Creating an effective child narrator is a difficult task. Whatever their age, they need to be credible. If the child’s speech sounds too old for their age, or they handle situations that are overly complex or physically impossible, that’s not credible. Carry me Down is narrated by 10-year-old John Egan, and while his speech and inner thoughts sounded about right, his actions didn’t always ring true for me and this significantly affected my impressions of this book.
Early in the novel, John becomes physically ill after catching one of his parents in a lie. Over time he uncovers more lies, first with similar results but later he is able to detect lies without getting sick. John becomes convinced he has a special gift for lie detection, and obsesses about getting into the Guinness Book of World Records. John is a bit of a loner and a social misfit at school, and using his “gift” doesn’t help much. Meanwhile, there is a lot of dysfunctional behavior between his mother, father, and grandmother. John’s father is out of work, and they have been forced to live in grandmother’s house. John’s mother is an emotional train wreck with unpredictable mood swings. The reader has to interpret events through John’s lens, but he doesn’t understand half of what’s going on. Some gaps are easier to fill in than others. Eventually John’s lie detection escalates to a level that leads to family crisis.
M. J. Hyland describes John as very tall for his age, and implies his physical maturation is taking place earlier than normal. But how “abnormal” is he? Some characters were put off by his size; others dismissed it as a minor detail. I also found it difficult to decide whether John was a misfit because he had superior intelligence, or because he was emotionally disturbed. John seems to ignore his height, which would be unusual for a child wanting to fit in at school. And yet late in the novel, he uses his size to gain an advantage in a frightening way. This was the most significant credibility gap in his character, but there were many other minor situations that didn’t seem like the behavior of a 10-year-old.
The story of John’s unraveling family held my interest, especially because so much was left to conjecture. But I’ve read a lot of “dysfunctional family novels,” and they need to bring something new and fresh for me to really enjoy them. In this case, too much revolved around John’s character, and once he had lost credibility my enthusiasm for this novel waned.