Coming of Age | Emma Schofield introduces the first of our categories for the 100 Page Turners of Wales, Wales Arts Review’s exploration of the riches of Welsh fiction.
For the first category, Coming of Age, we have a list of ten books exploring themes relating to the formative years of our lives. The titles in this category span an impressive sixty-six years, taking us across the length and breadth of Wales with their powerful evocations of characters growing up and searching for their place within the world. Humour has a part to play, as might be expected, in novels such as Joe Dunthorne’s Submarine, but the nominations in this category are all ultimately connected by moments of raw emotion, uncertainty and bewilderment at the world around us.
Kate North’s Eva Shell, Dannie Abse’s Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve and Deborah Kay Davies’ Grace, Tamar and Lazslo the Beautiful take us on an exploration of self-awareness, while Trezza Azzopardi’s The Hiding Place and Eluned Lewis’ gentle reflections in The Captain’s Wife delve into the role family and community play in the development of our sense of identity as we transition from child to adult.
Reality is never far away in many of these titles, as is perfectly encapsulated by Nikita Lalwani’s powerful depiction of the complex relationship between immigration, education and identity in Gifted, but the characters in each book all demonstrate a resilience and determination to forge their own path in life. At a time like this, there may be much for us to hold on to here, whatever our current age.
(100 Page Turners artwork created by Lilly Dosanjh)
Gifted by Nikita Lalwani (2007)
Synopsis: Nikita Lalwani was born in Rajasthan and raised in Cardiff. Her first novel Gifted was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award and won the Desmond Elliott Prize. Gifted tells the story of Rumis growing up in Cardiff in the 1980s in a captivating story of high aspirations, deep longing and the sometimes loneliness of childhood.
‘A sparkling funny and poignant study of a young maths prodigy struggling with her gift and a difficult family’ Gerard Woodward, Books Of The Year, Observer
‘Superb, brilliantly realised. The searing narrative is unflinchingly and tenderly written’ Independent
‘Compelling, heart-wrenching and laced with redemptive hope . . . Touching and funny’ Observer
Submarine by Joe Dunthorne (2008)
Synopsis: Joe Dunthorne was born and raised in Swansea. Submarine, his debut novel, is ‘a tale of mock GCSEs, sex and death’ providing an unforgettable coming of age tale of Oliver Tate. in 2010 the book was adapted for film by Richard Ayoade.
‘A richly amusing tale of mock GCSEs, sex, death and challenging vocabulary . . . Excruciatingly funny incidents and cracking gags’ Time Out
‘Excellent . . . the wonderful, Day-Glo certainties of adolescence have rarely been so brilliantly laid out’ Independent on Sunday
‘Perfectly pitched . . . transplants The Catcher in the Rye to south Wales . . . Dunthorne can make you laugh like did during double physics on a wet Wednesday afternoon’ Observer
Pigeon by Alys Conran (2016)
Synopsis: Alys Conran is from North Wales and lectures Creative Writing at the University of Bangor. Her debut novel Pigeon is the tragic, occasionally hilarious and ultimately intense story of a childhood friendship and how it’s torn apart, a story of guilt, silence and the loss of innocence, and a story about the kind of love which may survive it all. Pigeon won Wales Book of the Year Award 2017 and was shortlisted for the International Dylan Thomas Prize.
‘An exquisite novel by a great new writer’ M.J. Hyland, author of Carry Me Down
‘Might have been authored by Faulkner…just as imaginatively capacious…never wroughtout, rather pitch-perfect’. Omar Sabbagh, New Welsh Review
‘…a quite brilliant and empathetic writer of both narrative and character. Pigeon is an extraordinary book about people, place, language and culture.’ From the Margins
The Hiding Place by Trezza Azzopardi (2000)
Synopsis: Trezza Azzopardi was born in Cardiff. Her first novel The Hiding Place is a deeply moving and intensely lyrical novel about love and betrayal. Shortlisted for the 2000 Booker Prize, it portrays the life of a child condemned forever to bear the mark of a disintegrating family.
‘Fans of Kate Atkinson and Andrea Ashworth will love this. Read it and weep.’ Mirror
Like an impressionist painter, the author can with just a few simple strokes bring a scene to vibrant life, whether it is the single girls in the bar who leave “the imprints of their bored thighs” remaining “awhile upon the shiny leatherette” or the matchless beauty of the descriptions of Dol’s deformity: “a closed white tulip standing in the rain, a church candle with its tears flowing down the bulb of a wrist”. Azzopardi’s bright flame is sure to burn for a long time to come. —Nicola Perry
Grace, Tamar & Lazlo the Beautiful by Debra Kay Davies (2008)
Synopsis: Deborah Kay Davies was born in Pontypool and has taught Creative Writing at Cardiff University. Her first novel Moves from 1970 to the present day, and relates the history of Grace and Tamar, their volatile childhood, disruptive coming-of-age and dubious maturity. The book is part novel, part fantasy, part social history, part coming of age. More than anything it tells dark, universal tales about how utterly strange it is to learn to become human.
Deborah Kay Davies has achieved something rare: a collection of stories wherein each story is complete in its own right (many were competition winners or radio broadcasts) but which also work together as a novella-length sequence. —The Independent
‘Grace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful is by turns moving, hilarious and terrifying, and often all three at once’ Western Mail
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog by Dylan Thomas (1940)
Synopsis: In ten wonderfully evocative short stories, Dylan Thomas who was born in Swansea in 1914 and went on to be perhaps Wales’ best- known writer, conveys the exuberance and enthusiasm of youth as he fictionalises events from his childhood. Adolescent sexuality and male friendship are two of the themes that pervade this collection, along with the more familiar topics of love, death and religion.
“Few writers have evoked as successfully the mysteries and adventures of boyhood, of young love with its shattered dreams… none has done it in as fresh and telling phrases, with an elation as natural and contagious” New Directions Books
‘His prose, his images, his stories pulsate with life’ – The Los Angeles Times
The Owl Service by Alan Garner (1967)
Synopsis: Alan Garner was born in Cheshire and is a winner of the Guardian Award and Carnegie Medal. Owl Service is an all-time classic, combining mystery, adventure, history and a complex set of human relationships. It all begins with the scratching in the ceiling. From the moment Alison discovers the dinner service in the attic, with its curious pattern of floral owls, a chain of events is set in progress that is to effect everybody’s lives. Relentlessly, Alison, her step-brother Roger and Welsh boy Gwyn are drawn into the replay of a tragic Welsh legend — a modern drama played out against a background of ancient jealousies. As the tension mounts, it becomes apparent that only by accepting and facing the situation can it be resolved.
“…A rare imaginative feat and the taste that it leaves is haunting.” The Observer
“One of the first and best [novels] for and about teenagers; it remains one of the most original and gripping ghost stories… timeless.” Amanda Craig, The Times
“Alan Garner’s The Owl Service is not meant only for children or anyone else; it’s a novel; and not many better novels will be published this year…The power grows, throbs nearer, builds to unbearable tension, and comes to wild release in the last few pages.” The Guardian
In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl by Rachel Trezise (2000)
Synopsis: Rachel Trezise was born in Rhondda. In and Out of the Goldfish Bowl, a story of brutal childhood in the Welsh Valleys is her debut novel and the winner of the Orange Future Prize and Dyland Thomas Prize. It tells the story of Rebbecca who is trying to grow up fast but the whole world’s against her. She falls in love, gets drunk and takes drugs. There are things she needs to forget. But when writing and books take hold of her life she starts to come up from the bottom.
“Trezise’s debut has plenty of grit… she rants, she sulks, but she remains defiant. You guess immediately that she is a survivor.” — The Guardian
“The power is in what is not said… the use of language economic, inventive and highly evocative.” — New Welsh Review
Part rant part confessional prose suggests Trezise is a force to be reckoned with —Buzz
Ash on a Young Man’s Sleeve by Dannie Abse (1954)
Synopsis: Dannie Abse was born in Cardiff in 1923. In this delightful coming of age autobiographical novel, Abse skilfully interweaves public and private themes, setting the fortunes of a Jewish family in Wales against the troubled backcloth of the times – unemployment, the rise of Hitler and Mussolini, and the Spanish Civil War
‘Mr Abse writes beautifully and tenderly of the things he has seen and felt’ The Times
‘Acutely remembered, imaginatively told. Any but the youngest reader will be fascinated to catch the true ring of the thirties in a setting so different from his own. It is a clever, moving account.’ Angus Wilson, Observer
The Captain’s Wife by Eiluned Lewis (1943)
Synopsis: Written during World War II, The Captain’s Wife looks back nostalgically on a period, 60 years before, when the rhythms of traditional Welsh culture were still intact, though losses and tragedies were still a part of women’s daily lives.
Eva Shell by Kate North (2009)
Synopsis: Kate North grew up in Cardiff. Her first book Eva Shell is one that mirrors the life we lead today: fast, pacy, fractured, where technology has in many ways unplugged us from the world but also forged new and exciting ways of telling our stories. Set against the backdrop of Cardiff, it offers a fresh and vivid portrait of this city in the 21st century. This is a world where past and present hold hands towards an uncertain future.
“forensic in its dissection of…emotional landscapes and frequently very funny with it…” Wales Arts Review.
“an innovative mosaic, a multi-layered visual feast constructed through a variety of typeface and media: Eva Shell is kaleidoscopic. It is a book that explores new narrative possibilities for the novel… keeping you eager to turn the page.” – Angela Morgan Cutler
Coming of Age is part of a larger series highlighting Wales’ rich literary tradition, you can find the whole series here.