NEW YOUNG ADULT FICTION:
BROKEN characters litter young adult fiction. Their insecurity and angst fuse with life’s curve balls. Characters can die or survive. Plots can feature combat or confrontation. The search for identity and direction can become a symbolic or literal wartorn rites of passage. Broken is also the title of a novel cum graphic novel by New Zealand author Elizabeth Pulford, illustrated by Angus Gomes (Walker Books Australia, 256pp, $19.95), which deals in broken characters.
Broken is one of the most exciting YA novels published in Australia this year, not least because of its brilliant structure. It is told as a mise en abyme — a story within a story. The inner story is set inside a comic-book world, paralleling the generic structure of graphic novels where panels are inside frames.
The graphic novel is framed by the outer story of Zara, who is in a coma following a motorbike accident in which her brother, Jem, was killed. She doesn’t know he is dead. In her comatose state, Zara is searching for Jem in the comicbook world of his favourite superhero, Hoodman. She also encounters the angel hero, Dark Eagle, and evil Morven, who may embody someone in her past.
Zara is an artist whose drawings create a metafictive element in the text. The construction and illusion of fiction is deliberately exposed here. She describes how she ‘‘ slipped down between the black and white lines of one of my sketches . . . I’m a small insignificant mark on the page’’.
Once inside the comic-book world, Zara bends and amends its structure. She draws herself inside places she wants to be and sketches and erases doorknobs and windows to seek and escape. In further homage to conventions of sophisticated book illustration and the panels and frames of graphic novels, Zara sinks into ‘‘ white space’’ and draws a room with a border, a ‘‘ bold black line around the edge to contain the room’’. The rooms in this place become metaphors, as do cupboards and doors, particularly a significant blue door. Zara’s disturbing backstory merges flawlessly with the main narrative through these symbols.
Other images of a shell pathway, water and glass, and dark and light also help to unveil Zara’s secret during her surreal quest.
The title character in John Boyne’s The Terrible Thing that Happened to Barnaby Brocket (Doubleday, 288pp, $19.95) isn’t literally broken, although he was born unable to stay on the ground and floats away if not tied down. This causes denial and trauma in his parents, whose only desire is to be normal.
Barnaby’s surname even suggests ‘‘ broken’’ and ‘‘ rocket’’, words relevant to his life. As foreshadowed by the title, a terrible thing does happen to Barnaby; particularly dreadful because of the betrayal surrounding it.
This event, however, causes Barnaby to leave his home in Sydney and embark on a journey across the world. He meets characters in South America and other countries and cities who are also displaced and rejected; some for reasons younger readers may not notice because the author has hidden them in the subtext for older readers.
Boyne’s themes of parental expectations and difference create poignancy even though most characters eventually find some resolution and peace. He deliberately refers to some famous literature, including The Three Musketeers, Jane Eyre and David Copperfield, and acknowledges Roald Dahl in his caricatured and misunderstood characters, as well as in the fantastical adventure and humour.
This book follows Boyne’s excellent fable Noah Barleywater Runs Away and, of course, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. The Irish author’s appearances in the next few weeks at the Melbourne and Brisbane writers festivals are sure to generate enormous interest and may even reveal an answer to a teaser in Barnaby Brocket about a favourite author from Byron Bay.
Another resourceful, bright boy who must deal with unforeseen situations alone is Abbas Kazerooni. His predicament is set firmly in the real world, however, and is based on the true story of the author as a nine-year-old boy escaping from the Iraq invasion of Iran. His autobiography begins in On Two Feet and Wings (Allen & Unwin, 264pp, $15.99).
Abbas’s parents are Muslims who were formerly wealthy and powerful. They cannot save him from being recruited for war and devise a plan to send him, with his mother, to Turkey. His father has carefully tutored him about Istanbul and treats him like a man, which Abbas values.
At the airport, Abbas’s mother is prevented from leaving so he must travel alone with the aim of securing a British visa. It may seem inconceivable to many Australian readers that such a young boy is put in this situation and, furthermore, has to cope with his father’s treacherous friend who meets him at the airport but then discards him. How will Abbas find a cheap, safe hotel by himself? How will he know who to trust? With only enough money for one small meal a day, Abbas uses his entrepreneurial skills to work as a waiter and then set up his own shoe-cleaning business. Abbas is cheated and treated harshly at times but his belief in people’s kindness and truth as the way to freedom is uplifting.
Like Abbas and Barnaby, Morris Gleitzman’s Felix is a brave boy who endures cruelty, and his case is the most chilling of all. Felix is known to many readers from Gleitzman’s acclaimed series about the Holocaust: Once (2005), Then (2007) and Now (2010). The just-published fourth instalment is After (Viking, 224pp, $19.99).
Felix is a Jewish boy who, in the opening book, was left by his bookseller parents for his own safety and witnessed atrocities that his optimism and ingenuousness prevented him from recognising. Interestingly, Gleitzman uses a naive voice style similar to Felix’s for many of his characters throughout his body of work. It is successful in this series because its simple style is a clear-eyed counterpoint to the horror of the Holocaust. After takes the reader back to Felix’s trials during the war, at first to the underground hole that had been his home for the past two years. When Felix leaves it to rescue his benefactor, Gabriek, what dangers will threaten him?
Gleitzman’s structure is one of his fine accomplishments in this series. Each book begins and ends with the title word; in this novel it is the word ‘‘ After’’, and each chapter also begins with this word. It is an ingenious and powerful literary device. Other writers (and reviewers) can try to replicate it at their peril.
The effect of war and trauma on children and young people can be horrific and should not be underestimated. Stories about these issues can provide opportunities for characters such as Felix, Abbas, Barnaby and Zara to play out their roles and show readers how goodness can be kept alive to help mend broken places and people. Damaged young figures move forward with hope in books of this calibre and, ideally, will not remain broken.