The Green Years

Robert Shannon is orphaned and sent from Ireland to live with his mother’s estranged family in Scotland, where a frugal existence in a dour town looks set to be his world. His maternal great-grandpa becomes an important character in his life despite grandpa’s disdain of Catholicism, and Robert’s paternal great-grandma’s active encouragement of it. Through his childhood amidst the prejudice and fear of religion, and the forming of fierce friendships and future hopes, Grandpa is not only there to advise, but often to rescue. As the years advance this relationship is often turned on its head – much to the exasperation of Robert. But Grandpa has the last say, in a moving and deeply satisfying denouement.
This was an incredibly absorbing, insightful read. A tender coming-of-age novel which highlights the strong oppositions between Catholics and Presbyterians, and how – often with gentle humour – this impacts on young Robert trying to find his way in life and make sense of historical, often puzzling beliefs. But Robert discovers he has a scientific mind, and as he matures his ambition to be a doctor leads him along a difficult and often disappointing path, fraught with obstacles. The depth and variety of character and rural scene-setting, brings this period of Edwardian history to life and makes perfect sense of the title.

The Catcher in the Rye

52566051._SX318_SY475_Narrated in first person, this short novel is an intense snapshot into the thoughts of sixteen-year-old Holden Caulfield as he goes underground in New York on a discovery of self. Traumatised by two events in his short life, Caulfield is heading for a breakdown. He isn’t convinced that preparing himself for the adult world is something to aspire to and feels the education system is predisposed to those intent on commercial success and crowd-pleasing popularity. He’s aimless, drifting, forgetting to eat, unable to connect to anything or anyone other than his young sister; almost to the point where I wondered if he was mildly autistic. Fun and imaginative one moment, depressed and despairing the next.
Caulfield seeks truth, beauty, and reality but sees only the false and the phoney, the critics, the bullies. What he really wants to do is save the innocent from falling, and from the horrible truth of growing up in an ugly world.
I found this novella completely absorbing.


Sweet Sorrow

43188441._SY475_Boy Meets Girl. A Shakespearean Tragicomedy. Charlie Lewis is the product of a broken family. His mother has gone to live with another man and taken his sister, leaving him to look after his depressed father. His part-time job at the petrol station is hanging on by a thread and he’s surely failed all his exams. But during the long summer of 1997 Charlie meets Fran. Fran is from the better end of town, well-educated and immersed in her role as Juliet in a summer drama camp, something she persuades Charlie to join, too.
It’s a familiar enough story, and in another author’s hands this novel might have failed spectacularly. But the quality of the writing and the sheer sense of character, place, and time, makes for compelling reading. Not once does this novel rely on a plot twist, a gratuitous scene of sex or violence, or any other kind of trickery to have the reader stay engaged and read on. We’ve all known people like these. It’s realistic, the narrative is witty, the tragedy and the comedy slot together beautifully. And although this is a-coming-of-age story with all the embarrassment that inevitably brings, Nicholls delivers it with great style and insight.


Where the Crawdads Sing

A gentle coming-of-age story and a murder-mystery, set along the coastal region of North Carolina – a vast area of marsh teeming with insects and birdlife. The youngest child of an abusive marriage, Kya finds herself abandoned in the family home, a place which amounts to nothing much more than a primitive shack in the marshlands. She spends her time studying and documenting the wildlife, finding great solace in her environment. Her survival depends on collecting oysters and catching and smoking fish to sell to the local village store, in return for boat fuel and other supplies. She soon meets Tate, and they form a teenage kinship. Although he teaches her to read and their relationship looks set to blossom, Tate moves away to further his education, but breaks his promise to return. Chase, the handsome sporting hero about town wastes no time in pursuing the now mature, beautiful, and elusive Marsh Girl. Kya eventually falls for his superficial charms, until the day Chase reveals his true character and she’s forced to retaliate. Meanwhile, Tate has sourced a publisher interested in Kya’s detailed documentation of the flora and fauna of the marsh. While she’s on a very rare trip out of town meeting her publisher, Chase is discovered dead and the town points its many fingers at the secretive, semi-feral Marsh Girl.

The first half of the book, describing Kya’s early years alone, I found a little tedious and repetitive: I’m not sure I completely swallow the fact that a girl at the tender age of seven finds the wherewithal to live quite as independently as Kya did, and that no one in the town sought to discover the truth about her living conditions and the absence of her family. And the dynamics of the murder reveal and the denouement, didn’t quite work for me. The strength of this novel lies in the lyrical narrative, which is rich in ecology, analogies, and the details of swamp life, all of which are expressed with a deft hand. It’s a unique setting, and the author uses clever comparisons of animal behaviours to add depth of character and explain motivation. I did enjoy the book, I just didn’t love it.