Private: Adolescent narrators

Emma typed up some of Boyd Tonkin’s observations about adolescent narrators. The comments appeared in the “A Week in Books” column, from Friday’s print Independent:

In the censorious world of schools, streets and juvenile courts, adolescent boys generally get the blame. Send them up before the beaks who decide on literary prizes, however, and they flourish…. Giving Mark Haddon the Whitbread Book of the Year award on Tuesday, Joan Bakewell – a chair of that particular bench of judges – noted that three out of the five contenders featured teenage or immediately pre-teen male heroes.

On the night, Haddon’s maths-fixated, Asperger’s-afflicted 15-year-old investigator from ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time’ ran out ahead of DBC Pierre’s loquacious Texan tearaway on death row (‘Vernon God Little’), and of the plucky, bright Northumbrian kid who survives both local and global crisis in David Almond’s ‘The Fire-Eaters’. Even Don Paterson, whose poetry collection ‘Landing Light’ lost by a whisker to Haddon in the final Whitbread vote, is no stranger to the theme of boys becoming men….

Girls, too, have become favoured fictional voices as writers craft subtle combinations of innocence, insight and – sometimes – sheer delusion. For many months, Alice Sebold’s impersonation of a murdered teenager in ‘The Lovely Bones’ commanded the bestseller lists. Donna Tartt’s 12 year-old Mississippi sleuth, from ‘The Little Friend’ mixes precocity with fantasy. In ‘Atonement’, Ian McEwan’s 13 year-old apprentice author – deeply perceptive, and deeply mistaken – wrecks surrounding adult lives with her childish plots. Meanwhile, the young victim of a high school massacre (that keynote event of contemporary American culture) posthumously unfolds the secrets of the living in Douglas Coupland’s latest novel, ‘Hey Nostradamus!’

[S]uch protagonists have attracted discerning writers – and, I suspect, discerning readers too –
since the era of Charles Dickens and Henry James. After all, their cherishable mish-mash of observation and fabrication belongs squarely in the twilight zone of “true lies” that all powerful fiction should inhabit…

…It would be far too glib to explain away this brood of enchantingly unreliable narrators as a by-product of our confusion about the boundaries of childhood. These literary kids exert an appeal that exceeds nostalgia, or escapism, or mere adult self-hatred. However partial, they offer an outsider’s verdict on grown-up passion and pretension.

…In the courts and the classrooms, we judge adolescents. In much of today’s bestselling fiction, they judge us.