I just finished reading one of those rare books that is so wonderful and unique, it opens your eyes, and everything looks new again. I found a book like this in my twenties, Notebooks of a Naked Youth by Billy Childish. The language and images and ideas were so fresh and raw and new that it startled me out of my old life and into a new one, and I remember thinking at the time that, without articulating this to myself, I’d assumed I could never feel that way again, since childhood and adolescence were over, and I’d lost a little (okay, a lot) of that feeling I used to carry around with me all the time, that life was one ongoing surprise, like a gift I was always unwrapping. But here was this wonderful, frightening book, with a character who described his crippling headaches in words I’d never heard before except for in my own migraine-rattled brain. He was me, I was him; I was transformed.
And now, some ten years later, it’s happened again: I just met Jessica Vye, the hero of Jane Gardam’s novel, A Long Way from Verona, and I felt I was meeting a more perfect version of myself who is living a different but parallel (and of course fictional, but what does that ever really mean) life. Heaven.
Jessica is nine years old when the story begins, and she tells it to us from her now-13-year-old perspective, which is full of hilarious and precocious insights about life and love and art. Because—as a visiting author tells her after she shares something she wrote with him—she is a WRITER, BEYOND ALL POSSIBLE DOUBT! The novel takes place in England during the second world war, where gas masks and air raids and fairly shocking deprivation are all part of normal daily life. The story is sad and worrying and hopeful, and absolutely lovely for its sweetness. If you have not read the book—especially if you are a person who writes things, and maybe even more especially if you are a person who was ever a young girl—you should read it soon. You’ll thank me, I promise.
Evidently A Long Way From Verona—which, incidentally, I had never heard of before, and found by browsing the shelves at my fine local library in Philadelphia—was meant as a children’s book when it was published in the 1970s, and has since been read and loved by many adults, some of whom are, ya know, critics. I am reminded of other young teenage narrators that I first read as an adult and fell in love with, like 13-year-old Jason Taylor from David Mitchell’s magnificent novel, Black Swan Green. That one’s said to be semi-autobiographical, which I think comes through, and has been called a YA book too, but I don’t know. Between me and you I have found that a lot of young adult novels make for thin, simplistic reading (for adults), and neither of these did. Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is another book I read for the first time as an adult, and absolutely loved. Hilarious, spirited, truth-telling young girls are my favorite kind of human.