Keeping the characters straight when writing from multiple viewpoints

In FAITH FOX (1996), British author Jane Gardam writes from the point of view of at least 17 characters, just about every character in the book except that of Faith Fox, a homeless newborn whose mother has died in childbirth. Faith is at the center of the stormy lives of her family and extended family, although almost all of them are missing that point completely. That is the joke of the book and it depends on the reader getting caught up in lots of noisy lives.

How does Gardam do it without head hopping? For the most part, she devotes different chapters to different characters so the reader can be assured that if the chapter is written from say, Jocasta’s point of view, it won’t suddenly leap into the head of another character.

Gardam is also careful to establish point of view in the very first line of her chapters, so there is no confusion:

“At the beginning of December Jocasta sat in the workshops with the Tibetan women, cutting paper and half listening to them talk.”

Dolly was answering the telephone in the passage as Mrs. Middleditch began her assault through the letterbox.”

“’Are yer goin’ ont sans?’ yelled Philip over the racket of the motorbike.”

But even successful authors have trouble with point of view. In several places, Gardam breaks into an omniscient voice to explain things that can’t be explained when the reader is comfortably in the head of a clueless character. In one place – and only one that we could find – she suddenly goes first person:

“I tell you, everyone looked for the crumbled feet of clay on this shining girl, and nobody found them.”

The unidentified  I is talking about Faith Fox’s deceased mother, Holly. It is a little like a supreme being has parted the curtains of heaven to describe her before closing them again at the end of the second chapter. Possibly something like that is intended, because there is a nativity theme that culminates at the end, but it is odd and it threw us off track as we tried to get in to this entertaining novel.