Books: Engaging depiction of adolescent disquietude that crosses age divides
Published 13/09/2015 | 02:30
'A Lonely Note, the tenth book and first crossover novel from Irish American Kevin Stevens, offers a window into a world of Tariq. Like a lot of teenagers, Tariq is dealing with feelings of confusion, discontent and isolation. He is also a Baghdadi Muslim in an American high school. He faces racist torment from bullies at school while at home he is stifled by his father's fierce pride in traditions he's no longer certain he identifies with.
Faced with an existential angst, Tariq can no longer find contentment or the answers he needs in the familiar words of the Qur'an, the comfort of his mother, the guidance of his father or the affection of school crush Rachel. Stevens slowly builds an increasing sense of paranoia and isolation as Tariq begins to reject and shut out those around him when he finds he can no longer relate to them. The descriptions of teenage uncertainty, the violent swings between passion and indifference, really stand out because of how spot-on Stevens gets them.
Tariq is inexorably drawn to record-store owner Jamal who has the certainty of character and belief which he longs for. His feelings of unrest and discomfort with his current world are contrasted with the safe haven he finds in jazz. He can relate some of his experience of dealing with life to the complexity of the music and Stevens' compelling descriptions manage to outline an almost palpable sanctuary out of that feeling of hearing music you connect with.
The entire novel feels as though it's set to a backdrop of John Coltrane and the sweeping, beautiful descriptions of the power of his music will have you gravitating towards your speakers to sink into 'A Love Supreme'.
One issue with the story is the somewhat disappointing female characters. The central male figures - Tariq; his austere and religiously devout father Malik; complicated, possibly disturbed, eccentric Jamal - have complex and quite richly developed characters, while Tariq's mother Zadia and love interest Rachel are relegated to figures purely of concern and affection. They seem to exist, feel, think and behave only in relation to Tariq. However, this in itself could be the author's way of portraying the skewed viewpoint of a teenage boy, whose introspection might be bordering on self-obsession.
Though the story does drag somewhat in the middle, a very welcome change of pace comes in the last quarter. Like Tariq's own uncertain wandering through life, the narrative ambles from one event to the next, all the while being held together and driven forward by the unresolved and growing problems of Tariq's torment at school and his disconnection with the life he finds himself in. After a delicate, thoughtful - and to be honest - in places slow middle, things finally come to a head. The final conflict and resolution may feel slightly rushed but is satisfying nonetheless.
Though A Lonely Note could sit comfortably on the Young Adult shelf, it can certainly be enjoyed by both adults and teenagers and labelling it as being for one or the other feels undue.
What Stevens excels in are the descriptions of Tariq's adolescent disquietude. He is essentially suffering from an identity crisis; he veers between the different facets of his personality, too unsure and doubtful of himself to land on any one and decide who he is or what he wants. And how universal a feeling is that? Not only is this a teenage circumstance but one that anyone who has gone through a crisis in any stage of life is sure to recognise, relate to and appreciate reading about when it's written this well.