As well as acne and angst, adolescents have provided fiction with some of its most compelling protagonists. The author of My Side of the Story picks his favourites
Engrossed … a teenager at the Hay-on-Wye book festival.
Novelist Will Davis was born in 1980 and lives in London. His first novel, My Side of the Story, was published in 2007 and took that year’s Betty Trask prize. His new book, Dream Machine, is an explosive cocktail of comedy and pathos, in which four lives collide in the wretched pursuit of fame and fortune
Love ’em or hate ’em, the teenager is a popular character in fiction – hey, we’ve all been there. But for writers, the teen is a classic tool for exploring situations and issues from a neutral viewpoint, one as yet unbiased by the rigidity of adult perception. One thing’s for sure: they aren’t going away.
1. Deirdre in Round the Bend by Mitzi Dale
When 13-year-old Deidre sets her bed on fire everyone starts acting like she’s crazy. The masterstroke of Dale’s brilliant, often-overlooked first novel is how down-to-earth and identifiable her unhinged protagonist feels, trapped in a family where her only method of taking control is madness.
2. Gilly Freeborn in Letters of a Lovestruck Teenager by Claire Robertson
Unfolding in a series of letters to an agony aunt, Gilly Freeborn is quite possibly the most screamingly funny teenage character ever written. Dealing with being pancake flat, having a vain, bitchy older sister, two warring parents and, of course, falling for “the Vision”, Gilly was the female answer to Adrian Mole.
3. Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
For many people Holden Caulfield is the ultimate literary teenage creation – but 19-year-old Esther Greenwood must surely run a close second. Brutal, frank and moving, it is impossible not to read her disaffected journey and think of Plath herself.
4. Cherry Vanilla in Sarah by JT LeRoy
OK, technically Cherry Vanilla is 12, therefore not quite a teenager, but I’m including him anyway because JT LeRoy (alias Laura Albert)’s fantastically savvy, yet ethereally naive “lot lizard”, mired in a fairytale world of drugs and prostitution, must surely be one of the most original characters invented.
5. Orla, Kylah, Chell, Amanda and Fionnula in The Sopranos by Alan Warner
Warner is probably one of the best living novelists, and the five eponymous choir girls of his book, who leave their dead-end Scottish town to take part in a singing competition in the city, are dirty-minded yet touchingly sweet – as well as devastatingly real.
6. Paul Porterfield in The Page Turner by David Leavitt
The unlucky teenager of Leavitt’s novel is seduced by an older concert pianist while holidaying in Italy with his mother. As his story unfolds, there are abrupt revelations in store for all three characters – yet it is only Paul who is able to meet them with the maturity of an adult. Enigmatic and brilliant.
7. Mark in New Boy by William Sutcliffe
For all his cleverness, Mark is initially a rather unsympathetic creation. It is only as the novel unravels, in increasingly hilarious segments, that a young man drowning in peer pressure is revealed – tragically only semi-aware of the fact that he is fast losing his own identity.
8. Ann Burden in Z for Zachariah by Robert C O’Brien
Following a nuclear war, Ann finds herself trapped alone in a sheltered valley which has somehow escaped the fallout. One day a shadowy figure in a hazmat appears on the horizon. Unsure if he is friend or foe, Ann hides in a cave. Soon she realises she must take charge of her destiny, even if it means leaving her home. An extraordinary coming-of-age novel featuring an extraordinary young woman.
9. Elizabeth Wurtzel in Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel
Wurtzel’s famous autobiographical novel does not skimp on any aspect of her debilitating depression, which first began when she was a teenager. It might pulsate with an egoism that would make Mariah Carey blush, but you can practically feel the catharsis as she pours out the illness that’s marked her life.
10. Mary in Witch Child by Celia Rees
After watching her grandmother be tried and executed as a witch, 14-year-old Mary knows she must hide her identity from the group of Puritans with whom she has travelled to America. With tragedy and suspicion hanging over her, Mary feels a spiritual connection to the new land, and makes a brave and original young protagonist.