannerst laughing in my head,” (Chapter 37, p 124). Jasper confirms Aisling’s assessment of Bannerst, “Dude was odd. Whoever the fuck he was. With an air of confidence ’round him ‘n a shit eatin’ grin, he seemed to know how to please Hoss, ’cause the officer stood up ‘n slid open the front windows on the van … Whoever the fuck that dude was, he wasn’t normal. ’N I’d follow him anywhere,” (Chapter 10, p 39), and “Bannerst looked at me with the same shit eatin’ grin on his face he was wearin’ since we met. Somethin’ ’bout his smile told me he wasn’t so much smilin’ as barin’ his teeth. Dude was creepy,” (Chapter 34, p 118). But Bannerst assessments of himself, humanity and Jasper are the most curious, “There was no comparison to the life I lived before I was summoned. Always in shadow, I was the voice on the shoulders of the corruptible. The bigger the corruption, the bigger the reward. I excelled at it, but I never achieved a success like Jasper Wills before. He was one of those people that could be coerced into even the worst of situations, thinking it was a good idea,” (Chapter 35, p 120). Of Jasper, he notes further, “From what I could tell of his soul, he was nice and corrupt, but not ripe enough for my taste. I needed someone devoid of all good, the ultimate corrupted soul, and he was perfect,” (Chapter 10. P 41). But my favorite has to be Bannerst third-person assessment of himself “Bannerst was enigmatic. It was his charm. He could smile at a woman and make her knees weak. Grin at a teenager, offer a few carefully placed words, and he would want to sleep with a friend’s mother. It was a valuable asset and my power grew with every soul I devoured, but it still wasn’t enough,” (Chapter 47, p 161). Notice how he constantly shifts from being an observer of his host, Bannerst, to being himself, Bilu, the demon. Notice how both names begin with ‘B’ – with the root words being ‘bann’ (“to summon, command, proclaim”) and ‘bi’ (two). A narrator with split personality?
Aisling, Bannerst and Jasper, and their varied abilities to characterize others become a vehicle through which (each as narrator) subtly judges the other characters. For instance, my attitude toward Bannerst and Jasper results partly from the contemplation of what the serious commentator (Aisling) says about their trait and attitudes towards humanity and others. She is the foil to both of them. For instance, by aligning herself with Connor, Liam, Angela, and the were-animals, Shadow and Salvatore, Aisling uses these characters as a moral measuring stick. “We learned where demons really came from. They weren’t just in religious lore. They were evil. Ancient. And predated any known religion. They thrived on death, ruin, and corruption, just to name a few. It was no wonder they were so popular in human religious cultures. An evil like that could make anyone turn to spirituality in hopes of never facing one,” (Chapter 17, p 63). Through Aisling Green, Doughty defines good nature – that benevolent and amiable temper of mind, which disposes us to feel the misfortunes, and enjoy the happiness of others; and consequently pushes us on to promote the latter and prevent the former. Aisling is quite adamant when contemplating what to do about the dungeon she and Connor were tortured in in Berlin when Liam says, “We can blast through the walls and flood it. That way they will never be able to use it again.” The blood drained from my face. He was right. It would go against everything I stood for. Flooding the dungeon would mean killing people. Not saving them. On one hand, I didn’t want the dungeon operational. Didn’t want more people suffering and dying in the name of cleansing the world of others. Didn’t want the Scholars to think they could continue without consequence. But I couldn’t agree to killing people. Whether they were Kramer Scholars, or others. That was not a sacrifice I could make. My lip trembled as my anger fell away and sadness replaced it,” (Chapter 41, p144), and her reaction on finding out Liam went ahead with his plans, ““There were a few volunteers in the nest to go settle a small problem we otherwise could not resolve.” “What problem was that?” I asked, but I had a feeling I knew. “The dungeon.” Blood drained from my face. “You sent people to the dungeon?” Three people died because of me. Connor’s arms wrapped around me as sadness washed over me,” (Chapter 54, p 152). This concept of good (or human) nature is crucial to understanding Aisling’s idea of existence, after all, her nature is inescapably and uniquely her own and all facets of her being depends on it. With good nature comes a responsibility to humankind, and every good-natured person, like Aisling, must do his/her utmost to contribute to the Happiness of each Individual. So, though she is unable to resuscitate the triplet pixies and ‘Blondie,’ she, however, ensures the majority of her friends are happy when she resuscitates the vampires killed in battle with Bilu, the injured Salvatore, and by killing Bilu.
Last words: first, like I indicated earlier with Heinlein’s The Number of the Beast, there have been novels with multiple first-person narrators. There are also novels with first-person omniscient narrator – Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, or Nick Carraway in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. But not one with two first-person omniscient narrators without limits and the fascination of Aisling and Bannerst in Doughty’s Focus. This is my personal take, you are free to have yours. Second, I learned several lessons from reading Focus: I learned that iron affects witches “Iron affected witches, dampened their powers, or in some cases, prevented it,” (Chapter 2, p 14). I learned that drugs don’t affect witches, “drugs were supposed to flow through our bodies. Without hitting the bloodstream,” (15). I learned about branding “I branded him with the power of the sun. And I kept going until the faintest bit of light remained in his eyes. Then I let his body crumple to the ground,” (41). I learned that vampires weren’t afraid of the sun, and that they don’t have melanin. “Contrary to popular belief, vampires weren’t afraid of the sun, nor did they burst into flames when they stood in direct sunlight. Their skin might be pale because they no longer held melanin in their skin, but they didn’t fear the light like humans believed. And they definitely didn’t sparkle,” (65). I learned that, like humans, others are territorial. “Territorialism, I was beginning to learn, was common for others in regards to anything they considered theirs,” (68). And I learned something new about night shades (I first came across it in Doughty’s Dream Spell). It is “… a creature that wasn’t born, but created. It lived in dreams and could control the body of the person dreaming,” (127). What is new about it in Focus is the way Bannerst uses it to control Aisling’s body in a dream state. He makes her kill some Kramer Scholars – while sleep-walking, ironically, the only killings she doesn’t regret. What, I wonder, would’ve been her reaction if the Kramer Scholars she killed were her lover, Connor – Bannerst was just getting to that … This is a novel I thoroughly enjoyed reading – due largely to how Doughty employs numerous narrative voices. So, Third, related to narrative voice, I love how Jasper’s language register brings his low-life upbringing into focus.
Rating – 5 stars.