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Category Archive for 'Coming-of-age'

Set in that fraught period between the German occupation of France during World War II and the liberation which came much later, Patrick Modiano’s second novel, written in 1969, when he was just twenty-three years old, incorporates as his main character a young man who is at a total loss about what to do with his life. Describing himself as someone who “started out a pure and innocent soul,” he admits that his “innocence got lost along the way.” The people who have gravitated toward him now are former policemen and criminals, including an official now known as the Khedive, who have opened a “detective agency” from which they are collecting protection money. The Khedive, who still has important contacts throughout the police department, has high hopes himself of eventually becoming “Monsieur le Prefet de Police.” The young man known only as “Swing Troubadour,” does dirty work for this group, sometimes referred to as The Night Watch, earning a huge salary in the process. Possessing a warrant card and a gun license, the young man is ordered to infiltrate a “ring” of enemies and destroy it.

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Escaping the Great Famine in Ireland, Thomas McNulty, a boy in his mid-teens and the only survivor of his family, hopes for a new start in a new world. Sneaking onto a boat for Canada with other starving Irish, many of whom die on board, he discovers, upon his arrival, that “Canada was a-feared of us…We were only rats of people. Hunger takes away what you are.” Seeing no future there, he travels, eventually, to the US, working his way to Missouri, where he then meets John Cole, another orphan boy of his own age, whose great-grandmother was an Indian. They connect instantly, and “for the first time I felt like a human person.” Realizing that they have a better chance of surviving together than they would have separately, they figure out a way to keep working until they are old enough to enlist in the U.S. Army. Once in the Army, they end up in northern California, where recent settlers have been having trouble with the Yurok Indians, native to those lands. After fighting in the Indian Wars, they end up fighting in the Civil War. Sebastian Barry, a writer with almost unparalleled ability to control his characters, his story line, his style, and the peaks and valleys of the changing moods of his novel, succeeds brilliantly in this novel, already the winner of the Costa Award in the UK, and likely to be winner of several more major prizes, as well. Barry makes everything real in a novel which Kazuo Ishiguro describes as “the most fascinating line-by-line first-person narration I’ve come across in years,” and which Donal Ryan calls “a beautiful, savage, tender, searing work of art. Sentence after perfect sentence, it grips and does not let go.” #1 on my Favorites List for 2017.

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In 2012 Australian author Thomas Keneally’s prodigious imagination was captured by a special exhibition of “Napoleon’s garments, uniforms, furniture, china, paintings, snuffboxes, military decorations, and memorabilia” on display at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. The exhibition catalogue featured the name of Betsy Balcombe, age thirteen, and information about her family, people Napoleon knew during his exile on the tiny island of St. Helena (1815 – 1821), halfway between South America and Africa. Betsy’s journal of her experiences with Napoleon inspired Thomas Keneally to write his own “journal” modeled on Betsy’s – this novel. Thirteen-year-old Betsy, as she emerges in Keneally’s captivating novel, is a perfect foil for Napoleon Bonaparte, who has brought with him all his war-time memories, a few furnishings, some assistants, two French ladies (the owners of the clothes on display in the Melbourne museum), and a strong need to adapt to a new life. Betsy, energetic and uninhibited, has no awe of Napoleon, a characteristic which charms him – she talks back, argues with him, and acts without fear as his life plays out in exile. Though the novel is character-based, rather than action-filled, an intense and dramatic conclusion occurs after Betsy creates a social disaster which permanently affects the lives of everyone she knows. Keneally never says whether the dramas of this conclusion are real or fiction. By the time the novel ends, the reader is so charmed that he does not have to. Elegantly written and old-fashioned in the best possible ways, this novel is my favorite so far this year.

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Highly lauded Australian author Joan London, sets her newest novel in The Golden Age, a rehab facility for children suffering the paralyzing aftereffects of polio in the sparsely settled outskirts of Perth, Australia, which, during the 1950s, had a disproportionately large percentage of child polio victims. Filled with realistic, straightforward details, and a complete lack of easy sentimentality, the novel presents vibrant pictures of the people, places, and moods of the communities in and around Perth affected by this world-wide disease. Main character Frank Gold, a twelve-year-old who has immigrated to Australia from Hungary, has already survived the Nazi terrors in his country, in which his father was captured and assigned to a work camp. Eventually reunited as a family and living in a community near Perth, the family must face disaster once again. Frank “catches polio” and is paralyzed, unable to walk. Assigned to The Golden Age facility for therapy, he and his only friend, Elsa Briggs, also age twelve and paralyzed, are the oldest children there, dependent upon each other. As the book develops, the emphasis is on character, and the reader soon gets to know the people in the facility, including the nurses, therapists, and teachers; the families of Frank, Elsa, and all the patients Frank comes into contact with; and all his fellow patients there, along with their stories. Details, no matter how significant, are revealed casually, in the manner of children, creating great drama in their irony. Frank and Elsa, desperate for some sort of connection with the outside world, and anxious to live according to their own desires, soon begin to experiment with ways to show their love to each other. Major prize-winner, certain to be a favorite of book clubs.

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“I often dreamed of the moment of [my classmate’s] fall, a silence that lasted a second, possibly two, a room full of sixty people and no one making a sound as if everyone were waiting for my classmate to cry out or even just grunt, but he lay on the ground with his eyes closed until someone told everyone else to move away because he might be injured, a scene that stayed with me until he came back to school and crept along the corridors, wearing his orthopedic corset underneath his uniform…”—a schoolboy speaker in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

Prize winner. At age thirteen, a boy in Brazil participates in a prank involving another boy who is seriously hurt and forced to miss school for months. This becomes a major moment in his life, since he recognizes that he was wrong to participate in bullying the only non-Jewish boy in his class. His grandfather was an Auschwitz survivor who never communicated with his wife or son. His father is not a communicator, either. Here all three males come to new understandings and take actions in novel that is human, not epic. Finely organized, beautifully conversational, and insightful. A short novel with big themes that feels more like a memoir than fiction. Outstanding. Ideal for book club discussion.

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