Tuesday, 27 July 2010

5 Great Depictions of Childhood in Novels for Adults - John Dougherty

Some people do find children difficult, don’t they?

And just as there are those who find children hard to relate to in real life, there are those who find them hard to relate to in fiction, and who therefore assume that any book with a child protagonist must ipso facto have been written with a readership of children in mind. This attitude generally goes hand-in-hand with the sort of assumptions about the merits of children’s fiction that makes those of us who write it rather cross.

Thankfully, there are also authors on the other side of the Great Fictional Divide who understand that childhood (in which, for the purposes of this piece, I include teenagehood as well) isn’t just a period of waiting to turn into a real person. So, as my contribution to the Awfully Big Second Anniversary Celebrations, here - in no particular order - are five of my favourite depictions of children and childhood in novels written for proper grown-ups:

1. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
When I was a small child, I was told by my classmates that the house at the school gates was The Witch’s House. I remember going fearfully but excitedly up to it, one day after school, with one of my friends; and seeing, just as we reached it, an old woman’s face at the window.

We screamed and ran. We were afraid; but it was a safe fear - a fear of something we had created in our minds and fixed to someone else’s home. I don’t know why children do this - perhaps in order to practice dealing with genuinely scary things when we’re older - but in the Radley house, Harper Lee captures this sort of childhood totem perfectly; and in Scout, Jem and Dill, she creates three very real children, who play and negotiate and slowly learn about justice and injustice and the complexities of the adult world entirely convincingly.

To Kill a Mockingbird is fifty this year, and hasn’t aged a bit.

2. About a Boy, by Nick Hornby
We all knew a Marcus at school, didn’t we? Except, of course, for those of us who were Marcuses - bright in some ways and yet so naive in others; misfits who desperately needed to be taken under someone else’s wing.

It’s Hornby’s masterstroke, of course, that the wing in this case belongs to someone who bridges the gap between the child and adult states - a grown-up who’s never actually had to grow up.

About a Boy is a wonderful comedy of embarrassment, with a lot of unsentimental warmth and down-to-earth wisdom about families and growing up; and with two very real boys of vastly different ages at its centre.

3. Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
Children’s novelists often find ingenious ways to get rid of the adults who might otherwise spoil their heroes’ adventures; but of course, thanks to Golding, we all know what might happen if you really did that; and it isn’t pretty.

Lord of the Flies genuinely deserves its classic status, not least because its characters are such real boys. Every playground has its Ralphs, and its Jacks, and its Piggys; and the events of the novel are, in many ways, merely exaggerations - or logical extensions - of the politics of the playground. And, perhaps, of the politics of the workplace, too.

4. A Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Black Pencil, by Christopher Brookmyre
A murder mystery with a difference: almost everyone involved in the case - the suspects, the investigating Detective Superintendent, the pub landlady with her ear to the ground, the possibly corrupt politician, the world-weary hero, and even one of the two mutilated corpses - went to school together; and it’s in their schooldays that the story is rooted.

Most of the narrative takes place in flashbacks, which start on the first day of infant school and end with the end-of-secondary-school leavers’ party. Through these flashbacks Brookmyre builds up a fantastically well-rounded picture of the entire cast, bringing a new dimension to the idea of character development, as we see how his perfectly-realised five-year-olds grow into the adults of the murder mystery.

A Tale Etched in Blood and Hard Black Pencil is very dark, very funny, and a flawless depiction of a certain type of British childhood. And it shows, as JoJo the landlady says, how “bad weans don’t necessarily turn intae bad adults. And the same goes for the good yins.”

5. Cat’s Eye, by Margaret Atwood
Not just my favourite of this list, but perhaps my favourite book for grown-ups ever, Cat’s Eye is another novel told largely in flashback. Artist Elaine Risley returns to her native Toronto for a retrospective, and finds herself... well, retrospecting. Where Brookmyre’s novel takes a whole range of characters through an entire childhood, Atwood focuses on just two children - Elaine and Cordelia - and on two shared periods of their childhood, to provide a gripping analysis of the relationship between bully and victim, and to show how childhood isn’t just a waiting period but a time which shapes our entire existence. As Elaine says, “Little girls are cute and small only to adults. To one another they are not cute. They are life-sized.

So, there’s my five. Anyone got any others?

John's website is at www.visitingauthor.com


frances thomas said...

David Copperfield, definitely.

And Richard Hughes, for the children in High Wind in Jamaica. Though some of the descriptions of children in his later books are a little.....strange

Miriam Halahmy said...

I loved A Child of All Nations by Irmgard Keun told in the voice of 9 year old Kully. About a boy is Hornby's Masterpiece. Great post, John.

hilary said...

Dream Days and The Golden Age by Kenneth Grahame. And Henry William's Flax of Dream quartet.

And Cider With Rosie!

John Dougherty said...

Some great suggestions - thanks! I shall look them up. David Copperfield, though, Frances? I have a copy downstairs and will make an effort to get to it soon; but I've just listened to Oliver Twist on audio, and while I enjoyed it, one of the things that struck me (perhaps because I was preparing to post this) was that Oliver really didn't seem like a real child at all. He was too unremittingly Good and Nice, with no real sense of trauma.

frances thomas said...

I think Oliver Twist is weighed down by being propaganda - he's a bit good to be true isn't he? But DC seems to me to be written from the viewpoint of a real child - processing his understanding of the world. The story goes off though when David grows up and the awful Dora and even more awful Agnes enter.

adele said...

They Came like Swallows by William Maxwell

And I second both Cat's Eye and David Copperfield.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Great post and great pic John... tanned and relaxed next to the blue sea. Envious! Yes to Cat's Eye and Lord of the Flies and To Kill a Mocking Bird. What about Tom in Graham Swift's Waterland? His sinuous story seems to manage the mangled emotions of love, sexuality, need, guilt, angst and despair... all in one boy. And on a completely different tack.. did anyone ever read Frankie and Stankie by Barbara Trapido. Maybe it recalls my own S African growing up in the 50's. And then there's Frankie in Carson McCuller's The Member of the Wedding.

John Dougherty said...

Oh, yes - Waterland! Great book. Must revisit it soon.