At some time during my education, somewhere between the ages of fifteen and sixteen, the establishment decided I had outgrown teen fiction and was ready for real, grown-up writing. In fact, they were only half right. I was indeed a little past The Outsiders, much as I had adored it a few years earlier. I was at the stage of developing an appreciation of abstract ideas and I was beginning to shift my conception of adults: from people who must be opposed, doubted and undermined, to people who, in at least a few cases, might be able to teach me a thing or two. I was ready, therefore, for something a little more sophisticated than the standard Young Adult (YA) fare. But they were half wrong too, in that leaving early-stage adolescence behind does not automatically catapult one into the mental and emotional state of a forty three year old female English Literature teacher. The leap from YA to Wuthering Heights and Sons and Lovers was an ill conceived one, all but guaranteed to turn a very great pleasure into a chore.
So, where else might they have turned? Perhaps to my very favourite YA novels, those which I think of as YA-by-accident. These are novels that were written with an adult audience in mind, and as a consequence are free of any of the instinctive talking down and oversimplifying that dogs the genre. And yet, simply because of the nature of the type of story the author is trying to tell, they are of the teen world: they speak directly to its concerns, curiosities and aspirations. Because they are accidental (I think it would be foolish to set out to deliberately write such a book) they are also fairly rare. Three of my favourites are The Catcher in the Rye (the book that casts the shadow in which the rest of us labour), Sydney Bridge Upside Down (a classic New Zealand title) and, in the interests of trans-Tasman balance, Tim Winton’s superb Breath.
I’ll use Breath to illustrate my point, which is the way some novels perfectly inhabit the adolescent twilight. When I first read Breath, I remember being filled with English-teacher excitement. I began to imagine it unfolding in the classroom – small town claustrophobia, mateship, pushing against physical limits, sexual awakening, elegant but simple prose and a sense of escalation driving the narrative. None of the ingredients required for a teen novel were missing. Yet, on another level, it isn’t a teen novel at all. Or rather it isn’t just a teen novel. It’s not just that it veers into the world of auto-erotic asphyxiation - although for a school teacher there’s a certain caution light flashing at this point – it’s also that the story is delivered to us by an adult narrator, who is unashamedly viewing his coming of age through the lens of later experience.
This device, or rather perspective, is what allows the writing to achieve a level of beauty that wouldn’t be available to the authentic teenage voice. It’s not just in the way the landscape is so carefully brought to life, it’s also in the wonderful, wise re-interpretations of childish experience. Winton writes “I couldn’t have put it into words as a boy, but I later understood what seized my imagination that day. How strange it was to see men do something beautiful.” Here he is explicit: an adult writing as an adult can say things and understand things that the younger narrator can’t. So he has licence to move into what is for me the most striking passage in the whole book; a concise, wonderfully weighted examination of manhood, that succeeds in placing all that is to follow in a poetic context.
As a sixteen year old boy, I wish I’d had access to writing like this, writing that both inhabited my world and then led me by the hand beyond it. A story that, by the very fact it wasn’t aimed at me, treated me with unusual respect. It is the occasion of the unnoticed child, listening in to the adult conversation, and for once hearing talk of something that interests them.
Bernard Beckett’s author website: www.bernardbeckett.org
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