I HAVE read two books that deal with the emotional battlefield of adolescence. Somewhere between childhood and adulthood, young people must navigate uncharted waters and assert themselves without resorting to bullying or becoming victims. And they must do this while having too much time on their hands and amid extreme boredom and frustration at rules that don't make sense.
The first is by Eliza Clark, Granta's best young British novelist this year. This is her second book; her first, Boy Parts, was published in 2020 and was Blackwell’s fiction book of the year. Her voice is literary and she has the sure touch of a master storyteller. It's a thick volume that I devoured quickly.
At the beginning of the book, it has been a decade since the murder of a schoolgirl in a small coastal town, Crow-on-Sea. She was locked in a beach chalet that was set alight by three classmates.
On the scene appears a writer and journalist who wants to chronicle the events. Alec Z Carelli interviews the involved parties and their parents. It's a story within a story. Sometimes the reader may feel too many details are provided, but the writer builds a vivid emotional and physical landscape through the accumulation of minutiae.
We follow a group of girls from kindergarten to high school. Friendships are formed, and enmities. There are shifting loyalties, power games, venom and uncertainty. The murdered girl, Joni, was ruthlessly bullied in primary school. But in high school she gained the upper hand and paid back her tormentors. Nothing is black and white. Was Joni a dear, adorable child? Did humiliation make her cruel and turn her into a bully as soon as she found her footing?
Is Angelica a psychopath or just a damaged child who doesn't fit in anywhere? Dolly is a case study in herself — according to her half-sister, she was molested by her father, after which her mother returned to her first husband (the half-sister's father) and became deeply religious. Dolly does favours for boys in exchange for alcohol and marijuana, but she is in a relationship with Jayde, one of the few lesbians in the town. Dolly is manipulative, charming, beautiful and dangerous. Where does Violet fit in; the smart, eccentric child, clumsy, an outsider who overthinks everything?
The reader learns shocking facts about the following that school shooters, for example, enjoy on social media — not so much Facebook, as that's for older people, but Instagram and other platforms. You learn acronyms and terms that abound in text language and find yourself in the busy, insane mind of a teenage girl.
High school is a trench; a deadly cocktail of exploding hormones and shaky, developing egos. When you read this book, you're amazed that you survived it. Exceptional characterisation and gradually rising tension make this fascinating reading material.
Who, what, where and how much?
Penance by Eliza Clark was published by Faber & Faber and costs R385 at Exclusive Books.
I reach eagerly for every new Jo Nesbo. My favourite character is the damaged, alcoholic detective, Harry Hole, but Nesbo can also write memorable short stories. The characters are always twisted, damaged, broken and gripping.
This novel's cover screams HORROR, which momentarily gave me pause. Is Nesbo a fan of Stephen King? There's a black, gothic house against a flaming orange-red sky, and an old-fashioned telephone receiver dripping with blood. And the scream: When the voices call, don’t answer…
Things take a turn in the first chapter. Narrator Richard's parents die in a fire under mysterious circumstances, and he is sent to a tiny village to live with his uncle and aunt. He is bored, and his uncertainty leads to bullying behaviour. He forces a classmate, Tom, to stay out late and make a prank call from a phone booth at the edge of the forest. The phone starts eating Tom's ear and gradually pulls him in, with slurping and crunching sounds, until there's nothing left of him. Immediately, I want to put the book down: children's fiction, I think. But it is Nesbo, so I keep reading.
Of course, the police, school and community don't believe Richard when he tells them what happened. Everyone is looking for Tom, and Richard is closely watched. Then there's another horrifying incident: an overweight classmate, Jack, also known as Fatso, comes home with Richard after they investigated a haunted house at the edge of the forest. In Richard's room, they start to argue and Richard, who has read a bit of Kafka, calls Jack a cockroach, repeatedly. Before his eyes, the boy turns into an insect and flies out of the window. He is never seen again.
Now Richard is sent to a corrective facility for troubled children, where he meets other strange, damaged kids. You'll have to read the rest yourself, if you have the stomach for it. In my opinion, it's too messy and unbelievable, or rather, nothing I want to believe in. There's talk of evil and black magic. Nesbo is a skilful storyteller, however.
The second part of the book made me breathe a sigh of relief. Richard is now 10 years out of school and a successful children's author. The first part was apparently the book about his imagined youth in the small village, to which he now returns for the reunion. Thank goodness, everything is now realistic, credible and enjoyable, but suddenly his classmates turn into zombies who want to eat him. They force his arm into a meat grinder to make hamburgers. Talk about messy.
In the third part, Richard is in an institution and receives brain shocks. Was it all a hallucination? Read it for yourself.
I'm sorry to say this Nesbo left me feeling sticky and dirty, and misled. No thanks.
Who, what, where and how much?
The Night House by Jo Nesbo is published by Penguin and costs R405 at Exclusive Books.
What are we listening to?
Nirvana sing Smells Like Teen Spirit.
♦ VWB ♦
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