7 Novels Across the World About Turbulent Coming of Age

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The FamilyMart on the corner of Yingchun Road and Changliu Road, right across from my middle school in Shanghai, was no larger than 25 square feet, but had all the necessities swarms of middle-schoolers needed to self-soothe after marathon test prep: fish balls on skewers bathing in a perpetually bubbling brown broth, mini Taiwanese sausages roasting under a heat lamp, plastic-wrapped onigiri bursting with mayo and pork floss. Though no one dared to test this during peak student hours, I knew the market sold alcohol to minors: my mom had been sending me on beer runs since I was nine or ten, and no clerk batted an eye.

My novel, River East, River West, is in part a social portrait of restless and suffocated youth in Shanghai. I’ve long been fascinated by the effect of place on adolescence, how a locale’s social and environmental factors exerts an influence on how young people behave or misbehave, how landscape informs crevices of society young people burrow into or the barriers they break out from. In Shanghai, this meant FamilyMarts and dark KTV rooms where teens could drink and frolic, all-night cybercafés and gargantuan malls, city parks teeming with feral cats, residential housing towers dense as concrete forests where supervising adults were too often absent, busy making money in distant cities.

This is a reading list about young people growing up too fast, too hard, too weird, too tenderly because they live in places where the setting is a driving force for complicated youths. Let these books take you around the globe, from working class towns of volcanic northern Tenerife to squatter apartments in Beijing, from a desolate eastern French town corroded by alcohol to the rooftops and cafés of Mexico City, from 1990s Burundi to the tundra of the Canadian arctic. In these stories of fevered hopes and bleak pessimism, absentee parents, epidemics of violence, the anonymity of buzzing metropolises, the wilderness remote towns, the suffocating provincialism, and racial and class tensions are all vivid setting traits to contribute to a kaleidoscopic collection of youth in flux—spanning continents, but all authentic portraits of hyper-particular settings.

Burundi: Small Country by Gaël Faye, translated by Sarah Ardizzone

“To live somewhere,” Faye writes, “is to melt carnally into the topography of a place.” In the musician’s debut novel, we meet 10 year-old Gaby, a French-Rwandan boy living in 1990s Bujumbura, Burundi, in a bougainvillea-filled cul-de-sac of the Kinanira neighborhood. He attends the French school, steals and gorges on the neighbor’s mangoes with his band of mostly mixed-race friends, picnics by the glittering lake with his family. Due to inflation, everyone in Bujumbura is a millionaire; democratic elections are on the horizon, neighborhood bars called cabarets brim with colorful opinions and artisanal liquor.

Gaby’s innocent childhood cracks open when his Rwandan mother and French father split up—on their last outing as a family, following a muddy forest trek and a visit to the palm oil factory where his father supervises a colonial enterprise, Gaby notes that the palm oil came to spoil the happiness of his childhood, mixing into the dissolution of his parents’ marriage. In neighboring Rwanda, ethnic tensions are coming to a boiling point, and Gaby’s visit to Kigali with his mother for an uncle’s wedding is full of chilling precursors of the genocide to come. Soon, the unthinkable happens, and Gaby’s once innocent band of boys—who’d smoked cigarettes at his 11th birthday party by a crocodile carcass, who’d picked idle fights over small neighborhood squabbles—are buying grenades off the black market and arming to guard the neighborhood as violence spills across the border. Years later, the cul-de-sac once teeming with great trees is now bare, barricaded with tall walled compounds and barbed wires. But the cabaret— the ubiquitous neighborhood bars where obscurity reigns and tongue are set loose, where the real country, this “small country where everyone knows everyone,”—still stands, and Gaby returns to see if he can still find memories of home and the ghosts who haunt him.

Spain: Dogs of Summer by Andrea Abreu, translated from the Spanish by Julia Sanches

This novel’s original Spanish title is Panza de Burro, or “donkey’s belly,” a Canarian description of the low-lying cloud cover clinging to the volcanic landscape of northern Tenerife. The ten-year-old narrator and her best friend Idora live in a working class town where many of the adults’ livelihoods are tied to the resort economy of the island’s south. For the girls, the sea is a three hour walk away. They spend much of their languid, suffocating summer failing to get to it, settling instead for a made-believe “canal beach” with concrete slabs and a trickle of water littered with ubiquitous pine needles.

The town’s roads are steep (“a vertical neighborhood on a vertical mountain”), the houses multicolored and half finished, the minimarket a distributor of junk food and mean gossip. The narrator resents the holiday residences her mother needs to clean, from which she feels separated by “a barrier of clear clingfilm.” The girls eat and purge and gorge on berries and pears that make them shit endlessly, they grind their bodies on everything, including each other, they roam in the heat and volcanic haze. The clouds are always low, hovering right above their heads, their oppression a pressure cooker, presaging the boiling point towards which the novel is gathering force.

Afghanistan: 99 Nights in Logar by Jamil Jan Kochai

It is summer in Logar province, and an America-raised teen called Marwand is visiting his family’s village in rural eastern Afghanistan. This is a land of orchards and streams and mulberry trees, of curving roads leading to mazes of interconnected compounds, of courtyards covered with flower petals carried by the wind, of laborers and fields, of US army operations in the surrounding black mountains, “so that those of us down in the river valleys only ever heard the softest hum of gunfire, the gentlest tremble of stone.”

Kochai’s novel unfolds against this backdrop of “Ts” and “psychopathic white boys” and “robots in the sky” in 2005 Afghanistan, but the militarized elements make way for the centerpieces of familial lore, sumptuous feasts, and rowdy shenanigans as the children adventure around this landscape, searching for the escaped and much pestered family dog Budabash. In between, the cousins and friends succumb to mystery illnesses, crash weddings by hiding in burqas, and tell each other countless nesting doll-like stories.

By turns surrealist, absurdist, and deeply heartbreaking, the novel portrays a social landscape of intimate ties and bullet-ridden memories–including a tragedy that marks an eternal wound on the family’s beating heart. This secret is unveiled as layers of tales-within-tales rich with oral tradition are peeled back, culminating to a reveal so poetic and striking that it makes for a landmark chapter in contemporary American literature for its linguistic statement.

Mexico: The Spirit of Science Fiction by Roberto Bolaño, translated by Natasha Wimmer

To the delight of his cult followers (of which I am proudly one), Bolaño’s metaverse of poets coming-of-age in Mexico City appear in this early novel in his oeuvre as familiar echoes, doppelgangers, and kaleidoscopic fragments. Here, we loosely follow Jan and Remo, variants or alter egos of Arturo and Ulises of The Savage Detectives, perhaps, as they roam through 1980s Mexico City, surviving on milk and avocados, dwelling in rooftop tenement rooms, taking part time jobs at newspapers, writing rabid fan letters to writers they admire.

Reading the book can feel like tracing a map of the city: Bolaño writes of “the ghosts that appear behind trees and on cracked sidewalks in the old neighborhoods of Mexico City,” “the dens of San Juan de Letrán, the neighborhoods around Garibaldi where we sold Virgin of Guadalupe lamps on the installment plan, the chop shops of Peralvillo, the dusty rooms of Romero Rubio, the shady photography studios of Avenida Misterios, the hole-in-the-wall eateries behind Tepeyac that we reached by motorcycle as the sun was beginning to rise over the neighborhood…”

The literary youth in the novel drift in and out of the periphery of workshops, talks, magazines, interviews, they harbor crushes and zip around by motorcycle, they hunt for dusty science fiction tomes in foreign language libraries, they question the dark sides of the “artsy parties” taking over the city, they hallucinate of basilica as monsters, they love with unbridled idealism. The book is capped off by the standalone “Mexican Manifesto,” one of Bolaño’s most brilliant short stories (in my humble opinion), which centers entirely on the ecosystem of lust and exploitation inside a Mexico City bathhouse, and is in itself a masterclass in using place as a driving engine in fiction.

Canada: Split Tooth by Tanya Tagaq

1970s, Nunavut, a small town of twelve hundred (human) souls in the Canadian high Arctic. It is a world of freeze and thaw, of sea ice and spring release ripe with smells of the life entrapped, fierce winds and 24-hour sunlight (“The sun is shining brightly overhead. The sun always brings life and mischief, serenity and visions. It’s two o’clock in the morning and I’ve shrugged off my curfew”).

Interspersed with poems and illustrations, this debut novel by Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq juxtaposes the narrator’s sensorial connection with her social and natural environment and ordinary teen preoccupations with the dark underbelly of sexual and substance abuse the town’s children witness and experience. There are butane highs, homes shaking with country music and parties best avoided, the creak of a door opening onto a dark room, unwanted touching, entering, rape. Nearby is the Arctic Ocean, and when it’s frozen over our narrator takes walks on the water. Her adolescent years follow rhythms of cold and thaws, of ever-present darkness and ever-present light; she goes to residential school, is kicked out, she takes up a job at the local grocery store. She grows breasts and kisses the butcher, she harbors crushes on Best Boy, but those are not who enter her in violation. She tells of classes she abhors and creatures she rides in spiritual communion. There are famines, storms, bodies growing within a body and born into the Northern Lights as the narrator navigates pregnancy. Tagaq, a Nunavut native, offers a tale imbued with both the most harrowing darkness and the most poetic ode to the destructive and magical forces in the human soul and the natural world.

China: Running Through Beijing by Xu Zechen, translated by Eric Abrahamsen

When Dunhuang gets out of jail, serving a stint for selling fake IDs, he is greeted by a classic Beijing sandstorm. The sky is “a blur of yellow dust behind which the sun glowed,” a “sandpaper sky.” This effect of dull sepia suffuses the novel’s landscape of city hustling, where livelihoods are often on the brink, but does nothing to diminish the novel’s frantic energy. Dunhuang has nowhere to sleep, so we follow him along Beijing’s Ring Roads and various fake good markets—Book City, Electronics City, the university gates where counterfeit masters and doctorates are for sale. He takes up with Xiaorong, a young woman selling fake DVDs with a penchant for arthouse films, and finds shelter for some time. When her boyfriend returns, Dunhuang takes the porno films she’s unwilling to sell and makes enough of a slim profit to rent first a bunk, then a concrete shack with a scholar tree in a dirt yard as his personal urinal.

Undercover police lurk everywhere, everyone is scamming everyone, and when Dunhuang’s new bike is instantly stolen, he takes up running across the city to make DVD deliveries. In between, he gets drunk on cheap beer and hot pot, he fights his buddies and steals their love interests—but at the end of the day, when someone needs a bailout from jail, Dunhuang is here to borrow money and help his friends. Xu captures the frenetic energy of early 2000s Beijing and the fortune-seekers occupying its lower ranks with touching compassion and rattling optimism—the protagonists are survivors fighting for each day in the big city, offering each other glimmers of mercy in what’s often been characterized as a merciless city. A breathless, profoundly engaging portrait of the hustling outsiders of China’s capital, this novel has been called a landmark of the “jing piao” or “drifting in Beijing” genre—an artful anthropological portrait easily read in one sitting.

France: And Their Children After Them by Nicolas Mathieu, translated by William Rodarmor

A lake, a heatwave, a town in France’s Great East region where teenagers Anthony and his cousin are chasing any stimulation that comes their way. At home, the adults are getting hammered at yet another ordinary apéro. The river valley, one close to the Luxembourg border, has drifted into a post-industrial torpor as its mines and factories become ruin; in the teens’ city, an enormous furnace that was once the city’s beating heart has become a monument of rust.

Mathieu, who grew up in this eastern region, writes of lake water “dense as oil,” of beaches called The Dump or the American Beach, where a local variant of mythologized, evil “rednecks” live. Back home, fathers broken by years of driving forklifts are getting angry and drunk over flavored apéricube cheese, railing against the nearby housing projects and the immigrants moving in—“families grew that way, on great slabs of anger over depths of accumulated pain that, lubricated by pastis, could suddenly erupt in the middle of a party.” Racial tensions and frustrated masculinity brew towards menace as the teens steal canoes and Yamaha bikes, or any modes of transport they can get their hands on to move through the desperate valley and seek a shot with the girls they lust after.

Over the course of four summers leaping along the 1990s, Mathieu’s tale follows new feuds and old rancors, long-harbored crushes and dissipating dreams amidst adolescent ennui and rage that curdles into resignation: the characters are constantly confronting their inability to escape their hometown and their affection and ultimate ease here—a sense of unshakable belonging in their forsaken valley.



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2024-01-09 10:38:44 , Los Angeles Weekly Times

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