Tag Archives: coming of age novel

Little What’s-His-Name: Alphonse Daudet

“He did not foresee that, all through his life, he should be condemned to drag about, in the same silly way, a blue cage, the color of illusion, and a green parrot, the color of hope!”

It’s an odd experience to move from reading Daudet’s brilliant, funny, and worldly-wise stories: Artists’ Wives to Little What’s His Name (Le Petit Chose). I certainly wouldn’t have guessed that these two books sprang from the same author. Little What’s-His-Name was Daudet’s first published book, and it’s autobiographical.

Little What’s-His-Name is Daniel Eyssette, and the story opens with his birth. Daniel, one of three sons, is born in Languedoc, to a successful man who owns his own silk factory.  Daniel says he was his “parents’ unlucky star,” as right after his birth “incredible misfortunes assailed them from all quarters.”

First there was the customer from Marseilles who stole 40,000 francs, then two fires, a strike, a family quarrel, a lawsuit, and the coup de grace … the Revolution of 1848.  Within a few years, the business is finished and the family leave the factory and their splendid home and move to Lyons (Daniel/Little What’s His Name loses his beloved parrot on the way.) Chapter II is called The Cockroaches for the family’s humble home is plagued with the insects who proceed to make hell for the Eyssettes.  The education of the two youngest boys, Jacques and Daniel, takes a hit due to lack of funds, and the boys attend a school for choirboys. Later a scholarship is offered for one of the boys and the father, who doesn’t seem to think that highly of Jacques, selects Daniel.

It’s a rather sad childhood marked by death, poverty, and memories of a better life. But there’s worse to come; within a few years, with their fortunes tumbling even further, the remaining members of the family split up with “each one to seek his fortune independently.” Daniel is sent off to be a schoolmaster thanks to the recommendation from a family friend.

By this point, Daniel has earned the name “Little What’s-His-Name” thanks to his diminutive size and I’m guessing also because of his ability to sink into the background. Working at the boys’ school is hell for Daniel as he’s smaller than the bigger students, but at least he gets half a bottle of wine at meals!

It’s at the school that Daniel learns some painful life lessons. Daniel is trying hard in his job, and likes teaching the younger boys, but he runs into problems when he punishes the unpleasant son of a Marquis. This incident, with its humiliating results, throws Daniel into bad company at the local inn. It’s a bitter experience to learn that the man you thought was your friend is using you and considers you an idiot, and that’s exactly what happens to Daniel. Without giving away arguably the best part of the plot, Daniel finds himself in Paris.

The first section of the book is the tale of Daniel’s early life and the time spent at the school. The second half concerns Daniel’s move to Paris (he lives with Jacques) and his attempts at a literary career.

Daudet has the habit of moving, in his narrative, from first person to third which I found a little odd. This seems to be driven by sentiment/emotion when Little What’s His Name is embroiled in an emotional scene or is humiliated. Almost as if Daudet is only comfortable imparting these scenes when moving further from the character.

The man with the mustache looked like a good fellow; on the way I learned that his name was Roger, that he was a teacher of dancing, riding, fencing, and gymnastics in the school of Sarlande, and that he had served for a long time in the African light horse. This was enough to make him entirely attractive to me. Children are always inclined to like soldiers. We separated at the door of the inn with much shaking of hands and the explicit promise of becoming friends. 

And now, reader, I have a confession to make to you.

When Little What’s His Name found himself alone in his cold room, in front of his bed in that strange and vulgar inn, far from those whom, he loved, his heart burst, and the great philosopher weep like a child. Life terrified him now, he felt weak and helpless to meet it. He cried and cried. 

I enjoyed the first half of the novel far more than the second half. The first half is powerful in its depiction of the innocence of youth, the battering, humiliating experiences that must be endured, and painful lessons regarding treachery. The second half lacks the same power. It’s too sentimental for my tastes, and that’s the problem with using autobiographical material. My copy comes from Mondial books with an introduction from W P. Trent who was also the translator,

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A Little Love, A Little Learning: Nina Bawden

“Women in the house like rabbits, looking at me reproachfully.”

In Nina Bawden’s wonderful novel, A Little Love, A Little Learning, it’s 1953, the coronation year, a year, as it turns out, which will irrevocably alter the lives of a doctor’s family. The story is told, in retrospect, through the eyes of the doctor’s step-daughter Kate. Kate, aged 12 when the story takes place, is the middle child of three daughters: Joanna is almost 18, and wild little Poll is the youngest. Before the children’s mother, Ellen, married Dr. Boyd, she lived with her three daughters in rather unfortunate circumstances. After moving from the country to a flat in a bombed out street full of  “half-derelict houses,” Ellen met Dr. Boyd while taking Poll for medical care, and they married within a month. The novel finds the family living, happily, in a large house at Monk’s Ford, the town where Boyd grew up. Boyd, orphaned at age six, was brought up by his unpleasant uncle, “the sort of man who would bury nails in his front lawn to teach the errand boy not to ride his bicycle over it.

The family’s lives begin to change when ‘Aunt’ Hat arrives to stay. Aunt Hat is a large, garrulous middle-aged woman who befriended Ellen during their evacuee days. The introduction of Aunt Hat to the household exposes children to adult situations and moral dilemmas touching such issues as death, insanity, domestic abuse, poverty, abortion and sex.

A little love a little learning

At first glance, Aunt Hat isn’t the sort of person anyone would pick as a friend of Ellen’s. The friendship though, is fermented in past shared misfortune. Both Aunt Hat and Ellen have known hardship, but this time, Aunt Hat has been put in the hospital by her third husband, an “infrequently employed dock worker,” and her stepson was so badly beaten that he too ended up in hospital. Aunt Hat’s volatile husband is now to stand trial, and in the meantime Aunt Hat is penniless and has nowhere else to go.

Aunt Hat’s presence in the house upsets the delicate balance of daily family life. Aunt Hat has a generous spirit and is supposedly well meaning, but nonetheless, she has a tendency to gossip and sentimentalize. Aunt Hat’s terrible life experiences, and her interpretation of those events, resonant with Kate.

Aunt Hat was unaware of the difference between a false emotion and a true one. Or perhaps it would be fairer to say that Aunt Hat was unaware that falsity, that worm in the bud, existed even: there was no feeling too tinny, too worked over or second-hand, that Aunt Hat could not accept, and treat, as purest gold. It would never occur to her that emotion could be used as a device for getting attention, or merely for one’s private pleasure.

It’s not long before the children capitalize on Aunt Hat’s weaknesses.

She always contemplated the beautiful, enriching sadness of life, and hearing that sigh–I knew– though I could not have out it into words then–that she had retreated on to that plane, not so much of fantasy as of fictionalised truth, from which she found it comfortable to survey the world. 

This is a story of just a few months in the household: Joanna’s love life falls apart and she turns inwards as a result. She “goaded Ellen, the way a bored child will pull the wings off flies,” suddenly wanting to know information about her father. Kate, the story’s central character, faced with emotions she doesn’t understand, fabricates stories that have terrible consequences. Little Poll, who is deeply attached to a child who lives in a grubby caravan, mostly creates camps in the garden of the house next door–a house belonging to Claud Fantom and his reclusive sister. The Fantoms live in an enormous house that’s a shrine to the Fantom family’s glorious past in colonial India. The brother and sister despise each other and communicate only through written messages. Miss Fantom lives in her own part of the house with her Abyssinian cat, and her brother lights joss sticks to “cover up the smell.” It’s a cold war between the Fantoms, but Claud Fantom, who reads “yellowing back-numbers of” The Times of India, dominates the house with his sister a shadowy presence:

“Can’t stand the woman. Never could. Haven’t spoken to her in years.”

There’s another neighbour, frustrated spinster Miss Carter, Polly’s teacher who pushes herself into the Boyd household. She’s yet another of Boyd’s many female “middle-aged” admirers. With her stole of marten’s heads on her shoulders, giddy with infatuation, she finds any way she can to insinuate herself into the household, into Boyd’s sphere, sinking to extreme flattery and fake friendship.

There’s a wonderful, gentle sense of humour in this novel–mostly evident through Kate’s attempts to deal with adult situations:

Here followed the familiar lecture on how necessary it was that we should not fritter our time away, but work hard at school and get into good universities so we should always have “something to fall back on.” We often felt, though I think this was not Ellen’s conscious intention, that we were only being educated so that later on we could run away from our husbands if we wanted to. 

And while the humour makes this novel wonderful, there’s also the edge of painful adulthood nipping at Kate. As she’s confronted with various moral dilemmas and the complications of adult life, Kate learns that sometimes there are no simple answers. “Truth often sits on the fence,” and actions are not just black and white, but somewhere in between. She learns some painful truths about human behaviour:

I realized something for the first time: that a woman can convey to another woman however young, age being of no account in this, only sex, how she really feels without any man present being aware of it. 

I tend to avoid books with child narrators, but childhood stories told in retrospect can, if written well, be phenomenal. A Little Love, A Little Learning falls into that category. This will make my best-of-year list.

 

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The Old Jest: Jennifer Johnston

Jennifer Johnston’s short novel, The Old Jest, a coming of age tale, takes place over a number of days in 1920. The main focus is an 18-year-old girl named Nancy, and when the book opens it’s her birthday. On the cusp of adulthood, Nancy has finished school and plans to attend Trinity in the autumn. There’s not enough money in this faded Anglo-Irish gentry family to send her to Oxford university–plus there are rumblings of “a war with England.”

Nancy is an orphan. Her mother died some years earlier, and she never knew her father, a man who remains a mystery figure. She’s been brought up by her Aunt Mary who bears the burden of the household since her brother, Gabriel died at Ypres. Nancy’s grandfather, General Dwyer is “potty,” but these days we’d probably say he has Alzheimer’s. One of the biggest dramas in Nancy’s life is her crush on a young man named Harry who has his eyes on the bigger prize of the heiress Maeve.

the-old-jest

Nancy’s diary entries make up some of the novel, so we see her confessional thoughts, and her desire that her grandfather die “before we become damaged by his decay.” She’s still a girl, and yet she’s supposed to act like an adult. Nancy chooses her moments to flip back and forth as if she can’t quite accept the responsibilities and polite behaviour of adulthood.

Outside of the safety and security of Nancy’s home, civil unrest occasionally washes up on their doorstep. There’s mention of the Black and Tans, but life in the household is mainly untouched by what goes on in the outside world until Nancy meets an IRA man who’s hiding out in an abandoned beach hut she frequents. He calls into question everything she’s been taught to believe:

“After all,” he said gently, “Your grandfather was a killer too, and no one makes sarcastic remarks at him for that. Not at all. They gave him medals and a pension, He wasn’t even killing to defend his own fatherland, indeed the very opposite. He was taking other people’s land away from them. Creating an Empire for a little old lady with a thing like a tea cosy on her head.”

There’s a sweetness hovering over the novel that partially comes from Nancy’s innocence and zest for life. (Some readers found Nancy annoying–I did not.) Some of the sweetness comes from the idea that we are glimpsing the last days of a particular lifestyle–although Nancy is initially unaware of the truth of the family’s circumstances.

I liked this novel, which has the feel of a well-fleshed out short story, for its bittersweet glimpse at Nancy’s life; by the time the book concludes, it’s easy to see that her world has irrevocably changed. Her innocence is gone, and so her childhood passes away, leaving her to face an uncertain adulthood.

Review copy

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I for Isobel by Amy Witting

I for Isobel, and that’s a curious title with a child like ring, from Australian author Amy Witting (1918-2001), is an episodic view of the life of the heroine. This is a coming-of-age novel, a dislikeable term which implies a sort of cookie cutter simplicity that is, unfortunately, underscored by the title. In the foreword to the Text Classics edition, Charlotte Wood admits that she bypassed Amy Witting’s work because “their titles had turned me off,” and that they sounded “girlish, flatfooted, giving off a cutesy, floral whiff.” Yet there’s nothing simple and girlish about Isobel or this novel; this is the story of a young girl hated by her mother who, with some assistance from an aunt, must make her own way in the world, and what’s striking here is the insular nature of Isobel’s life–stripped of nurturing relationships, sustaining friendships and no real mention of the possibility of romance–we are left with just Isobel, a child, and later a young woman who is interesting for her remarkably self-contained ability to absorb life through the sustaining fuel of books while cloaking her nature and desires into acceptable conformity.

I for IsobelIn the case of Isobel, we see her first a child trying to establish emotional barriers against her mother’s venom, and  after crucial events, by the end of the novel, Isobel appears to have broken through some fundamental constricting membrane and is on the road to finding her own voice. There’s a sequel to I for Isobel, Isobel on the Way to the Corner Shop. Witting had just started a third book in the Isobel series when she died, and that’s our loss.

This wonderful book opens on Isobel’s ninth birthday, and we are immediately dropped into the toxic spite directed towards Isobel by her mother. It’s not that Isobel’s mother ‘forgets’ her birthday–no she continually reminds her of the event and the fact that there will be no celebration:

A week before Isobel Callaghan’s ninth birthday, her mother said, in a tone of mild regret, ‘No birthday presents this year! We have to be very careful about money this year.’

Every year at this time she said this; every year Isobel chose not to believe it. Her mother was just saying that, she told herself to make the present more of a surprise. Experience told her that there would be no present. As soon as they stepped out of the ferry onto the creaking wharf and set out for Mrs Terry’s lakeside boarding house, where they spent the summer holidays, the flat reedy shore, the great Moreton Bay fig whose branches scaffolded the air of the boarding-house garden, the weed-bearded tennis court and the cane chairs with their faded flabby cushions, all spoke to Isobel of desolate past birthdays, but she did not believe experiences, either. Day by day she watched for a mysterious shopping trip across the lake, for in the village there was only one tiny store which served as a post office too; when no mysterious journey took place, she told herself they must have brought the present secretly from home. Even on the presentless morning she would not give up hope entirely, but would search in drawers, behind doors, under beds, as if birthday presents were supposed to be hidden, like Easter eggs in the grass.

It’s through the lack of a birthday present that Mrs Callaghan’s spitefulness is apparent, and we never know quite why Isobel’s older sister, Margaret receives preferential treatment when it comes to birthdays–although of course, in order for spitefulness to carry its full sting, there’s no better way than to concoct an arbitrary rule for one child and not for the other. As scenes from Isobel’s childhood unfold, it seems that Margaret is not loved either. There’s a father there, silent, “tired,” and “pale,” and at meal times, one of the occasions when this toxic family gather together, he keeps his head low, ignoring his wife’s tirades. Over time Isobel learns that her mother has two voices: her so-called “real voice,” (the nasty one) and the one she uses when out in society. Isobel also learns that her mother uses rage to seek some sort of emotional catharsis:

Then she saw her mother’s anger was a live animal tormenting her, that she Isobel was an outlet that gave some relief and she was torturing her by withholding it.

Her father used to do that, sitting silently while her mother raged at him, chewing his food slowly, turning the pages of his newspaper deliberately–doing what Isobel was doing now, But one night he had put the paper down with a fierce thump and shown a white face, wild eyes and a mouth gaping as if his tongue was swollen. His chair had crashed over, he had picked up the knife from the bread board and run at her mother, who was cringing away with her head at a strange angle and a meek frown on her face, her hands out in front of her and the line of blood suddenly across her fingers.

But before that, when he had got up, before she saw how real the knife was and how near, there had been two little glittering points of satisfaction in her mother’s eyes, two little sea-monsters swimming up from …

Isobel’s childhood absorbs only about 1/4 of the book. Soon she’s a young woman who has learned to contain spontaneity and emotion; she won’t learn so much through her own experiences but from watching the lives of others and, of course, from reading–a habit that sustained her throughout childhood. Salvation and sanity to be gained in reading (“Birthdays, injustices and parents all vanished,”) becomes one of the central themes of the book–from Isobel as a child discovering Conan Doyle and sinking into his books and forgetting, temporarily, at least, the fact that her birthday will be ignored. Then later, when Isobel lives in a shabby boarding house under the thumb of the tyrannical Mrs Bowers, her desire to read alienates her from the other boarders. For Isobel, reading is the most important thing in life.

She had been reading the novels of Trollope and whenever she wasn’t reading, no matter what was happening in the outside world, she was conscious of being in exile from Barsetshire.

Through significant episodes in Isobel’s life, events leave various lasting impressions, and it’s through these events that we see Isobel’s personality form. She passes through office life and eventually runs into some students who recognize her as a fellow reader. Through these relationships, she becomes involved, as an innocent bystander, in a side story of sad obsessive love, and again there’s the sense of Isobel observing the human zoo. As a child, Isobel is aware of the need to mask her desires and expectations as exposure only brings pain, and she manages to master these behaviors through her lack of birthday acknowledgement recognizing that not looking for a gift  “was a step towards the kind of person she longed to be but did not have words to describe–someone safe behind a wall of her own building.” It’s probably this type of strategic, deep thinking that saves Isobel from developing into a neurotic mess, but at the same time, she’s still behind that wall and has yet to emerge.

Towards the end of the novel, when Isobel mixes with a handful of students and finds some like-minded people, she is still an outsider. In one memorable scene a student named Kenneth notes the intense behaviour of a young girl who stalks a man who’s rejected her.  Although the rejected girl’s goals are very different from those of Isobel’s mother, nonetheless there’s a link there:

 “It’s amazing though,” said Kenneth, “what you can get away with if you give up caring about anything else, like self-respect and pride and all that stuff. Turning yourself into a projectile, so to speak.”

Review copy.

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Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole Me Ma by Kerry Hudson

“Janie. I’m, warning yeh, I’m about tae blow.”

Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma is an unwieldy title that is at least memorable in this bittersweet, funny and compelling story of poverty, single motherhood, and a series of bad choices in men. Get beyond a title that does the book no favours and a bumpy first few pages, and you’ll find yourself in a wonderfully, witty, sharp debut novel written by Kerry Hudson.

Tony HoganThe book begins in the 80s, a little awkwardly, with the birth of Janie, our spunky narrator relating the profanity which accompanied her birth–the result of a brief union with Iris who’d “been tae London and got herself preggers,” and some unnamed American, and while Janie’s birth is celebrated by the Aberdeen Ryan family, the hard realities soon hit. A fight with Iris’s bingo-addicted mother sends Iris onto the streets, and into the Grafton Hilton (“as the guests liked to call it,”) a woman’s shelter full of other bruised and rejected women, and then it’s off to council housing and the gritty slum of Monarch Avenue, a place that Iris initially resists as it’s a bad place for a “bairn.” According to Iris, “I might as well start shooting her up on smack now since that’s what’ll happen,” but Iris doesn’t exactly have a choice. But that’s one of the interesting aspects of the book, when Iris has options, she always chooses badly. But while Monarch Avenue strikes fear into the hearts of those sent to live there, Janie’s reaction, viewed from her shiny new pram, a gift from Iris’s brother, smack addict Uncle Frankie, is of glorious sensation.

On the way to buy the moving-in essentials–tea, milk, bread, fags, Jif and a half of vodka–my eyes soaked in our new neighbourhood. Graffiti and scorch marks, echoes of small fires, decorated doorsteps. Golden Special Brew cans and crushed vodka bottles, bright as diamonds, collected in gutters. Front gardens were filled with mouldy paddling pools and, occasionally, a rust burnished shell of a car. I had never seen anything so beautiful, so many colours, before in grey Aberdeen.

Iris notes that the house, at the end of the street offers an “easy escape,” and in a way Iris’s life is defined by that term–a series of escapes–moonlit flits from slums and grotty bed-sits, endless fresh starts and broken promises from a series of disappointing men. Janie notes that she “had a lot of uncles but Uncle Frankie was the one who came every week, bought presents and wanted to play with me and not just Ma. The other uncles picked me up for about three minutes and then put me aside like a fag end, not taking their eyes off Ma, or the bedroom door over her shoulder.” One of these men is Tony Hogan, the “Aberdonian King, or at least Duke of thugs and drugs,” a spiteful runt with a reputation for explosive violence who wears “streaky” underpants. It’s a relationship with catastrophic consequences:

Tony smothered the life that me and Ma had built, a furry mould growing over a sweating slab of cheese.

Although this is Janie’s story, the novel bursts with a colorful cast of secondary characters in this story of a childhood spent growing up amongst heroin addicts, glue sniffers, and alcoholics. While Janie doesn’t exactly have it easy her friends Davey and Leanne  whose “parents liked a drink,” envy Janie’s comparatively exotic diet which includes the occasional “Fray Bentos pie and peas or Findus Crispy Pancakes.” Leanne’s ma’s world centres on booze and whatever is left over goes to meals such as chips and beans, or chips and egg.

But Leanne’s ma was organized too and on Mondays we would often bump into her in the booze aisle at Safeway with four big sacks of frozen chips  thawing in her trolley. There was always a mouth-watering, fatty smell in the air at Leanne’s and at the beginning of the week there would be red sauce too.

This is a world of flush Mondays with the “long impatient queue at the post office to cash the benefits book before going to Safeway.”

For the first few days we had tinned spaghetti, fish fingers and pink wafers, but by Sunday the cupboards were bare and we ate a lot of toast and porridge and talked about what we’d buy the next day in the shiny aisles at Safeway. Over toast with a scrape of marge Ma explained she was just getting used to it and she’d find a way to ‘make the grub last’.

If this all sounds depressing, it isn’t. This is partly due to Janie’s love for her mother–even as she steers them towards disaster, but part of the novel’s optimism comes from Iris’s seemingly endless spunk, the way adversity slides off her back and a sort of naiveté born from desperation and misguided hope when it comes to judging men. Some of the humour comes from our narrator’s limited knowledge of the adult world:

Frankie always came over on Thursdays. He had to come once a week to collect the little bags of white powder that Ma measured from a bigger bag on scales with numbers like Frankie’s digital watch. Ma did the measuring on Saturday mornings and the little spoons and jumping red numbers always stole my attention, even from Fraggle Rock.

“Can I have a go?” My eyes were fixed on the shiny spoons, the soft white powder.

“No, Janie, how many times do I have tae say? Watch the telly.”

“Just tell me what it is though.”

Ma gave me a look and then sighed. “It’s special flour. An’ I have tae measure wee bags so that people’s cakes come out just right. Now watch the telly. If I can’t concentrate the cakes’ll be shite and then we’ll not have chocolate biscuits or cola this week an’ yer uncle Frankie won’t come over.”

Always on the fringes of society, Iris never rises above extreme poverty–sometimes she floats and sometimes, for  a brief period, she sinks only to return to the surface in another slum location, and over the years, her fierce tenacity is worn down by degrading disappointment recognized by Janie in one beautifully poignant moment. Author Kerry Hudson paints Janie’s colourful world with bold strokes, and while there’s a moment when Janie discovers a world within books, this is not overworn or clichéd.  Given the subject matter, it would have been so easy for this novel to slip off into sentiment, bitterness or loathing, but instead the author shows incredible talent in creating characters whose private lives are mostly sealed from those of us who have some essence of security, and while the characters are treated with empathy, their inability to change, extreme social disadvantages, and zest for self-sabotage is also evident.  In spite of adversity, or perhaps because of it, there’s an incredible ‘us-against-the-world’ bond between Janie and Iris and we see this in one incident when Iris is called to task for Janie’s swearing.

We left the nursery in silence, Ma smoking a roll-up, looking like she hadn’t slept in a week or maybe like she had slept for a whole week. When the nursery was just a grubby finger smudge behind us Ma looked down at me and said in her poshed-up telephone voice: “Will you speak to Janie about swearing? Fuckin’ busybody!”

I laughed and swung our linked hands.

“Aye, fuckin’ busybody.”

Pleas of laughter escaped us and spiraled up into the hot, blue Scottish sky. We laughed all the way home

The book, essentially a coming-of-age story, follows Janie’s nomadic life until she is 16. Janie initially, of course, doesn’t have any choices, so she follows her mother from seedy bedsit to notorious gritty slum, sometimes escaping with the just bare essentials –whatever she can grab–as Iris never settles down but moves from one tarnished opportunity, usually sparked by either a man’s promises or a man’s violence, to another. Towards the end of the novel, which flounders just a tiny bit, a teenage Janie ends up in Great Yarmouth, and it’s here that she’s able, finally, to make some decisions of her own. The big question, of course, is will history repeat itself or has Janie learned from the mistakes of her mother? This is a remarkable book reminiscent of the early works of Roddy Doyle, and it’s going to end up in my best-of-year list.

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