Wednesday 17 October 2018

Passionate tales for more than just teenage readers

Two coming-of-age novels which prove the Young Adult genre is rich in talent

Abbie Rushton
Abbie Rushton
Jennifer Nadel

Ruth Gilligan

Young adult fiction is officially coming of age. More than ever, the 'YA' genre is attracting serious attention - and serious talent - not least with the recent announcement of the new YA Book Prize. The prize's shortlist includes literary veterans such as the wonderful David Almond, as well as first-timers like our own Louise O'Neill, whose 2014 debut, Only Ever Yours, proved she was a new voice to be reckoned with by both adults and teenagers alike.

So here are two more debut YA writers hoping to make an impact. And while their novels may appear to follow a similar, tried-and-tested formula, by the end, they only support the view that actually, YA fiction can be so much more.

Abbie Rushton's first novel Unspeakable follows Megan, an awkward GCSE-level student, who has lost her best friend. She rides the bus to school every morning amidst all the usual cliques - 'the fit-but-thick group, the boringly-average-in-every-way crowd' - until one day the new girl, Jasmine, gets on and everything begins to change.

If this story, told through Megan's first-person voice, sounds familiar, think again. Because Megan doesn't actually have a voice - ever since she lost her friend she has been mute. Furthermore, on top of this psychological study, Rushton adds issues of single parenthood, social dynamics and same-sex romance, taking us far deeper and darker than most high-school dramas usually dare to go.

Jennifer Nadel's debut Pretty Thing, likewise, offers a first-person portrait of a single-parented, secret-ridden girl who loses her best friend. And like Becs's story, on the face of it, is one we've heard before - the troubled teenager who falls for the older, unsuitable man, mistaking their illicit affair for the love of her life. However, yet again, Nadel suffuses her tale with a number of complex issues, such as gender politics, sexual criminality and the class divide throughout.

Nadel also deviates from the obvious by setting her novel in 1976, providing a nuanced portrait of the time (and above all, the music of the time). For, in every scene, we are told what is on the record player - from Dylan to The Beatles to, of course, Hot Chocolate's 'You Sexy Thing'.

Elsewhere, Becs feels lonely 'like the astronaut in Space Oddity; a view looks like 'the cover of a Pink Floyd LP', Nadel revealing how such references become the language of any teenage consciousness.

There are literary references too - Becs is obviously well-read. She quotes Tolstoy and Jane Austen; compares herself to Tess of the d'Urbervilles or Hamlet, 'all thought and no action'.

However, these allusions can start to become too much, as the reader longs not for the analogy, but for Becs herself. For despite the first-person point of view, we never really get inside her head; never hear how she feels about her mum's disappearance, or why she oscillates from one opinion to another so quickly and so absolutely.

If anything, it should be Unspeakable's Megan who is the more aloof narrator, given her voice­lessness. But there is an astonishing intensity and intimacy to her story, particularly since the reader is privy to all her unspoken thoughts - the ones no one else is allowed to hear.

Unsurprisingly, Rushton was named one of 2010's Undiscovered Voices. Meanwhile, Nadel is a graduate of the Faber Academy, shortly to complete her Creative Writing MA.

But regardless of their accolades, what is most impressive is how both writers have succeeded in drawing excellent, multi-layered portraits of two very different young women, coming of age - just two more reasons why it is safe to say the YA genre has officially come into its own.


Pretty Thing, Jennifer Nadel, Corsair, pbk, 242pp, £7.99

Unspeakable, Abbie Rushton, Atom, pbk, 279pp, £6.99

Available with free P&P on or by calling 091 709350

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