Most of us have a favorite novel from adolescence in which we passionately identified with the central character as he or she struggled with the state of the world. These are often powerful books, such as Catcher in the Rye or A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, that we read as we were just beginning to form our own view of how society worked and our place in it.
Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, our Everett Reads book for February, is intriguing to me since it is definitely a coming of age novel, but with the added element of being seen through the eyes of an adult. The central character of Henry is described as both an adult and an adolescent and both of these “selves” interact. Perhaps it is my advancing years, but I have increasingly been drawn to books that look at youth through a more mature, and sometimes world-weary, narrator.
Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson is a good example of this type of writing. Trond Sandler has retired to a small cabin on the border of Norway and Sweden. With few neighbors, and only a dog for company, he begins to remember a crucial summer from his youth when he last saw both his father and his best friend. This is a classic tale of slowly coming to terms with the past.
If you can handle more social isolation, definitely check out The Devil’s Footprints by John Burnside. Set in the fictional Scottish village of Coldhaven the narrator, confronted by the shocking death of an old girlfriend from school, is forced to revisit his own past in search for answers. Written in stark prose that reflects the barren landscape, this is a disturbing yet memorable read.
Lest you think all reflective narrators are older men, take a look at the excellent Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. Kathy, who is barely 30, seems to be too young to be reflecting on her school days at Hailsham. As this dystopian novel unfolds, however, you find that she is tragically nearing the end of her unnatural life cycle. This is a haunting and lyrical novel.
While it is almost impossible to do justice to it in a few sentences, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Youth: A Narrative by Joseph Conrad. This is Marlow’s tale, yes the Marlow, recounting his first trip to the East on the aging ship Judea. Conrad layers exquisite sentence upon exquisite sentence to create a work that is exciting, beautiful and full of meaning. This book is a slim novella, a short story really, so if you have shied away from this author’s work due to length have no fear.