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Category Archive for 'Coming-of-age'

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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Produced and directed by famed cinematographer Louis Malle and written by Louis Malle and Patrick Modiano, who became the Nobel Prize for Literature winner in 2014, this 1974 film of Lacombe, Lucien broke some unspoken taboos when it was first shown. Only once before had a film raised questions about the masses of French citizens, many of them living in the countryside, who were ignorant or oblivious to the horrors of the Holocaust and the terrible costs to France at the hands of the Nazis in Vichy France. Marcel Ophuls had first produced a documentary, The Sorrow and the Pity, in 1972, nearly thirty years after World War II ended, claiming that the prevailing view of the actions of the French citizenry during the war was naïve. Many citizens had been working farms in rural areas during the war and did not know or care to find out about what was happening on a national level – they had enough to worry about keeping food on the table and their families safe. A surprising number of citizens had collaborated with the Germans, not for political reasons, but because they believed that it was the only way they would be able to survive, and far fewer had worked with the Resistance to overthrow their German occupiers than was once believed. Ophuls suggested that most citizens just accepted what was happening because they did not believe they had much choice. With Lacombe, Lucien, Malle and Modiano continue this theme, and both had had experiences that made this subject important to them.

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Only thirty years old when Villa Triste hits the Parisian literary scene, Modiano reveals his continuing belief in “writing about what you know.” Here his main character betrays a palpable sense of loss, a lack of understanding about who he is and who he might become. A man alone, he yearns for deep, long-time relationships. Calling himself Victor Chmara, a name he tells us is invented, the main character in Villa Triste is eighteen as the novel opens in 1960, and Modiano’s development of the intimate details of his thinking and his emotional states attest to the powerful influence his own past must have had in the creation of this realistic character. Victor does not connect effectively with the rest of the world, and his uncertainty about how to deal with issues of life, love, and the ghosts of his past lead to his pervasive loneliness and sense of isolation. As he reveals in the quotation which begins this review, he avoids the big issues, keeping himself moving, living in the moment, and losing himself in films, books, and romantic attachments – anything to avoid thinking about the uncertainties of French life, which add to his own tensions. The “action” here is internal action, related from the point of view of Victor. Most of the outside action is superficial, deliberately so, a way for the wealthy and would-be wealthy to avoid thinking about their own problems and the problems of the country. Those who have never read Modiano would do well to start with SUSPENDED SENTENCES.

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