Growing Pains

Reviewed by Alana Fletcher

Nancy Lee’s The Age (2014) and Valerie Mason-John’s Borrowed Body (2013) both provide chaotic modern takes on the femaleBildungsroman. The Age is a speculative history of 1980s Cold War activity in which the protagonist becomes embroiled in a plot to blow up a government building. Borrowed Body is an imaginative portrait of a young British girl of African descent who is shuttled among foster homes before ending up in a youth detention center. Providing an updated take on the girl-coming-of-age story and extending the scope of the female problem novel (exemplified by Laurie Halse Anderson’sSpeak [1990]), Lee’s and Mason-John’s books explore the ways structural problems like economic uncertainty, racism, sexual violence, political instability, and ecological crisis intersect with the growing pains of female puberty.

Contrary to some of the praise on the cover copy of Lee’s The Age, this book’s strength is its well-woven plot rather than its writing, which can at times be over-dramatic and clunky. The main storyline focuses on Gerry, a young girl who gets involved in an activist bombing. Reader curiosity about what happens with this plot is piqued, as it only slowly unfolds, interrupted by the other vagaries of Gerry’s adolescence. Another page-turning aspect of the book is the presence of interspersed chapters about a completely different story about a post-apocalyptic colony of pillager-survivors. The question of how these storylines might be related is not resolved, however; the post-apocalyptic story remains a kind of speculative warning about what could have happened or may yet happen should the Cold War tensions alluded to in the main plot heighten.

Mason-John’s Borrowed Body, winner of the UK Mind Book of the Year Award, does not follow a plot so much as catalogue various events in the life of the protagonist, Pauline. Pauline’s perspective is our reality as readers, and reality thus includes angels, including a being of light and colour named Sparky, the ghost of Pauline’s dead friend Annabel, and a spirit cat and snake who seems to represent Pauline’s evil compulsions. The title of the work refers to the way these beings occupy Pauline’s body in times of stress or danger. In contrast to The Age, it is fine writing rather than a dramatic plot that drives this book. The radically understated narration lumps Pauline’s experiences of sexual and physical abuse together with everyday childhood events like running a paper route, suggesting that the struggles encountered by children in the British child welfare system are so pervasive as to be mundane.

Both books are written from the first person limited-omniscient perspective of unreliable narrators. Both are also written in present tense; in the case of The Age this technique adds to an urgency that builds around the slowly-revealed bombing, while in Borrowed Bodythe effect echoes the loss of control that Pauline experiences as she is buffeted about in foster care and controlled by various spirits. While readers of Canadian Literature might notice that neither work is terribly Canadian (both are very much informed by American and British political and social systems), both will be appreciated as compelling modern interrogations of the ways in which emerging female autonomy can be structurally limited or defeated.

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