Saturday, October 29, 2011

Child characters, adult books

I've just read two books, one right after another, in which the main character is a young person, and yet both books are for adults.  Weirdly, both books are almost exactly the same size, being somewhat smaller and having fewer pages than most adult books.

In Matthew Kneale's When We Were Romans, a 9-year-old British boy named Lawrence writes of the tumultuous, confusing time when his mother drove his little sister and him to Rome quite suddenly.  Lawrence understands that they are fleeing the threat of his father, who has separated from his mother but who is apparently stalking the family.

What Lawrence doesn't understand, though the reader slowly does, is that Lawrence's mother is mentally ill.  At first she seems to be a fine and loving mother who is perhaps a bit paranoid or overly worried - but through the course of the novel, it's clear that she is seriously disturbed.  Lawrence is an extremely intelligent, sensitive, and appealing boy - but though he finds some things about his mother's statements and behavior illogical or strange, he has neither the perspective nor the desire to understand that there are some big problems here.  Instead, he has no choice but to embrace her delusions entirely.

Older teens would surely read between Lawrence's slightly misspelled but precocious lines and know that Lawrence's mother is spiraling out of control.  Teens are also just far enough from childhood themselves that they can empathize with Lawrence's point of view while also seeing the limits of his understanding.  As well, teens will enjoy the added layer of meaning created by Lawrence's delicious descriptions of various tyrants, gleaned from the Hideous Histories series he is reading.  Would a child actually write this way?  Well, no - and yet, there is a decidedly young flavor to the narration, with its breathless sentences, misspellings, and childish phrasing.

This book is about adults - their manias, their relationships, and the way children are dragged along in the wake of their dramas.  But teens, while not as autonomous as adults nor as likely to be parents, won't find the situations incomprehensible. In fact, I'm betting many older teens would enjoy this book quite a bit.  It would make a fine book to discussion in an English class. 

Quite different is Megan Abbott's The End of Everything.  Told from the point of view of 13-year-old Lizzie, it's about the apparent abduction of her friend Evie.  Abduction of teen girls is a common theme in YA fiction (think Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott and Stolen by Lucy Christopher, to name just a couple).  So why is this particular book meant for adults?

The story takes place in the 1980s, and though the 13-year-old narrator tells of events in the present tense, there is no feeling that this is a 13-year-old voice. Lizzie's choice of words, her sentence structure, and her preoccupations all give the feeling is of an adult looking back at a very intense and life-changing time. 

One of the main themes running through this novel is the awakening of sexuality in girls, and this tinges the narration with a diffuse, lush, awkward, and sometimes uncomfortable sensuality.  Lizzie is at the end of her childhood and she knows it, yet she also knows how very much she doesn't know about sexuality.  This confusion feels both familiar and stylized to me as an adult reader.  That is, I remember the confusion, excitement, frustration, and fear of being 13 - but if I had been asked to describe it, I would have blinked in astonishment.  The sophistication of Lizzie's narration is masterful - and not necessarily something that teens themselves, even older ones with a bit more perspective, would recognize or relate to.

Then there's the "abduction" of Evie (by a neighbor named Mr. Shaw), which is inextricably linked for Lizzie with Evie's father Mr. Verver, Evie's older sister Dusty, and with Lizzie's intense and incoherent feelings about these people.  There is strangeness here - Evie sort of sees it and the reader definitely does.  It's nothing definite, and yet most readers will feel very queasy indeed about how the charming and undeniably great Mr. Verver relates to his daughters and to Lizzie.  As for Evie and Mr. Shaw - well, the mystery is not so much in what happens as in Evie's thoughts and reactions to what most would agree is a heinous crime.

Teens have read with great interest Emma Donoghue's Room, Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, and other adult books about intensely disturbing situations involving teens or young women.  There's nothing in this book that is any worse than those, and I suspect many older teen girls will in fact read this one as well.  I'm not sure, though, that the revelations will hit readers of this age with quite as much force as they would older readers.  Sure, there is the intrigue and nastiness of the basic situation - but it's all the subterranean currents that make this a powerful read, and I'm not sure teens would be as apt to pick up on them. 

Each of these two books is clearly meant for adults, but with characters, themes, and a smaller size that make them possibly intriguing to teens as well.  Do we recommend these and other adult books to older teens?  It depends on the book and on the teen, of course - but in general, I like the idea of guiding teens to the bounty of the adult fiction shelves.  While they may have already discovered adult genre fiction (fantasy, horror), it's a bit more daunting to find those small gems hidden among the Stephen Kings and George R.R. Martins.  Short, well-written books with young main characters are natural bridges, even if they contain adult themes that teens may not have the experience or perspective to fully appreciate.

No comments:

Post a Comment