How many books have I read? Two hundred, three hundred, five hundred …? I could compile a list. But what would it tell me? What I know? What I have forgotten? What I was? What I wanted to be? What my mother and father wanted and expected and expect me to be? Millions of Cats, Goodnight Moon, Caps for Sale, Where the wild things are, The Blue Fairy Book, The Red Fairy Book, The Wind in the Willows, The Jungle Book, Stuart Little, The Secret Garden, The Borrowers, The Little Prince, Member of the Wedding, Gigi, Lord of the Flies, Return of the Native …
This is Willa, the 15-year-old narrator of Early Disorder, looking at her bookshelf and wondering if you are what you read. Notice that there are children’s books and adult books, and nothing in between. Nothing, in fact, like Early Disorder or the three other books reviewed here, nothing about 15-year-olds written for 15-year-olds. The heroines of these novels would doubtless wince at being called ‘new adults’, yet two of the books bear a seal reading ‘a book for new adults’ and all of them carry, for better and for worse, didactic overtones. Death, sex, disease, unhappy families and divorce are no longer forbidden territory in writing for children: the admirable intention is that the world of fiction should exclude no aspect of the real world which must be mentioned if the truth is to be told. When case-history is substituted for plot, and ‘things were looking a bit more hopeful’ for ‘happily ever after’, when you are asked to care about the actors rather than have them live through adventures for you, subtleties of characterisation become more important than plots.
Early Disorder is about anorexia nervosa, Catherine loves about a girl driven to attempted suicide by the stresses of her parents’ collapsing marriage. In A Star for the Latecomer the heroine’s mother dies of cancer. Only one of these three – Early Disorder – manages to tell the story from the inside: the other two have more of the agony column about them. Jacob have I loved is different, in that it is set in the past – the 1940s – and has an exotic background: a fishing community on a small island in the Chesapeake Bay. This would make a comparison with, say, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novels of frontier America more appropriate than one with books about urban mental and social disorders were it not for the fact that it deals with the pain that can exist within a loving family as frankly, and in the same spirit, as the others.
Of these novels, Early Disorder alone capitalises on teenage speech. The first-person narrative switches from slangy, flip asides on parents (drama-critic father, translator mother), clothes, smart kids, schools, things and food, to descriptions of a Hieronymus Bosch world of dreams and nightmares. If Willa’s well-to-do, cultivated, kindly family (‘Everyone who knows our family thinks we’re the most content and normal in the world. Something special. A family that can’t be touched’) were not so well drawn, the slide from confusion and depression into self-starvation would be inexplicable. As it is, the stratagems Willa uses to avoid eating, and to avoid confronting the fact that she is starving herself to death, come to seem psychologically credible: you begin to see why not eating might seem the only thing left for you to do.
Catherine loves is set in a narrower English world where not all the problems are psychological ones. Catherine’s mother takes her with her when she goes to live with Tony, her lover. A baby comes and she returns to her husband: Catherine gives to the new baby the affection no one else seems able to return. Things get better, then worse, and mother leaves again. Catherine, her loyalties divided between her estranged parents, finally takes an overdose. The book ends with her in hospital, knowing that she will live with her mother and that her broken home will not be mended.
In A Star for the Latecomer, Brooke Hillary is under pressure to become a great dancer – and thus realise her mother’s frustrated ambition. She goes to a school for the talented young in Manhattan, but is aware that she is not God’s gift to Broadway. Mother, endlessly supportive, loving and pushy, turns out to have cancer. Brooke wants to have some success to show her before she dies – and achieves it when she is asked to represent the school on a television show. Her mother dies, and Brooke feels free for the first time to be what she wants.
A dip into a pile of problem novels – the plots sketched above are typical of what now amounts to a genre – suggests that a bridge has been built from the place where children play to that where adults squabble, although competition from Dallas or Honey probably has more to do with this than the need for a transition from Mary Norton to Mary Gordon. The gap in Willa’s bookshelf was not, however, an unnatural one: children switch from Ballet Shoes to Jean Rhys and then back to Ballet Shoes, as though they need, or relish, the contrast between bleak and comfortable moral universes. When adults turn to the children’s books of Richard Adams or K.M. Peyton it is because they, too, have an appetite for comfort.
This is not to suggest that the bleak is true and the comfortable false. Jacob have I loved is the only one of these books to present a picture of a community, as well as of the life of a single family. It is told by Louise, whose resentment of her gifted, pretty twin sister (‘Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated’) is the central theme of the book. It is not the only theme, however. There are impersonal problems. The life of the crab fisherman is dangerous. The Island of Rass, growing smaller storm by storm, is an isolated and precarious foothold. The old, the young and the women must carry on alone when the young men go off to war. Louise feels bitter when what resources there are tend to go on her sister’s singing lessons. But she also has to put up with her malicious, Bible-quoting grandmother’s insinuations (the reference to Jacob and Esau, for instance) and vituperative flashes of senile perception. The book has a moral generosity which the others (even the excellent Early Disorder) lack. The narcissism which sees all problems as personal (and the ability to look after oneself as the only thing that matters) is absent from it. When Brooke Hillary looks ahead after her mother’s death she thinks: ‘This was the end in one way, but it was the beginning in another. And there was one thing I was sure of. I realised that the only star I had to be was the one that glows inside me, the star that only I could be, the star of my own dreams.’ Louise leaves Rass, fails to get a place in medical school (too many returned servicemen), becomes a midwife and (in an oddly abbreviated postscript) finds a life and a husband in a remote Appalachian valley. ‘God in heaven’s been raising you for this valley from the day you were born’: the words of her husband-to-be define an old-fashioned happy ending where you look after others, not yourself.
It is hard not to see all these books as in some way exemplary tales. Even Early Disorder, which resembles, and bears comparison with, The Catcher in the Rye or The Bell Jar, does not suggest that the human condition is irremediably faulty. It is that optimism, however muted – rather than sex or violence – which puts a divide between children’s and adult books. The teenage problem-novel leaves its characters floating – not exactly happy, but certainly happier. In the face of all the evidence to the contrary, children are still being told that everything will be all right.