Wesley Stace’s first novel, Misfortune (Little, Brown), set in the early 19th century, tells the story of Rose Old, raised as a young lady in Love Hall, an endless gothic maze of halls and lawns and blissfully unaware that she is, in fact, a boy – until the day her world comes crashing down around her. He chooses his top 10 books featuring children but aimed at adults.
“Since adults now happily read books primarily intended for children and teenagers, I started to think of books about children and teenagers meant primarily for adults. Much of the US reaction to Misfortune has focused on the gender-bending aspects of the story. To me, it’s more a (particularly stressful) coming of age novel.”
1. A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes
Children on their way back to England from Jamaica are kidnapped by pirates; this book is eerie, macabre, and unsettling in its depiction of the children’s relationship with their kidnappers. Published in 1929, High Wind is Lord of The Flies before its time, or Moonfleet (see below) plus Freud. (It was also made into a film by Alexander MacKendrick, featuring the young Martin Amis in his only film appearance – he dies young.)
2. The Shrimp And The Anemone by LP Hartley
The first volume of the Eustace and Hilda trilogy, a masterpiece from the very first image, where Eustace tries to save a shrimp being eaten by an anemone and ends up killing them both. The trilogy depicts the power-shifts in the siblings’ relationship and includes some of the most perfect sentences in English.
3. Moonfleet by John Meade Falkner
Written in 1898, a thrilling smuggling adventure set on the south coast, with all the right ingredients: hidden vaults, missing diamonds, a village full of characters, and Elzevir Block who, through thick and thin, guides the young hero, John Trenchard, back to his rightful place. (Not to be confused with the Fritz Lang movieof the same name which, though ostensibly based on the novel, has nothing to do with it, to the extent that it even has very few characters in common.)
4. I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith
The story of Cassandra Mortmain’s coming of age, stuck in the decrepit castle her family bought in better days. In her efforts to become a writer, this heir to Austen’s heroines keeps a journal, wherein she depicts her writer’s-blocked father, bohemian stepmother, romantically inclined sister, and their suitors.
5. The Story of Ragged Robyn by Oliver Onions
The best novel ever to come from an author’s dream? A menacing gang of thieves threaten Robyn Skyrme as he walks home along the sea wall – if he talks, they will return to kill him in seven years. He talks … and spends the next seven years living in the shadow of their threat. Written in 1945, the book has the spellbinding feel of an old ballad, and a shocking ending.
6. Time Bomb by Nigel Hinton
After the second world war, four 11- year-olds find an unexploded bomb in the building site that is their playground. The suspicious Cap enlists them in his own private army, giving them a sense of community away from their unsympathetic families. Though meant primarily for teenagers, the book moves forward with the kind of psychological precision that appeals to everyone.
7. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
Unknown novel by little read author. (This could also have been Great Expectations or Oliver Twist, but Copperfield is the one where, for me, the disparate elements that make up the wonder of Dickens come together.)
8. The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks
Frank Cauldhame’s bizarre world of ritual and violence. Rivalled only recently by Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy, this book has almost everything: gruesome humour, a truly sympathetic villain, and a great twist.
9. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
A chance hearing of The Beatles’ song takes the narrator back to his early relationships, particularly with the troubled Naoko. A long, very moving, Proustian rush, in two volumes, quite different in tone from many of his other novels. Such a huge hit in Japan when it was published there in 1987 that Murakami had to move to America.
10. First Childhood by Lord Berners
First volume of autobiography by the eccentric English composer (‘The English Satie’ – real name, Gerald Hugh Trywhitt-Wilson). The non-fictional equivalent of Wodehouse, these memoirs of Berners’ exceedingly peculiar upbringing are, simply, hilarious.