Written by John Boyne on the October 24th,2015
Here’s a piece I wrote for The Guardian a while back.
The appeal of writing through the voice of a young narrator is one that attracts most writers from time to time even if, for the most part, a lot of adult novelists are intimidated by the idea of writing a novel aimed at young people. We create characters that are pure inventions – people we’ve never known, doing things we’ve never done, in places we’ve never been – but we’ve all been young and we all know how it feels to look at the world and try to understand its conventions even when they seem incomprehensible or inconsistent to us. This is one of the reasons I’ve always enjoyed novels with a youthful protagonist; more often than not they’re optimistic, good-willed, resourceful young people forced to live through an adult experience and through their occasionally naïve voices we get to re-live a familiar experience in an unexpected way. The ten novels presented here, with narrators aged from birth to 17, are some of my favourites.
1 – Charles Dickens David Copperfield (1850)
From the opening line, where David queries whether he will be the hero of his own life or whether that station will be held by someone else, the reader shares the heartaches, loneliness and occasional triumphs of Dickens’ favourite creation. The early chapters – his love for his mother, Clara, the abusive relationship with his stepfather, Edward Murdstone, and his eventual sanctuary in the home of his great-aunt Betsey – are unparalleled in their presentation of the cruelties that can shape a child’s life and the relief of eventual asylum.
2 – Robert Louis Stevenson Treasure Island (1883)
When I was a boy, I re-read Treasure Island countless times and longed to experience such adventure. Jim Hawkins’ narrative of life at sea in search of treasure alongside Long John Silver contains all the excitement that a novel like this requires: mutinies, horrible deaths, pirates, betrayals, but it’s Jim’s voice – brave and heroic while never arrogant – that keeps the whole thing flowing along.
3 – LP Hartley The Go-Between (1953)
My favourite novel of all. Although the narrative voice is that of sixty year-old Leo Colston, it’s his memories of his thirteenth summer that dominate the story. Staying with his much wealthier friend, Marcus Maudsley, in Norfolk, Leo falls in love with Marcus’ older sister Marian who uses him as a ‘go-between’ to deliver letters back and forth to her farmer lover Ted Burgess. The sense of deepening obsession and Leo’s catastrophic sexual awakening towards the end of the book leave the reader with a devastating sense of innocence corrupted.
4 – Edmund White A Boy’s Own Story (1982)
It’s impossible to state the importance of this novel in the sexual awakening of several generations of young gay boys since its publication more than forty years ago. The unbalanced feelings between the two young lovers, one slightly disinterested, the other falling deeper in lust and love, are familiar emotions for all of us, gay or straight. The universal sentiment makes this a book that should be required reading in schools that want to counter homophobia and embrace difference. Small chance of that happening.
5 – Ian McEwan The Cement Garden (1978)
My first introduction to McEwan as a teenager was through the voice of Jack, the sixteen year-old narrator who tries to keep his siblings together after the death of their mother by burying her corpse in the basement and pretending that nothing in life has changed. The unsettling relationship between Jack and his sister, Julie, along with his jealousy of his sister’s boyfriend make for a macabre but unforgettable tale.
6 – Roddy Doyle Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (1993)
Ten year-old Paddy Clarke is one of the great creations of contemporary literature. Full of exuberance and passion, certain about what and who he likes and what and who he doesn’t like, Paddy’s story takes him from the mischief of his carefree days to the trauma of watching the breakdown of his parents’ marriage. We’re on his side throughout though, and Doyle’s use of colloquial language and quick snapshots of life in Barrytown combine to produce a vivid and unforgettable characterisation.
7 – Rose Tremain The Way I Found Her (1997)
A wonderful novel featuring a thirteen-year-old narrator who spends a summer in Paris with his mother. As his sexual development begins he develops feelings for a novelist, Valentina, whose own life is filled with mystery and secrets. Lewis’ growing desire and the novel’s unexpected climax make this one of Tremain’s best books but it’s the voice of the boy that carries the reader along. Nervous, tentative and slightly afraid of his movement away from childhood, his anxieties are all too familiar.
8 – David Mitchell Black Swan Green (2006)
My favourite of Mitchell’s novels lacks the astonishing movements through time and place that characterize his work, but this story of thirteen-year-old Jason Taylor, a stammerer, during the summer of the Falklands War is his most emotional and heartfelt book. Mitchell has recounted how some of his character’s experiences mirror his own, which adds an intriguing autobiographical element to the narrative, and for those looking forward to September’s The Bone Clocks, there’s a nice connection between the two novels with a sort-of-shared character.
9 – Kevin Brooks The Bunker Diary (2013)
Brooks’ controversial Carnegie-winning masterpiece features Linus, a sixteen year-old kidnap victim held underground along with five others by a mysterious captor. Forget all the naysayers and the must-we-throw-this-filth-at-our-kids merchants, The Bunker Diary features one of the most heroic and strong-willed young people in contemporary literature, the type of decent-minded, considerate sixteen year-old we all wish we could have been. The ill-informed knee-jerk criticism aimed at this novel has been tediously predictable but thankfully it has simply earned the novel more readers.
10 – Rob Doyle Here Are The Young Men (2014)
A brand new novel, published by Ireland’s Lilliput Press in 2014, Doyle’s debut is a scorching account of the first summer after school for four seventeen year olds, drinking, screwing around, travelling and – in one case – completely losing his mind. The language is unflinching, the story uncompromising, but the reader feels an affinity to a narrator who watches his friends descent while trying to keep control of his own life. This is what it’s like to be an Irish teen today and Doyle never tries to ingratiate himself with the reader through cheap laughs, making this a powerful and provocative novel and easily the most honest account of young Irish people for many years.