Saturday, 28 October 2017

A Child's view of the Woods - Clémentine Beauvais

Recently I read, one after the other, the two debut novels on the Booker shortlist:

Both Fiona Mozley's Elmet and Emily Fridlund's History of Wolves are (#imho), absolutely stunning novels and especially impressive for debuts - preciseness, delicateness and evocative power of the style, impeccable characterisation, a fabulous eye for detail, lively dialogues, etc. I won't go into that too much as most reviews concur on the matter. 

What fascinated me and is more relevant to our purposes here on ABBA is just how similar these two books are and how much they hover in an uncertain zone between 'adult' and 'young adult'. One is American, the other British - Yorkshire, to be precise; did I mention Fiona Mozley is a PhD student at my university? - but both are focused through a young person - no older than 14. 

They show us a child's view of the woods, and of traumatic events therein. We hear of grooming, sexual assault, psychological manipulation, health problems, fights, physical and mental decay, cults, the occult, nature versus industry, and pharmaceuticals lost and found among plants. I wouldn't be able to attribute any of those things to one or the other book - they strangely overlap in that way. 

And the whole time, reading them, I was wondering - what is it that makes them 'for adults'? Why are they not 'young adult'? I know we can have endless debates on the matter - and at the end of the day everything is decided by publishers anyway.

 But I think it might be down, narratively speaking, to the size and shape of what I'd call an 'air bubble' between narrator and events. 

The events are focalised through a young person, and none of the themes are out of the reach of contemporary YA fiction. But there is constantly time, space, and lots of other little things, pushing apart the narrative voice from the events. A slightly different, more distant voice, sometimes, commenting on the events from the perspective of the narrator become adult (or older). A more categorical judgment on the self that was then, and is no longer the same. 

In other words, moments where the first-person narrator considers her/himself as a character. I don't mean at all that YA fiction doesn't do this - nor, in fact, am I arguing that it's qualitatively superior to do so. There are of course narrative voices in YA with a lot of 'air bubbles' between narrator and events. Unreliable narrators are common. But I would argue that perhaps that tenuous line with something that 'feels like a YA book' and something that 'feels like an adult novel' might be set somewhere on that sliding scale of narrative detachment from the events.

Again, this is not at all (of course!) a value judgment. What they might gain in perspectival 'distance', adult novels might lose in intensity, sincerity, or even beauty. There is a kind of rawness, of honesty, in a perfectly crafted YA voice - a seriousness, one could say - which is pretty much unrivalled in literature for adults. 'Adult narrators' , even when they are children, tend to be apologetic about their feelings or about the gravity of what they are experiencing. Irony opens spaces in-between, but any such 'air bubble' is always also a cushioning: it protects and insulates the reader. In that view, perhaps adult novels, paradoxically, are more protective of their readers; less skin-to-skin in their contact.

This is of course an ongoing discussion, with very many parameters. But reading and analysing books like Mozley's or Fridlund's is particularly useful for working out those little nuances in our readerly and writerly experiences. I really recommend both, if you haven't tried them yet. And if you have, tell me what you think...

Clémentine Beauvais is a children's and young adult author in French and English, as well as a literary translator. Her latest YA novel, Piglettes, is out with Pushkin Press.


Catherine Butler said...

Very interesting stuff! Oddly enough, I was discussing just this with my creative writing students yesterday. We made a scale of first-person narrative distances, ranging from "in the moment" present tense (the quintessential YA mode of recent years, I guess) and the barely-less-immersive diary form (past tense but still in media res) right up to the looking-back-with-then-benefit-of-adult-hindsight of, say, Great Expectations. (The next back from that is looking-back-from-adulthood-but-still-screwed-up-by-childhood of, say, The Go-Between.) But of course there's a swathe of children's and YA books (and adult ones, for that matter) where you don't know exactly how far in the past the events are - did it happen last week, last month, last year? Even if the narrator doesn't say in terms (as in Gatsby or Piglettes), I can't help feeling the degree of emotional distance ought in most cases to make it fairly clear.

sara gethin said...

Thank you for a really interesting post and thoughtful analysis, Clementine. Both these novels are in my TBR pile, and based on your recommendation I'll be moving them nearer the top of the stack.