20 Books of Summer, #8: The Nickel Boys

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Ellwood is a teenage working-class African-American boy being brought up by his grandmother in Florida in the early 1960s, when, despite civil rights activism, racial segregation is still strictly enforced. Nevertheless, Ellwood has decided to do everything ‘right’; he studies hard at school, is known as a reliable worker in his hotel job, and has been recommended for a special scheme allowing disadvantaged young people to take college-level classes at local black college, Melvin Griggs. He listens over and over again to a recording of Martin Luther King’s speeches that his grandmother bought him, idealising non-violent protest and taking part in a civil rights march himself. Nevertheless, none of this protects Ellwood when he is wrongly accused of joyriding and sentenced to Nickel, a reformatory school for boys that is supposed to create upstanding citizens rather than subject its inhabitants to punitive imprisonment. As Ellwood reflects ironically when he first arrives at the place: ‘The campus was kept up meticulously, a bounty of lush green… The cedar trees and beeches cut out portions of shade, tall and ancient. It was the nicest-looking property Ellwood had ever seen… In a sad joke, it intersected with his visions of Melvin Griggs Technical, minus a few statues and columns.’

Nickel might look good from the outside, but it’s rotten on the inside: dormitories go unpainted, bleachers splinter, canteen food is stolen by the guards and sold to local businesses, boys are informally loaned out to labour for those who can do the staff a favour, and above all, there’s the ‘White House’, where an industrial fan hides the sounds of night-time beatings. Even worse than that, however, is being ‘taken out back’, for after that boys tend to disappear. Whitehead conveys the horror of their fates through descriptions of archaeological excavations of their bodies in the present day, which clearly and chillingly spells out what happened to them, but avoids sensationalising their pain: ‘When the state of Florida dug [one boy] up fifty years later, the forensic examiner noted the fractures in the wrists and speculated that he’d been restrained before he died, in addition to the other violence attested by the broken bones.’

The first two-thirds or so of The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead’s seventh novel, follow a pretty straightforward narrative that is familiar from prison or reform school memoirs and fictions; Whitehead’s take is lifted by his incredibly moving writing. A couple of incidents are horrifyingly memorable, not necessarily because of their violence but also for their poignancy, such as a notable boxing match between the champions of the ‘black’ and ‘white’ sides of the school, and the boys’ pride when they decorate the place for the annual Christmas Fair. Nevertheless, I found myself wondering if there was more to this story; the two of Whitehead’s previous novels that I’ve read, Zone One and The Underground Railroad, were both dense and intelligent, making the reader work hard in a good way, whereas this seemed to be relying on simpler emotional beats. But The Nickel Boys, too, becomes more complex later on, as Whitehead starts flashing between life after the institution and life still within it. The ending of the novel, in particular, had me in tears, as Whitehead draws together the past and present with no hope of closure in the future.

Like a number of recent novels by African-American writers (Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, SingYvonne Battle-Felton’s Remembered), Whitehead effectively shows how slavery is at the core of America’s modern history, and shapes black lives and deaths to this day. The only thing that stopped this being a five-star novel for me was his handling of his characters. Spoilers follow [highlight to read.] We are led to believe that Ellwood is narrating his time in Nickel as well as his later life in New York, but at the end of the novel, it’s revealed that it’s his friend Turner who survived the place; Ellwood was shot dead trying to escape after a naive attempt to whistleblow on the goings-on in Nickel. The ‘Ellwood’ we meet in later life is in fact Turner, who has taken on his friend’s name to honour him. I’m not sure why this twist was necessary. Indeed, it seemed to pit Ellwood and Turner too clearly against each other as archetypes, the ‘good’ black martyr who is too idealistic for this world, and the canny black survivor who understands the reality of institutional racism. As with the early chapters of the novel, Whitehead seems to sacrifice nuance for emotion. Spoilers end. However, this is a haunting novel, and Whitehead’s evocation of what was a real-life place will be difficult to forget.

I received a free proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on the 1st August.

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Reading on My Travels, Sydney 2019: Mini-Reviews

I headed onwards from Tokyo to Sydney for the Society for the History of Childhood and Youth conference at Australian Catholic University. Sydney wasn’t as high on my personal wish list as Tokyo, but it was still amazing to get the chance to spend time there (and in the Blue Mountains):

I read two books not from my 20 Books of Summer list in Sydney (and started The Nix and Atlantic Winds as well):

Never Far From Nowhere, one of Andrea Levy’s earlier novels, actually felt much more original to me than her later, more well-known works The Long Song or Small Island. Perhaps this is simply my aversion to much historical fiction, or perhaps Levy herself wrote better about more contemporary times and places. Technically, Never Far From Nowhere, published in 1996, is historical fiction: set on a council estate in the 1970s, it revels in the details of teenage life in that decade, from bovver boots to tights with carefully-positioned rows of holes to hippie hair to Ben Sherman checked shirts. However, Levy is clearly drawing on her own experiences growing up in Islington (although the book is set in Finsbury Park) and so this deluge of detail feels properly authentic.

Never Far From Nowhere follows two sisters, Olive and Vivian. Neither of them is traditionally likeable. Olive, darker-skinned and both much more acutely aware of her blackness and more willing to adopt it as an identity, leaves school with no qualifications and struggles in a series of short-term jobs. She rows constantly with her mother, but her younger sister, Vivian, is jealous of how Olive always seems to be the centre of attention, the one that their mother really cares about. This is despite the fact that Vivian makes every effort to meet their mother’s expectations: she works hard at grammar school and has ambitions to go to art college. Levy carefully balances the family dynamics, not allowing her story to become a simple binary between a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sister.

The plot also plays with ideas of a ‘good’ and ‘bad’ working-class immigrant – Olive and Vivian were both born in England, but their parents emigrated from Jamaica. ‘Mouthy’ Olive ends up on benefits and doggedly chases up a council flat; Vivian aspires to be socially mobile and keeps her mouth shut when her friends toss around racial slurs. Olive’s recalcitrance seems deliberate; why should we only have sympathy for those who are doing all the right things? And despite Vivian’s academic intelligence, it’s Olive who is clearest about the structural oppression the sisters face in England, although she can be strikingly naïve in certain situations. Never Far From Nowhere lacks deliberate structure; it’s a slice of these sisters’ lives, and ends at a point that feels largely arbitary. It’s also a pretty grim read. Nevertheless, Levy’s portrayal of 1970s north London through the eyes of these two sisters stands out.

Because I work on young people’s writing in post-war Britain, I was excited to read Rife: Twenty-One Stories From Britain’s Youth, a collection of essays by young people aged sixteen to twenty-four, edited by Nikesh Shukla and Sammy Jones. Unfortunately, I was disappointed in most of these essays on a number of counts. Firstly, it has to be said: most of the writing here isn’t very good. I know from reading blogs, short stories and novels written by young/er people, as well as from reading the writing of my own undergraduate students, that writers in their late teens and early twenties are as capable of producing wonderful and insightful prose as any other group of writers. However, I worry that others reading this collection will lazily assume that nothing better can be expected from young people.

The problem possibly lies in the way many of these essays were produced: rather than seeking out twenty-one independent contributions, a lot of these essays emerged from a single project at Watershed in Bristol, which produced Rife magazine. Whatever the process was, it seems to have encouraged many of these writers towards a ponderous and formal style; individual voice is smothered and a lot of the essays sound the same. Rather than drawing on personal experience, many of the essays pontificate on very familiar topics: the rental crisis, poor funding for mental health and university fees. (One essay on the university experience was particularly enraging; the writer rightly criticises high fees but seems to blame lecturers for not providing ‘value for money’ e.g. for going on strike over staff pensions, rather than government policies. I know from talking to my own students about these issues that many undergraduates are not this short-sighted).

My second problem with this collection is more an issue of personal preference. Most of these writers talk about their experience as young people by invoking the language of generational inequality; making the usual arguments about the unfairness of rising house prices, unemployment and student debt in comparison to the experience of their parents’ generation. While I agree with these arguments, I was hoping that these writers might have more to say about the way that age itself acts as an oppressive category. This may in its turn result from the limited range of ages represented by the contributors. The majority are in their early twenties – already looking back on adolescence. The one essay that is obviously written by a teenager, ‘Sweet Sixteen: Kiss, Marry, Vote’, was one of my favourites. Amber Kirk-Ford effectively challenges the relevance of chronological age, arguing: ‘If some sixteen-year-olds are disengaged or badly behaved, that is equally true of apparent grown-ups… [not giving sixteen-year-olds the vote] is based on the myth that all young people are exactly the same, and are less mature than adults’. Other essays worked well for me despite the fact that they weren’t focused on questions of age because of the way they explored other intersectional identities; for example, Shona Cobb’s essay on her experiences of living with Marfan Syndrome, ‘Exclusion’, and Mariam Khan’s essay on being an hijabi, ‘My Body, My Choice’. On the whole, however, while I think projects of this kind are really important, I’ve read much better writing by teenagers and young adults elsewhere.

I received a free proof copy of this collection from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 11th July 2019.

Edit: I meant to add my (dissatisfied) thoughts about The Nix and Atlantic Winds to this post and forgot, so here are links to my Goodreads reviews:

The Nix (**1/2), DNF @ 35%

Atlantic Winds (**1/2), only finished because it was so short

20 Books of Summer, #4 and #5: The Chalk Artist and Winter Sisters

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Allegra Goodman’s latest novel, The Chalk Artist, set in Cambridge and Boston, is written in deliberately hallucinatory prose, making every element of the story feel heightened. This could tip into overkill but worked for me because of the subject-matter. Teenage Aidan is academically bright, but spends all his free time playing an MMORPG created by the company Arkadia (think World of Warcraft, which weirdly also exists in this universe even though linked games EverWhen and UnderWorld are clearly intended to mimic it – for example, one incident in the book obviously mirrors WoW’s famous Corrupted Blood incident in 2005). Aidan’s sister, Diana, scrawls endless, intermittently relevant answers to her teacher’s questions in her English journal, writing, among other things, about how worried she is about her brother. Diana’s teacher, Nina, is determined to get through to her students and prove that she can do something useful in the world – not simply exist as the daughter of Arkadia’s boss. Finally, Nina’s boyfriend, Collin, is the ‘chalk artist’ of the title; he’s incredibly gifted at sketching but doesn’t mind wiping his creations away when he’s done. Collin is also pulled into UnderWorld’s web after becoming a concept artist on a new game – where, he realises, his art is just as transient as chalk, but he’s no longer the one who destroys it.

The Chalk Artist picks up on themes that appeared in the two other Goodman novels I’ve read, Intuition and The Cookbook Collector – both of which were tantalisingly intelligent but spread themselves much too thin. Most interestingly, it starts to explore what it means to be gifted, and what we owe to our gift. Collin is preternaturally talented at art, but precisely because of that, he’s not attracted by the things that draw lesser artists – he’s dropped out of art school and loves the fact that nothing he makes lasts. This recalls a secondary character in Intuition, who refuses to play lab politics and abandons his career even though he’s a scientific genius. Disappointingly, however, The Chalk Artist doesn’t quite follow through on this theme when it comes to Aiden. Perhaps because of his age, Goodman implicitly endorses the idea that UnderWorld is bad for him, and pursuing good grades in the ‘real world’ is better, especially once he begins to be inspired by Nina’s tutoring. This is undercut slightly by the suggestion that connecting deeply with poetry is a fantastic – in the literal sense of the word – experience in its own right, but I’d like to have seen this novel take gaming a bit more seriously.

On the other hand, Goodman writes brilliantly about the experience of being immersed in a VR world; EverWhen and UnderWorld are so compelling precisely because she avoids the temptation to get bogged down in technological detail. I haven’t seen virtual reality written this well since a few classic novels from my childhood (1990s children’s fiction was a little obsessed with virtual worlds): Gillian Cross’s New World, Stephen Bowkett’s Dreamcastle, Helen Dunmore’s Fatal Error. All of these, like The Chalk Artist, emphasise the dangers of getting lost in something that is not real; but the way they describe what draws people into such worlds makes them more than simple morality tales. I’d hoped The Chalk Artist would be a 4.5 star read for me, and it isn’t quite; but it’s definitely a solid four stars, and my favourite so far from Goodman.

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Robin Oliveira’s Winter Sisters, set in Albany in 1879, is a loose sequel to My Name Is Mary Sutterwhich followed the eponymous Mary, a midwife striving to train as a doctor during the American Civil War. When I reviewed the first novel, I wrote that it was almost classically tragic in the hardships visited upon its central character, and upon her mother and sister. However, I felt that this worked in the context of that story, emphasising Mary’s superhuman determination to pursue her chosen career in the face of institutional misogyny and the hazards of wartime. In contrast, Winter Sisters feels both melodramatic and a little exploitative in the way it explores its characters’ misery. The novel kicks off in the way it means to continue: two reasonably prominent secondary characters from My Name Is Mary Sutter are unceremoniously dispatched in a blizzard to set up the plot-line of this novel. Their deaths occupy a couple of sentences, almost as if Oliveira was keen to get this set-up out of the way so she can move on to the central suffering of the story. For after these characters are killed, it’s discovered that their two young daughters, Emma and Claire, are missing, believed dead in the snowdrifts that have buried Albany.

Mary, a close friend of Emma’s and Claire’s family, determines to seek out the girls, but what she discovers is horrifying. Spoilers [highlight to read]. Emma and Claire have been kidnapped by two men and kept imprisoned in a cellar for weeks – during this time, Emma has been regularly raped and beaten by one of the men. Claire has been spared similar treatment because she is under the age of consent – which at that time was just ten. Spoilers end. The rest of the novel is devoted to exploring the aftermath of the girls’ fates, including an extended courtroom sequence. While Winter Sisters is well-written and makes careful use of historical detail, I did find myself questioning the need to cover this story in such detail. Oliveira’s afterword notes explicitly that she was inspired by the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, but by choosing such an unquestionable case, she fails to draw parallels between the past and the present and instead underlines the difference of the past. I also felt uncomfortable with the way she wrote her child characters, who are reduced to symbols of innocence and have little voice in the novel. If My Name Is Mary Sutter tipped towards tragedy, Winter Sisters wallows in it.

I’m now back in the UK but am still away from home travelling for work, and so may take longer to reply to comments than usual.

20 Books of Summer, #2 and #3: Queenie and Pulp

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Queenie, Candice Carty-Williams’s debut novel, has attracted comparisons to Bridget Jones for its funny and frank account of a young black woman working in the media, living in London, navigating bad one-night stands and on-off relationships with men, and relying on the support of her loyal group of female friends, or, as she renames their WhatsApp group, ‘The Corgis’. However, Queenie is more of a straight reinvention of the much-maligned and, in recent years, unpopular ‘chick lit’ genre than a successor to Bridget Jones. As I have said many times (and am going to keep saying until people stop saying the opposite!) Bridget Jones, at least in novel form, is not chick lit or a ‘romcom’ but social satire. Bridget is not meant to be a feminist icon and we aren’t necessarily meant to like her. In contrast, Queenie is hugely sympathetic, and realistically flawed. Her story is a satisfyingly different take on the chick lit plot. Rather than being relegated to the role of the ‘black best friend’, she takes centre stage, with both her white and black friends firmly positioned as her supporting cast; rather than personifying white liberal feminism at her media job, she vocally supports Black Lives Matter, despite resistance from her boss; and the ending is nicely unexpected.

Queenie is also far less ‘feelgood’ than most chick lit, and for all the right reasons; the misogynist and racist abuse Queenie receives, most often entwined in the form of ‘misogynoir‘, is incredibly distressing to read (and I’m speaking about this from the point of view of a white woman who has never had to receive this kind of abuse, so God knows how it must feel to read this if you’re a woman of colour). I found myself feeling angry on Queenie’s behalf almost all of the time, although I liked the way that Carty-Williams challenges the ‘strong black woman’ trope by allowing Queenie to be vulnerable and to seek help from a therapist. Queenie is the target of so much hate because her physical body is hyper-visible in the white-dominated places she’s forced to frequent; from a trendy lido, to her workplace, where only three ‘diverse’ colleagues could be found to appear in a ‘diversity’ poster (‘Zainab in Digital had refused to take part’), to the bars and clubs of Brixton that used to be dominated by her black Caribbean community. Her size, her hair, her skin colour and her shape (‘a bum like yours needs room for manoeuvre’) are all used to belittle and objectify her. In this way, she is a constantly ‘visible woman’, but not for the right reasons.

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Abby is a seventeen-year-old lesbian living in DC in the present day who’s decided to do her school project on post-war lesbian pulp fiction; Janet is an eighteen-year-old lesbian living in DC in the 1950s, trying to hide her sexuality as she finds herself falling in love with her best friend. Robin Talley’s Pulp alternates between these two girls’ stories, exploring the historical difficulties of being homosexual in an age of McCarthy and the ‘lavender menace’, while also dealing with Abby’s more mundane struggles with her family, her ex-girlfriend, and what being in love might mean.

Pulp has a great premise, but like much YA fiction, it suffers from being YA. Much as I wish writers wouldn’t write down to a teenage audience (though the majority of YA is actually read by adults) they continue to do so, and everything in Pulp is spelt out and ticked off far too neatly. Talley puts great effort into her diverse cast, featuring a range of characters of colour, a non-binary friend, and a number of bi and gay characters alongside her lesbian leads, but these feel like nothing more than lip-service, especially given that few of them play much of a role in the novel. Abby’s strand of the story is particularly slow, and Abby herself is really not an engaging character. The historical material is more interesting, but I didn’t feel as confident as I should have done with Talley’s handling of this period; some details, like Janet’s job at a drive-in, feel real, most feel too simplistic.

Pulp did, however, make me think about what a book about lesbians aimed at this kind of audience should be doing, if not for the right reasons. Abby rightfully condemns the kind of still-too-familiar queer narrative that sees its characters meet an unhappy ending, but she doesn’t seem to know what she wants to put in its place. As part of her project, she’s meant to be writing her own take on pulp fiction, but apart from ditching the ‘twilight realm’ and ‘in the shadows’ connotations and calling it Totally Normal Women in the Daylight, we never get a sense of what’s different about her plot. In fact, at one point, her teacher tells her that one of her characters, Henrietta, needs to grow and change throughout the course of the book, and Abby resists this – society was what was wrong, not Henrietta, she thinks. Of course, Abby sees this differently by the end of Pulp, but I didn’t get why – wouldn’t this actually be one way of challenging story conventions, by showing gay characters who don’t change, because they don’t need to, but also don’t have the protagonist’s traditional ‘agency’ because of the heteronormative world in which they live?

Pulp clearly wants to be something a bit more serious than Becky Albertalli’s delightful, feelgood LBGT YA novels (Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda, The Upside of Unexpected, Leah On the Offbeat) but, in aiming for this, it fails to deliver the subversive happiness of those stories, and doesn’t really deliver anything else. And it has nothing to say about LGBT identity, really, other than that oppression is bad. Overall – and so ironically for a book about pulp fiction – I just found it a bit worthy.

I’m still away travelling at the moment and so may take longer to reply to comments than usual.

Unhappy People: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (Jeanette Winterson) & Normal People (Sally Rooney)

Jeanette Winterson grew up in an English Pentecostal family. Her adoptive parents were shocked when she came out as a lesbian, and had their church conduct an exorcism. Winterson ended up leaving home at sixteen, and broke contact with her family shortly after. Famously, she published a fictionalised account of her childhood and adolescence, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, when she was only twenty-five, but this memoir addresses her experiences from her own point of view. The title has a simple origin. When Winterson told her mother that she had fallen in love with another woman, and that this relationship made her very happy, her mother said: ‘Why be happy when you could be normal?’

While few people would put this question as bluntly as Mrs Winterson (Winterson refers to her mother in this way throughout Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?) I think that it’s a question that a lot of us grapple with. That’s certainly true for the protagonists of Sally Rooney’s second novel, Normal People, Connell and Marianne, who meet at school in Carricklea and carry on an one-off relationship through their years at university in Dublin. While Marianne’s family are far better off than Connell’s – Connell’s mother cleans their house – Marianne’s class privilege does little to help her at school, where Connell possesses all the social cachet. When they start sleeping together, both simply assume that the relationship should be kept secret. Cleverly, Rooney reverses the power dynamics in Dublin, where it is Marianne who is striving for social success, whereas Connell takes the brunt of not only being working-class but rural. Both characters feel the pressures of being what Marianne calls ‘normal people’, a state that is both aspirational and stifling.

Like Connell, Winterson came from a working-class family in a relatively out-of-the-way location (in her case, Accrington) and went to a glamorous world-class university (in her case, Cambridge). She writes so well about both class and religion. Despite the oppressive nature of the Pentecostal church, she remembers how she valued the sense of community it brought and the simple fact of ‘having somewhere to go in the evening’ in a declining north-west England industrial town where communal facilities had been steadily stripped away. Not connecting this to the bigger picture at the time, Winterson, as a young woman, voted for Thatcher in 1979, valuing what she seemed to represent: a self-made woman in a world where left politics felt dominated by masculine trade unionism. In contrast, both class and (especially) religion are relatively slight in Normal People. While class differences feed into the consistent miscommunication between Connell and Marianne, Rooney seems more interested in analysing how they misunderstand each other word by word and sentence by sentence, rather than suggesting that there are macro factors that keep them apart. The sadness of their story is that it could so easily have been different. In terms of politics, Marianne talks vaguely about Marxism, but that’s as far as it goes.

Rooney is a wonderfully observational writer. This Goodreads review seems to me to miss the point of her prose; it accuses her of piling up irrelevant details, but actually the content of this quote is who is doing what:

Marianne goes inside and comes back out again with another bottle of sparkling wine, and one bottle of red. Niall starts unwrapping the wire on the first bottle and Marianne hands Connell a corkscrew. Peggy starts clearing people’s plates. Connell unpeels the foil from the top of a bottle as Jamie leans over and says something to Marianne. He sinks the screw into the cork and twists it downwards. Peggy takes his plate away and stacks it with the others.

While I don’t think this is the strongest example of Rooney’s writing, there’s a certain power dynamic here that we can see through Connell’s eyes; Marianne bringing out more bottles; handing him a corkscrew while her current partner, Jamie, tries to get her attention; Peggy taking charge through clearing the plates.

Ordinary People is an addictive read, and I found it less limited than Conversations With Friends (the critics who have suggested that Rooney has somehow regressed because she’s writing about characters who are chronologically younger than her last set of protagonists need to think again). However, I have to confess that I’m baffled as to why it’s being hailed as ‘a future classic’. I feel like I’ve read quite a few novels like this, most notably Belinda McKeon’s beautiful TenderI’d still put it on my personal shortlist for this year’s Women’s Prize, but this is partly due to the weakness of the overall longlist rather than feeling blown away by this book.

What I wanted it to address, I suppose, is something that’s inchoate in the story but never quite comes to the surface: when we are teenagers, we often want more than anything to be ‘normal people’, but as we find out how easy it is to be normal, we strive to become exceptional again. This happens most obviously to Marianne when she’s accepted by a popular set at university, and is seduced into putting her own needs and interests to one side. In Winterson’s case, I get the sense that, after what her mother said to her, being ‘normal’ was never on the agenda; so her wonderful memoir is more about the cost of living on the other side of normality, which may be the right place to be, but is often a very painful space as well.

The Books That Made Me, Part 2

Part I can be found here. Images in this post are of the covers that I’m familiar with, or the closest approximation.

Early Teenage Years (13 to 16)

 

In my early teens, SF and fantasy still dominated my reading, with a little more realism creeping in. I read Michelle Magorian’s Goodnight Mister Tom as a child, along with many of her other novels, but in my early teens, my absolute favourite was Back Home, about a twelve-year-old girl, Rusty, who returns to England at the end of the Second World War after being evacuated to the States. As someone who spent a significant part of her childhood in Washington DC before moving ‘back home’ to England, where I was born, I strongly identified with Rusty. As I got older, I appreciated Magorian’s subtle characterisation more and more; Back Home is less idealised than Goodnight Mister Tom, and the adult characters don’t split so neatly into good and bad.

Berlie Doherty’s The Sailing Ship Tree really shaped my own writing as a teenager; set in the Edwardian period, it describes the emerging friendship between ‘Master George’, the privileged son of a landed family, and twins Dorothy and Walter, who live on his estate. Told in multiple viewpoints, The Sailing Ship Tree has virtually no plot but is emotionally complex and very moving.

I devoured Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights when it first came out and waited eagerly for the next two books in the series. Sadly, I’ve found that I don’t enjoy re-reading Pullman as an adult, but I absolutely loved all the His Dark Materials books as a teenager. Going to a comprehensive school in Bath where evangelical Christianity was surprisingly dominant among my fellow pupils, I ate up Pullman’s opposition to organised religion, even though I now find his world-view simplistic and aggressive. I also loved reading Pullman’s writing advice, much of which is quite sound, and his suggestion [paraphrased] that ‘writers should study anything but English Literature’ had a big hand in me choosing a History degree.

John Christopher’s The Lotus Caves is about two teenagers living on the moon who fall through its surface into a strange underground world. Eerie and compelling, I still enjoy reading this. Another SF favourite was Lois Lowry’s much more famous The Giver, which still has me pondering ethical questions about the distribution of resources in a fair society, the problems with sexual attraction, and how we handle feelings.

Finally, Susan Cooper’s time-slip story King of Shadows had a much bigger impact on me than her more famous Dark Is Rising series, which I read as a child. Nathan, mourning the loss of his parents, is flung back in time and becomes an actor in Shakespeare’s company. This rather whimsical premise is rooted in clever historical detail and a beautiful exploration of the filial bond that develops between Nathan and Shakespeare.

Late Teenage Years (16 to 19)

 

While the fourth and fifth Harry Potter books were not as structurally perfect as the first three, they fuelled my Harry Potter obsession further; this article gives a pretty good account of how it felt to be a teenage fan in the years before book six, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, came out. While I never ‘shipped’ Sirius and Lupin, I was just as devoted to seeking out clues in the text of the first five books as were the romance-orientated fans described in the article linked above. I was convinced that the moral complexity that seemed to be emerging in book five, when Sirius tells Harry that ‘the world isn’t divided into good people and Death Eaters‘, would pay off, and spent hours on the internet discussing theories with fellow fans – both other teenagers, and adults. Therefore, it’s hard to convey just how disappointed I was by book six without sounding silly. I’d invested so much time and effort into this series, and I felt like JKR had thrown it all in my face – the terrible romance, the awful plotting, the evil-from-birth baby Tom Riddle who ‘never cried’. I’m not going to write extensively about Harry Potter here because I have a Monster Rant post coming up, but suffice it to say that my anger with books six and seven was incredibly formative. As an adult, I can see that many of the structural problems that afflicted the last two books in the series were present in books four and five as well, but the material in those books was so much more generous and interesting, that I still like them even though I know I shouldn’t.

Luckily, George R.R. Martin stepped in to fill the fantasy gap. I first read A Game of Thrones in 2004, when seemingly no-one else in the UK had heard of it, and became totally addicted to A Song of Ice and Fire, blazing through the next three books over the next year. Please always remember: these books are nothing like the TV series. Rather than a nihilistic world portrayed through a series of misogynistic tropes, Martin presents a universe that is brutal and misogynistic, but where hope and honour can win out, and with a large and diverse female cast who deal with Westerosi society in their own way. What Martin is best at is handling the readers’ sympathies; making us rethink our own allegiances; exploring shades of grey. It’s a literary skill that I still think is massively underrated, and it’s been hugely influential on my own writing. One day I’m going to write a longer post about A Song of Ice and Fire, but suffice it to say that it ENRAGES me that the Harry Potter series has a wholly undeserved ‘feminist’ reputation, whereas Song is written off as sexist, largely because of the awful TV series.

 

And now we get to the really formative books, the books that have had the most profound impact on the way I read and write. The most significant of these has to be Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. As an eighteen-year-old, I was entranced by how Ishiguro approached speculative fiction; throwing scientific accuracy out the window in favour of emotional truth. Kathy H’s voice is absolutely convincing, and I still think about Tommy’s tantrums: ‘Maybe I knew something all along. Something the rest of you didn’t’. If you haven’t read this uncanny story of three teenagers growing up in a peculiar school, what on earth are you waiting for?

Two classic novels also shaped my mindset during this period. My school had been given a free set of Everyman’s Classics at some point, so around the age of sixteen, I started methodically reading through them. I had studied Jane Eyre in Year Nine and liked it, but Charlotte Bronte’s lesser-known and yet greater novel, Villette, totally blew me away. Lucy Snowe, its protagonist, is a strikingly modern heroine who only slowly infiltrates her way into the narrative. She’s an unreliable and not totally likeable narrator, but Bronte’s exploration of her emotional isolation is utterly heartbreaking. I’ve written more about Villette here. Similarly, Middlemarch was an education; the ways in which Eliot extends sympathy to each and every character are still too little replicated in modern novels. (Though it’s clearly an inferior text, I also loved Adam Bede).

Finally, I returned to a childhood favourite, Robin McKinley, for two novels that I’ve re-read countless times. Rose Daughter, a second retelling of Beauty and the Beast, shaped how I write about place and landscape, with its beautiful evocation of the Beast’s castle and the roses that Beauty cultivates there. (Poor McKinley has been lumbered with some terrible covers in her time – please ignore the fact that this looks like a bad romance novel!) Sunshine, which featured vampires before they became fashionable, is a totally different kind of story, with its rambling, captivating narrator and brilliantly imagined futuristic world. I’m only allowed to re-read this very occasionally for fear of wearing the magic out; I love it so much.

What were your favourite teenage reads, and do you still enjoy them now?

[NB. I have put the promised Parts 2 and 3 into one post as there wasn’t really a sensible way to separate them – hence why this is so long!]

British Adolescent Pupils Write About Age in the 1960s

Click over to the Secondary Education and Social Change in the United Kingdom since 1945 project blog to read a short post by me based on my recent historical research!

‘British Adolescent Pupils Write About Age, 1962-4’

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Battersea Secondary School in London, 1967. Credit: Ullstein Bird/Getty, via the Guardian [https://www.theguardian.com/news/2017/may/04/grammar-schools-secondary-modern-11-plus-theresa-may]