Saturday 10 December 2016

Fitting swansong for queen of teen

Fiction: In the Unlikely Event, Judy Blume, Picador Books, hdbk 432 pages, €25.50

Tanya Sweeney

Published 21/06/2015 | 02:30

Author Judy Blume
Author Judy Blume

Judy Blume may be putting down her pen after a four-decade career, but this novel shows her at the zenith of her ambition

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Not for nothing was Judy Blume, now 77, described time and time again as the original 'queen of teen'. Authors are beloved, feted and canonised, certainly, but few are adored in quite the same vivid hues of affection reserved for the New Jersey writer.

Then again, few writers have stamped so much on to the DNA of so many young generations. Parents, relatives and teachers were ostensibly the ones with their shoulders to the wheel when bringing a child through to adulthood, but Blume's novels did plenty of the spadework, too. Hers was a benevolent and reassuring presence, looming on the periphery of every developmental road marking.

Kissing, popularity, menstruation, masturbation, sex, parental bereavement, body image, divorce… all of young life in its messy, confusing ­iterations was within those glorious pages.

What set Blume apart from the pack was that most obvious and simple of young fiction tenets; she never spoke down to her audience. Each of her young novels, whether for a young child or teenager, was shot through with warmth, frankness and humanity. Then again, with the Young Adult genre still unborn during the 70s and 80s, Blume was working, largely alone and peerless. There was a lot of virgin snow to play with.

Not only is there a sense in Blume's canon that youngsters are being understood; the most potent and humane message of all was within those pages for them: 'You are normal. It will all be okay'. Blume was keenly aware of her readers' lupine hunger for answers, reassurance and information. After all, Blume herself came of age at a time when the 'teenager' was a commercial confection. The 'teenager' became a buzzword to label those straddling innocence and adulthood… but teenagers, in their earliest incarnations, became a tricky and boisterous problem to be solved. Given that, Blume's vivid and singular voice is hardly an accident.

Whether by accident or design, Blume could create lasting, searing iconography out of the seemingly innocuous. In Deenie, the titular heroine is 13-year-old child model beset by scoliosis and forced to wear a back brace. Back braces were few and far between in Ireland in the 1990s but, to my mind at least, they soon became a singular symbol of teenage angst and insecurity writ large.

Anyone who has read the epochal Forever - about 18-year-old Katharine's journey from virgin to… well, the other side - will doubtless hear the name 'Ralph' and react with a small, albeit affectionate, shudder (if this doesn't ring familiar, I really should offer my condolences, for you sadly missed out on a magnificent school-day rite of passage… the passing back and forth of a dog-eared copy of that same novel). But the affection that Blume's readers hold for her isn't quite nostalgia. It's hard to get nostalgic, after all, about evergreen classics that never quite leave you in the first place.

Her latest adult book - her first in almost 16 years, and her fourth aimed at adult readers - descends amid a white-out of hype. Adults weaned on the teat of Blume's forthright prose have been champing at the bit for what they anticipate will be a cosy experience not unlike a visit from an old friend. And, much like Summer Sisters, her latest novel straddles generations, running the gamut from the bloom of youth to the relative joylessness of adulthood. Blume's legacy is unassailable, granted… but is her latest work, delivered after a rather prolonged hiatus, going to embellish or sully it?

In the Unlikely Event appears to be a writer not just at the height of her narrative and storytelling powers, but also at the zenith of her ambition. While the book is arguably told through the lens of Miri Ammerman (a character, presumably, based on Blume herself) the dozens of narrators involved give this a grand scope. Admittedly, this can make the book a somewhat confusing read, while keeping everyone straight and connected in one's mind becomes a task.

Here though, Blume is very much writing what she knows. In 1950s New Jersey, Miri is dealing with the usual pre-teen occupational hazards: boys, a flaky best friend in the form of well-to-do Natalie, a put-upon single mother. As one might expect from Blume (though not strictly from a 77-year-old writer), Miri is a 15-year-old in glorious, vivid Technicolor; her internal narrative delicately familiar to all. It's rather telling that Blume continues to blog about the characters in In the Unlikely Event even after the book's publication: a testament not only to her own personal investment in the writing, but her ongoing commitment to connecting with her young-ish fanbase.

Yet while Miri's teenage struggles are universal, the events unfolding in her backyard are anything but. A number of plane crashes happening in Elizabeth, her small New Jersey town within a few months soon put paid to a life less ordinary. Dispatches from the Elizabeth Daily Post newspaper, peppered throughout the book, relay the grisly details of each tragedy. There are slightly supernatural overtones in the book, too, when Natalie believes herself possessed by the spirit of a victim from the first plane crash.

It's not long before the question arises: is this grim triptych of tragedies a bewildering coincidence, or something slightly more malevolent? Everyone in Elizabeth, both young and old, is on the hunt for answers: another Blume trademark. And everyone, much as Harry the local reporter (and Miri's uncle) observes, has a story to tell.

"Life is a series of unlikely events… and who knows what's still to come?" ponders the adult Miri. Tempting though it might be to take that as a sign that Blume is ready for more storytelling, this appears to be not quite the case.

It is thought that In the Unlikely Event, for all its spry energy, will be Blume's last novel, capping a four-decade career that was successful and illustrious in every way that a writer could hope for.

Blume has told the stories she needed to tell, and this last one blessedly reveals more about the wizard magically working the levers than any of its literary predecessors. As swansongs go, Blume fans could scarcely wish for anything more.

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