Tag Archives: coming of age

The Dead Lake (2011) – Hamid ISMAILOV

A new year, a new Peirene subscription. And while earlier series tended towards the Scandinavian, this year’s Coming of Age series takes us to Russia and Libya—though admittedly, still through the European languages of Russian and French. Still, it’s nice to see this publishing house move beyond their original remit. Hopefully it keeps things fresh and exciting.

When Kazakhstan was part of the Soviet Union, its vast swathes of steppe were used to test nuclear weapons. In a tiny village near one of the anonymous test sites, Yerzhan is growing into a man. But it’s not easy to live in the literal shadow of nuclear weapons, and when Yerzhan stops growing just as he enters his teens, he begins to worry.

Though they are only tangentially related to the goings on of the politics of the Cold War, the spectre of the 1960s—and everything that came with it—lingers over these characters, in a way unlike any novel set in America, or even metropolitan Russia at the time. The war itself means nothing to their daily lives (other than the occasional piece of meaningless propaganda from the Soviets), and yet they feel the effects of it every day. They live close to an atomic test site, and their lives are punctuated by occasional nuclear explosions in the not-so-distant distance. Donkeys, horses and wolves all sense when an explosion is about to take place, and act as warning triggers for the humans. Even still, a nuclear explosion is nothing to be sneezed at, and the threat of being burned alive hangs over them like the heavy mushroom clouds that form after an experiment has been completed.

These tests have made the landscape even more desolate than it originally was.  More than anything, this work is an evocation of the landscape that forms the backdrop to the action. Ismailov paints a vivid picture of the desolately beautiful Kazakh steppe ruined by constant bombardment from these man-made . From grey nights to deserted ghost towns, there is a sense that these families are living in a barren land, a land that simply is not fit for humanity. And without spoiling anything, the bleak last line certainly feeds into that theme.

This sense of oppression filters through to the characters and their lives. From a young age, it is clear that Yerzhan, has a talent for music. He is quickly given the nickname Wunderkind (buldur kimdir in Kazakh) by his family, and is even given lessons by a man in the village who studied music in the capital. And yet, despite his obvious talent, when he is given the chance to move to the city to keep learning, his family deem it unnecessary. Instead, he continues to study in the backwater that is his village.

His anger at not being able to grow any more, then, is not just frustration at not being physically larger. At every turn, his emotional and cultural growth is stunted by the Soviets using his backyard as a dumping ground for their nuclear tests. He is unable to purse the career he wants, he is unable to live the lie he wants, and he cannot love the girl he loves without constant, niggling self-doubt.

Ignoring the (mostly) useless framing story about two men meeting on a train, The Dead Lake is a small window into a time and place untouched by Western concern, and Ismailove is not afraid of asking big questions. What happens to people outside the spheres of influence in a huge global movement? Deprived of any opportunity to better themselves, or to learn something new, or to dream large, how are people past even the fringes of society able to have a good life? Ismailov’s conclusions are a reminder of the ripple effect of war—it is not just those fighting who are affected, but all who are drawn into the vortex.

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We Need New Names (2013) – NoViolet BULAWAYO

Booker Prize season is on again! I’ve only read one longlisted book (Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire), but I have a gap in my reading pile, so I’ll be filling it with a few choices off the list. NoViolet Bulawayo’s debut novel, We Need New Voices, is the only African novel on the longlist, and I figured that’s as good a place to start as any.

Darling and her friends live in Paradise, a slum in the midst of Zimbabwe’s lost decade. Mugabe is in power, and the poor are just getting poorer. Darling and her friends roam the streets, dealing with poverty, hunger and sickness in the only way they know how—telling stories and playing games to escape. But Darling finally goes to America to live with her aunt, she finds herself missing her friends.

There is no reason to compare Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie to NoViolet Bulawayo. The latter is a good ten years younger, and Nigeria and Zimbabwe almost could not be further away from each other on the continent of Africa. And yet, here are two women who, within the space of several months, have published novels on the immigrant experience in America. But while Americanah felt like a polemic disguised as a novel, We Need New Voices is a much more coherent volume.

There are, of course, many similarities: both are frustrated by the constant generalisation of an “African” experience, and the repetitive conversations they have with white Americans who think they know everything about “Africa” because they saw a BBC new item the other day—though Bulawayo seems less angry about it than Adichie.

Both find themselves longing for their homeland, though while Adichie misses it for the comfort of her family and the life she was leading, this yearning sits more uncomfortably in Bulawayo’s novel: Darling’s experiences in Paradise, the ironically named slum in which she grew up, are the bottom of the bottom. With her friends, they go around stealing guavas off trees, even though a diet consisting solely of this fruit gives the eater chronic constipation, because they have nothing else to eat. One of her friends, at the tender age of 11, is pregnant because her grandfather raped her.

I feel bad about my reaction to We Need New Names. I don’t know if it’s because I have Poorly Treated Child Novel exhaustion (see Past the Shallows, Floundering, The Mary Smokes Boys etc.), but I had trouble being shocked by what Bulawayo was writing about. There is no doubt that the situation in which these children find themselves is horrific—particularly the pregnant 11-year-old girl—but it also felt somewhat unreal, removed from reality. Bulawayo is trying too hard to get us to emote, to feel something for these children, and forced emotion never rings true.

Darling leaves Zimbabwe just after the 2008 reelection of Mugabe. The realities of this election are witnessed by the kids, whose parents’ hope for the future, held in the promise of a new government, is crushed when votes are rigged and retributions for “incorrect” voting are meted out.

The America sections are much better, as we watch Darling come to terms with the huge amount of wealth on offer in the country, but just out of her grasp. She has heard stories of being rich in America, and assumed she would simply become rich by being there: her disillusionment with this is shown in tandem with her becoming more American, to the point where the final chapters are written in a language where all Zimbabwean patois has been erased. Darling’s uneasy transformation is complete.

There can be no question that Bulawayo is a talented writer, and every now and then, there is a passages of such pure brilliance, you forget that this is her first novel. Let’s hope these passages are the ones Bulawayo takes on board in the future.

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Confessions of a Mask (1949) – MISHIMA Yukio

I’ve been scouring my uni’s library for hard-to-find books in the last few weeks, since tomorrow, I will no longer live in the same city. I’ve been particularly interested in finding old Japanese stuff that is no longer easily available in English translation. One work in particular that has fascinated me is Mishima Yukio’s Confessions of a Mask, one of his earliest novels, and still the earliest to be found in English translation.

This is the story of Kochan, a young man growing up in war-time Japan, a background that affects everything he does. As he grows up, though, he begins to realise that he is not like the other boys at his school. He is attracted to them. As he tries to hide his secret, he is also drawn to the masculinity and power of the boys he is surrounded by, particularly as they all move toward a war-footing.

Separating the life and the work of authors is not always easy. The work of Mishima Yukio falls into the “impossible” category. So much commentary about him is not about his life and work as an author, but about his politics, his friendship with Ishihara Shintarō, and of course, his rather public suicide in 1970. An entire industry of criticism and journalism has sprung out of these, admittedly rather fertile, distractions—something that makes me wonder if people know him more for this as opposed to his literary work.

Some might find this distracting. Certainly, for many of his works, attempts to link his work with his life is a futile attempt to spice things up. But there are some works, including this one, that do provide an insight into the mind of one of the most enduring literary talents Japan has ever produced. What interests me most about Mishima’s oeuvre are the works that deal with gender and sexuality.

To say that sexuality doesn’t define someone seems faintly ridiculous. Though it may not be the defining factor of someone’s personality, the reaction to one’s sexuality from those surrounding will affect how you behave. That is, of course, the point of the title—the eponymous mask is the personality Kochan constructs to deal with mainstream society, so he can pass as a ‘normal’ person. It’s probably not a stretch to suggest, then, that Kochan is an author surrogate, a character designed to act as the author for the purposes of the work.

Confessions of a Mask reads like an autobiography. The story of a young man growing up in wartime Japan, trying to come to terms with the fact that he is sexually attracted to the same sex—it’s easy to see where Mishima got his ideas from. This is the perfect example of the shishōsetsu (私小説), or autobiographical novel, a genre that, in many ways, defines 20th century Japanese literature. Using his own experiences and feelings about his young life, the 24-year-old hijacks a form that, for so long, had been used by the Japanese equivalent of straight white men to break into the literary world. I can only imagine the reaction to a book like this in conservative post-war Japan.

While it is not explicit, it is certainly erotic. Mishima describes with such love, such lust, the form of the young boys he finds himself attracted to. He seems particularly attracted to armpits (no, I don’t get it either, but hey—that’s what fetishes are all about), going out of his way to describe this particular boy part both often and in detail.

At first, he is not attracted per se to the physicality of men, but to the idea of the noble prince, of the man who rides in at the last minute and save the damsel in distress. He finds even more fascinating the noble knight who dies in battle for the person he loves. I don’t want to call this an obsession with chivalry, because I think it mistakes what attracts Kochan to these men. It is not the fact that they are saving a woman, but the fact that they are dying in a glorious manner, that attracts Kochan to these knights. Of course, a violent and bloody sacrifice is what Mishima will eventually be known for, but even if you read his other works (including a blisteringly excellent novella called Patriotism)

Kochan, then, hates himself not just because of these confused feelings he has for his male classmates, but also because he, physically, does not look anything like them, and thinks he never will. He was a sickly child, leading to something of a stunted physical development, and he is often sick from school, his grandmother not letting him out of the house. There is a surprising amount of self-hate though this novel, not perhaps in an overtly stated manner, but in the way he constantly compares himself to the men he finds attractive, and always coming up short.

The misogyny that would come to define Mishima’s later work, including his other major gay novel, Forbidden Colours, is not as present in this early work, but his relationship with women remains problematic. Much of the latter third of the novel is taken up with his relationship with a girl—Sonoko—who he thinks he loves, only to find his sexuality getting in the way of a true relationship. Perhaps, then, he is not so different from every other gay teen in the world, trying to force something that just isn’t there in the hope of overcoming something that can often be seen as deviant or strange.

A 1000-word blog review cannot get into the depths of complexity that present themselves in Mishima’s second novel. Confessions of a Mask really is a key text – if not in understanding Japanese literature, then at the very least, understanding Mishima and the way he approaches so many things. There are three important things I would suggest need to be taken out of this novel: Mishima’s self-hatred at his own sexuality; his obsession with the male body; and his dismissal of women. Understand these, and you might close to understanding a sizeable and complex body of work.

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The Beloved (2012) – Annah FAULKNER

I don’t think I need to write here about the state of the Queensland literary scene after the axing of the QPLA, so I won’t. What I will say is that Annah Faulkner has the dubious honour of being the last person to win the Emerging Author’s Award as part of the QPLA – something that intrigued me about this novel. I am also keenly interested in novels set in Papua New Guinea – my dad was born there, so I feel like I should find out more about it.

Bertie’s family is normal – Mum, Dad, older brother, herself. Bertie, though, has a secret. She can see colours. Not just the ones you and I see, but the colours of people. She knows when they’re lying, when they’re telling the truth. Unsurprisingly, she likes drawing and painting as a result. But when her family moves to Papua New Guinea for her father’s new job, cracks in the perfect family unit will being to appear, and the family will be forever changed.

Anyone who has read Paul D Carter’s Vogel award-winning novel, Eleven Seasons, may find some structural similarities in Faulkner’s novel. This might be a long bow to draw – after all, bildungsroman all tend to follow a similar structure – but with both of these debut novels fresh in my mind, it’s interesting to see what each author has done with the genre. Both have a slow build up to the main tension – for Bertie, she grows up, but still wants to draw and paint. Her mother, who has such grand dreams for her daughter, cannot see how art could be in any way useful for a career, and means well. Of course, well-meaning parents often don’t get it right, and so the tension grows. It ramps up to quite an intense point, and it’s a credit to Faulkner that this remains engaging.

The fights between Bertie and her mother will be familiar to anyone who has ever lived in a house with a mother and daughter. Bertie, still testing out the limits of her new-found maturity, refuses to listen to her mother when told to stop painting. In her defence, it makes her very happy, and her mother is less than helpful in explicating what it is that Bertie has done wrong. The epic fights between these two characters are worryingly realistic. The blurb promises an epic coming to blows, and while this is kind of true, there is a sense of relief by the end of the novel when family secrets are revealed, and the family is finally allowed to come to terms with the past.

I really enjoyed the inclusion of the art bits. It’s safe to say I know absolutely nothing about art, but the symbol it takes in this novel – that art can become an escape for a young, awkward child – makes it infinitely sympathetic, even if you don’t know anything about art. What intrigued me most was the idea that art is not just talent – Bertie’s gift must be nurtured, with several different people influencing her in ways she could never have imagined.

One of the great strengths of this novel is the vivacity of the supporting characters. One in particular deserve special mention – Bertie’s artist aunt, who lives in Sydney, having never been married, with seemingly no desire to rectify the problem. Her constant lady friend, though, gives cause for concern for Bertie’s mother, and though, in true 1950s style, the word “lesbian” is used, everyone – except young Bertie – knows what goes on in that house. It is to the aunt that Bertie turns when she wants art advice – here is a grown woman who hasn’t made a career out of art, but still does it and enjoys it – something Bertie’s mother has told her simply cannot happen.

Interestingly, the thing I was looking forward too most ended up being the weakest part of the novel. Though Faulkner does set her story in Port Moresby, I’m not sure it really matters. There are not a whole cast of PNG people in the novel, and much of the action is focused on the small Australian contingent of people living in what is essentially a gated community. The few PNG characters tend to be house servants. There are some vaguely token moments where Bertie asks her parents why she isn’t allowed to go to school with the black kids, postcolonial politics take a backseat to the domestic drama at the forefront.

This is a minor quibble, though, and it is a small weak point in an otherwise excellent first novel. The focus is, quite rightly, on the relationship between mother and daughter, leaving almost everything else at the periphery. It’s a brave choice, but it works, leaving the reader with a sense that Faulkner is probably someone to watch.

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The Marriage Plot (2011) – Jeffrey EUGENIDES

Jeffrey Eugenides’ previous novel, Middlesex, rightly won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003 – it’s an excellent novel, and you should all check it out if you haven’t already. But that was eight years ago, which is a long time between drinks. I didn’t even know he’d written anything new until a reading copy turned up at work the other day, which was a pleasant surprise. I finally got around to reading it, and proceeded to lose a whole load of sleep, staying up and reading this rather excellent novel.

It’s 1982, Madeleine Hanna is about to graduate from Brown University. Her obsession with Victorian literature is derided by her classmates – this is the time of Derrida and post-modernism, there’s no room for traditional love stories here. Her boyfriend, Leonard, is having something of a breakdown. And her friend Mitchell has decided that he wants to marry her. As the three of them graduate, they must begin to face the real world, and real decisions that will have a lasting impression on their lives.

The title is a literary term that describes the plot of a whole raft of nineteenth century novels which are concerned with a young woman marrying the right man. Inevitably, they end with the young woman finding her man, and getting married like she should. With the advent of feminism in the 1960s, as well as the increasing divorce rates, it is something of an ironic title. There is one marriage in the novel, though it does tend to subvert the traditional marriage plot. This is not a happy ending kind of novel, either, though there is a sense of hope in the closing pages.

By splitting the characters up for the majority of the novel, Eugenides allows at least two and a half discrete plots to take place. Perhaps most interesting is Mitchell’s, who decides to take a gap year after graduation, and travels to Europe with his best friend with the intention of slowly making their way to India. For Mitchell, religion is something at once to be studied and to be lived. He is ostensibly Christian, though his constant questioning of both his own faith, and others’, means he is not defined by his belief. Indeed, when he finally does make it to India, he volunteers at a charity hospital run by Mother Teresa, though as he soon discovers, doing good in the world is not as easy as it sounds. He is the epitome of the recently graduated university student trying to find himself by travelling the world, and the fact that he fails time and time again at this quest is refreshingly honest.

Madeleine seems the most grounded of the three characters,  and the anchor of the novel, she gets the most point of view chapters. Her falling in love with Leonard is nice, and her feelings of betrayal when he is unkind to her are keenly felt. Her decision to stay with Leonard after finding out about his condition is clearly motivated by good intentions, though whether it is good for her remains another matter. Despite the advice from her hilariously rich parents, (or indeed, perhaps because of it – there’s a lot of parent angst from the three leads) she stays with him because she feels responsible for him. She is a fundamentally good person, and her quirky old-school love of Victoriana is a pleasant contrast to the wall of post-modern pretentiousness that her fellow classmates spout.

Eugenides covers a lot of ground stylistically, too. The Marriage Plot opens as something of a campus novel, complete with weird lecturers, annoying classmates, and drunken hijinks at college. Slowly, though, we shift away to a far wider reaching narrative – both physically and thematically. We travel from Brown University to New Jersey to New York to Paris to Athens to India, and each one is there for a reason. There are echoes of Franzen’s The Corrections here, too, partially because of the wide canvas they both have, as well as the themes of family and love in modern America, but I think Eugenides manages to tie his overseas sections with the overarching American themes better than Franzen managed in his novel.

This novel spoke to me at a particularly personal level – I, too, am about to graduate from university, and so seeing these three characters try and deal with leaving that safe bubble, and moving into the real world was something I really connected with. The speed with which the trio are plunged into real-world issues is frightening – Madeleine doesn’t even make it to her graduation ceremony before something far more important takes place. All of a sudden, the ridiculous conversations she has had with people in tutes about whether love is a construction, about whether life is really real, become shallow and unreal. Her choice – Leonard or Mitchell – cannot simply be based on theories of love and societal constructions of love, it must be done with thinking about the real-life implications of all three people involved.

The Marriage Plot confirms Jeffrey Eugenides as one of the most interesting American writers of our time. From the minutiae of English literary criticism – along with a LOT of references to other texts, to big themes of love, family and religion, he has written another thoroughly excellent novel. Check it out – it’ll make you laugh, it’ll make you cry.

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Breath (2008) – Tim WINTON

I tried to read Cloudstreet a few years ago. It didn’t end well – for me, or for Tim Winton, who I vowed to never read again. But then Breath won the Miles Franklin Award on Thursday, and people had been raving about it for the last year. So I finally caved in and bought it. Last copy at work, oh yeah. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, general public…

When Bruce Pike, a paramedic, is called out to a house where a young boy has hanged himself, the incident reminds him of his own experiences as a boy. And so the story moves to the incident, when Bruce was Pikelet, a young boy living in a tiny coastal town, infatuated with surfing. His teacher, Sando, urges him to surf higher and higher waves, and his friend, Loonie, taunts him at his inability to reach the heights he does. But as time passes, the relationships begin to fracture, and nothing remains the same.

Well, don’t I feel like an idiot right now. I’ve spent so long hating Winton that I couldn’t quite believe how brilliant this novel truly is. Every now and then, as you’re reading, you kind of sit back and just go, ‘Wow’. This is a novel by a man at the height of his powers, and they’re pretty impressive. This is a sombre novel, but instead of being weighed down by a constant sense of doom (as could easily have happened when writing a novel about self-harm and our inability to become better people), Breath seems to flow so easily and freely. Winton is a master of the English language, but more than that, I admire him because he is a master of the Australian language. No other writer I can think of can so beautifully write English so uniquely Australian. And it’s not that he draws attention to this fact – it’s just that no one else, not an American, not a Brit, not an Indian – could possibly hope to write such unique Australian writing. Hell, few other Australian novelists can do it. So it’s refreshing to see that someone can.

Other than the language, there’s a lot else in this novel that’s good. I liked Pikelet – he’s very much an everyman, someone who feels like he doesn’t belong where he is, and yet when he tries to do something extraordinary, he’s so scared, he pikes. No pun intended. His journey through the novel is something to which I think we can all relate. Similarly, we’ve all had a friend like Loonie – that one who you become friends with out of circumstance more than anything, and yet you’re never sure what the relationship exactly entails, particularly because your friend is a little dangerous. I think it would have been too easy to write this novel from Loonie’s point of view – the usual misunderstood child with no parents forced to rebel. But focusing on Pikelet makes it all the more interesting because, in comparison, he’s quite well off. Emotionally, that is. The boys’ relationship with Sando, then, is perfectly justified. Here’s a man, just old enough to be respected, but still young enough to be cool, who knows about a secret world of which you want to be a part. Perfect.

Having this triumvirate of characters as the focus tends to make this a very male novel, but that doesn’t mean the female characters are any less engaging. Eva, Sando’s wife, is broken, damaged and bitter, and thoroughly moody and unlikeable. But perhaps this is simply how Bruce the teenage boy remembers her – after all, we all think women are mysterious and confusing at that age (and still do). All this makes her wanting to sleep with Pikelet later more than confusing for him, but she is central to the plot and themes of the novel. When her past is slowly revealed, everything falls into place, and it all makes perfect sense.

I could end this review without mentioning the sea, but it would’t be proper to do so. Surfing is integral to the plot, indeed, the inner workings, of Breath. I couldn’t care less about surfing, but I love Winton writing about it and the sea. There’s such passion for it, so much respect and understanding, and it’s all done so beautifully, I love that it’s there.

I was disappointed when The Slap didn’t win the Miles Franklin Award this year. Before reading Breath, it certainly would have received my vote. Afterwards, I’m not so sure. I hate to be proved wrong, but here is proof that Tim Winton truly is one of our great novelists. This book is not epic, it’s not complex, it’s not long, but it is brilliant. The characters and place are so perfectly evoked, right from the beginning, you know you’re in the hands of a master who has written a novel that is mature, sombre, and a little bit fantastic.

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Jasper Jones (2009) – Craig SILVEY

One of the many perks of working in a bookshop is being able to read books before they come out. Publishers like to send us things that they hope we’ll like, so that we can start selling the book as soon as it comes out. Pretty wily, those publishers. Anyway, a lot of the time, they send us crap – reading copies of good books never seem to come my way. But, I’d read Rhubarb, Silvey’s first novel, and thought it was pretty good. So I figured, why not?

Charlie Bucktin is woken up late on enight by someone tapping on his window – Jasper Jones, the town punching bag needs his help. He leads Charlie to the body of a dead girl – a girl that Jasper was very close to. Convincing Charlie that hiding the body is for the best, they must try to keep this secret between the two of them, as the formal investigation into the girl’s disappearance begins. As this is taking place, though, Charlie realises he is falling in love with the dead girl’s sister.

Regular readers of this blog (do they even exist?) will be aware of my intense dislike of books that endow their teenage characters with amazing powers of deduction well beyond their years. And, alas, to a certain extent, Silvey falls into this trap. Charlie is supposed to be thirteen, but he seems pretty switched on for that age. I think if he’d been about sixteen, I wouldn’t have minded quite so much. However, this minor niggle is more than made up for by the fact that the entire book is totally awesome. And yes, I’m channelling valley girl tonight.

I love this book. Just throwing it out there. One of the most refreshing and genuinely good books I’ve read in a long time. Charlie is great. He’s just so normal. There’s nothing special about him – he doesn’t get girls, he writes in his spare time, he fights with his parents, and he and his best friend get up to all sorts of mischief. I think Silvey has done a brilliant job in creating this character, and finding the perfect setting for him to live in. I don’t think Charlie Bucktin could live in today’s society – and so 1963 country town is the best place for him. This era gives Silvey some interesting material to work with – most notably, the fact that Charlie’s best friend is Vietnamese makes for some interesting tension between the Lu family and the rest of the town. It’s interesting to see parallels between Jeffrey’s father keeping his job at the local mine while others lose theirs, and what goes on today. This racism is not a big part of the novel, but it’s a good one nonetheless. Not the racism, but the treatment of it. You know what I mean.

It’s not just Charlie that makes this book so good – the supporting characters have a life of their own. Jeffrey is another amazing creation, and his endless enthusiasm for, among other things, cricket is a vital part of the novel. One particular sequence involving a (strangely gripping) game of cricket allows Jeffrey to be a character in his own right, while still allowing Charlie to simmer in the background. Similarly, Eliza, Charlie’s love interest is sufficiently cute and the such to make the two of them perfect together. Special mentions also to Charlie’s parents, who bring new meaning to the word dysfunctional. Charlie’s mum is nuts – I particularly liked her forms of punishment, and was constantly thankful that my own mother was never cruel enough to make me dig a hole and then fill it. Oddly enough, the titular Jasper Jones doesn’t feature that heavily in the novel, though I suppose it is him who causes the chain of events that form the plot, so I gues he’s allowed to be the title…

The strength of this novel really is the cast of characters that make it so likeable and accessible. The mystery plotline is interesting enough, but (and I’m not trying to sound facetious here, promise) I did work out what happened about halfway through. But that’s ok. Similarly, the Jones family mystery was, a little bit interesting. That’s not the point of the novel. It’s these characters, and how they react to the changing world around them. Whether they survive, change, or sink, is what we are interested in. Silvey proves he isn’t just a one-book kind of guy with this novel, and hopefully, it’ll see him gain some much deserved coverage.

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The Catcher in the Rye (1945) – J.D. SALINGER

This wasn’t on my list of things to read next – now that I’m back home, I have access to a place of employment that lets me borrow books! But, a friend pushed this into my hands, and since I’d never read it, and since it is something that I had, one day, planned on reading, I figured now was as good a time as any.

Holden Caulfield has just been kicked out of his latest boarding school, and instead of going straight home, he decides to run away from school, back to his home town, New York, and play in the city for a few days, in the hope of delaying the inevitable – his parents finding out about his expulsion. Holden is sick and tired of the phoniness of the people who inhabit the school, and he can’t deal with it any longer. His time in New York, however, is not as idyllic as he had hoped, and his experiences there leave him just as confused with humanity as his school did.

I guess I’ll start with some other reactions to this, let’s face, seminal (I’ve always wanted to use that word on this blog…) novel. It constantly pops up on banned book lists for a variety of bizarre reasons – including ‘encouragement of rebellion’ and ‘Holden’s being a poor role model’. Granted, the language is a bit raunchy – though my (highly accurate) tally shows that ‘goddamn’ is the most common profanity, and other, more useful ones, are barely used. It seems odd to attack a novel that so perfectly, and so sensitively, captures what it means to be adolescent, and the problems that are constantly running through your head at every minute of every day.

This is, I think, the greatest strength of this novel. Sure, the language is great to read – refreshingly conversational and colloquial, but the ability to get inside Holden’s mind is an amazing skill that only Salinger himself could possess, no doubt because books like this are often based on authors themselves. Holden is clearly a mask for Salinger, who sees the world around him as full of people who are far more obsessed with society, and those around them, than what really matters. And what’s great about this is the arbitrary nature that Holden uses to define what is important and what isn’t. It is almost on a whim that he will judge someone to be worthy, though in the end, there’s really only one character who is – his younger sister, Phoebe. Holden sees everyone else through the eyes of a sixteen year old misogynist, who refuses to see the good in everyone. And we’ve all been there, all had stages where we thought that everyone else was stupid, and only we could truly understand. It’s called being a teenager. Somehow, Salinger makes it perfect. You sometimes want to slap Holden in the face, but at the same time, you totally and fully understand exactly how he feels.

The ending is weird. Just throwing it out there. And I’m going to talk about it, so look away if you haven’t read the novel. Or don’t. Whatever. Maybe because I was rushing through it as my lunch break rapidly came to an end, but I still don’t get why Holden had to be hospitalised. I genuinely do not think there’s any need for it. He’s understood that there is something to live for, and he knows that he can’t run away from his problems. Maybe he just needs to calm down. I don’t know.

I don’t quite know what I was expecting from The Catcher in the Rye. Not what I got, that’s for sure. Which, in a way, is the best way to approach a novel. I was pleasantly surprised that a book with such a reputation actually lives up to it. Go and read this now if you haven’t – before you get too old and phoney.

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