Memoirs and novels of childhood

I recently started a book group in the town I live in, and at our first themed meeting we discussed novels of childhood. It was fascinating how many different novels and memoirs on this subject the five of us found to talk about. One of the ones that came up was Catcher in the Rye. I had not read this since it first came out, but did read it again last  year, when I had to review a biographer of JD Salinger. I loved it; I was startled by how fresh and vivid it was, still relevant, and how the voice and the personality of Holden Caulfield came to life on the pages.

I’ve just read and reviewed a novel-memoir of childhood called Bite Your Tongue, by Francesca Rendle-Short. Francesca has already published two novels and is a teacher of creative writing. She has found an original answer to the problem of how to write about one’s intimate experiences of family life, how to overcome the desire to repress, to protect, to conceal what is painful and embarrassing. Salinger handled it by fictionalising his autobiographical self, creating an alter ego. Francesca divides her narrator into two, a fictional child-self and an autobiographical adult self. This gives her the freedom to cut close to the bone, to reveal, and sometimes embellish, the messy, painful and embarrassing inner life of a sensuous, sensitive, desiring child struggling to conform to the high standards of her moralistic activist mother and to survive in a girls’ school where she is scapegoated by her English teacher and bullied by her peers. There are at least two climactic scenes in this book: one, where Gloria is forced to endure her schoolmates writing with Texta on her arms, legs and thighs; they write the tabu words from some of the books on her mother’s list of books that are morally corrupting and should be burned. In another powerful scene,  she finds her mother in the garden burning the offending books, and feels compelled to join in with her.

Sometimes I was restless with this divided narration, with the self-consciousness of the third person narrator ventriloquising the child’s thoughts,  and I  longed for some of the directness and (deceptive) simplicity of Salinger’s narration, or for some irony and distance. I felt more comfortable with the mature reflections of Francesca, the adult self, where the consciousness seemed unified. But comfort is not one of the effects the author wants to create. If you want to have a look at some original, powerful writing, I recommend this book. If you want to share your responses to it, I’d love to hear from you; what do you think of the narrative techniques, of the handling of disclosure of ‘illicit desires’ and of the writing in general?

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