A Trio of Coming of Age Novels






The Glister, by John Burnside

The Holy City, by Patrick McCabe

John The Revelator, by Peter Murphy


“Coming of age” has been a theme of novels for as long as novels have existed.  Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1748) features a young heroine and the choices she — or her family — wants to make about her future.  Jane Austen used the theme in all her major works.  Henry James and Edith Wharton found it a useful device as the 20th century dawned; J.D. Salinger (and a host of other authors) continued the tradition at mid-century.

So, having read three impressive “coming of age” novels released in the last year, I thought it worthwhile to explore how these authors — two of them well-established, one a first novelist — used this centuries-old device in service of their craft.  (And I can’t help but note, as you can see from the covers above, that the graphic artists also seem to have found a common theme in these books.  It is strange that the covers are so similiar and use such a common theme.)

John Burnside’s novel was released last spring in the U.K. as Glister and in North America in the last few weeks with the title changed to The Glister — a subtle change of which I don’t approve, but it is a spoiler to say why (we can discuss in comments, if anyone is interested).  I became aware of this novel through discussions on the Man Booker forum where a number of people argued that it belonged on the longlist.  Will of Just William’s Luck included it in his top three of the year — since I only have space for a short summary, I’ll point you to his review for an excellent extended opinion.

Leonard, the 15-year-old narrator of Glister, lives in the (apparently) Scottish coastal community of Innertown, next door to an abandoned chemical plant that produced fertilizers, insecticides and, maybe, chemical weapons.  The plant has left its own mark on the community (high cancer rates) — more important to the novel is that every year or so a teenage boy goes missing.  The community wants to think they have run away; readers know from the start (through the experience of the town cop, Morrison) that they are being murdered.

Most of the narrative of Glister is Leonard’s story and the trail that leads to him being a victim (again, not a spoiler — we know that from the prologue).  That is not, however, what the novel is really about.  Burnside uses Leonard’s story to explore the disintegration of the Innertown community that the chemical plant has caused; the compromises (centred on Morrison, but also with others) in human behavior that that has produced and the unreal world of the present (Will’s characterization of it as a “grim fairy tale” is entirely appropriate) that has resulted.  In its own way, Leonard’s story becomes the story of terror — a “coming of age” reflection of growing up in a community that is a wasteland, both physically and morally.  His life and demise are a metaphor for the community where he comes of age.

Patrick McCabe’s The Holy City was the very first book reviewed on this blog and again I only have room for a summary here.  McCabe’s narrator, Chris J. McCool, is 67 when the novel opens — the book is an over-the-shoulder look at his life.  But it is anchored in the coming of age process; at each stage, including the present, when C.J. considers his life, he finds his experience rooted in growing up in Cullymore.  The bastard son of a Protestant squire and a Catholic servant, C.J. always fancies himself as the centre of attention in his world, but never really does fit in — not as a youth, not in middle age and not now as a senior citizen.

Like Burnside, McCabe uses his central character as a metaphor for the world that his novel is really about.  In C.J.’s youth, that focuses on the absurd (but still continuing) conflict and prejudice of Protestant’s and Catholics; as he matures, it involves the strange culture of the 60s, especially music, as that changes Ireland; and now as he enters old age it is the world of the Irish Tiger, including his East European companion/wife Vesna.  At every stage, it is the lessons he learned while coming of age that serve as the lens from which he perceives current reality.  For the reader, the result is a rewarding and fascinating look at how Ireland has changed — and how one person has been effected by that.

In Peter Murphy’s John The Revelator, we meet John Devine (and his single mother, Lily) as a pre-teen in Kilcody, Ireland.  As the book opens, John is beginning to develop his observational skills, yet most of his life continues to be dominated by Lily’s religious obsession, part of which seems to be that having named her son after John the disciple, she needs to pretend that he is a reincarnation of him.

John inevitably starts to come of age.  As a young teenager, he hooks up with Jamey Corboy, the twisted real world opposition to John’s twisted saint of a mother.  Inevitably, John and Jamey get into trouble (that’s part of coming of age), climaxing in a filmed desecration of the local church, that falls into the hands of the local Guard (Jamey was being a film-maker then, but alas left his camcorder and tape behind).  Complications predictably ensue.

The latter part of John The Revelator explore the choices that John has to make between Jamey’s world and that of his mother, who is in the process of dying.  Where Burnside and McCabe use their narrators as foils to explore the world of which they are a part, Murphy looks inward to the critical choices that every person — even a degenerate Irish boy — needs to make as they begin a mature life.

Certainly, these three books have much in common — to be expected, given that all use a growing-up male as the central character.  More important, however, to me is the way in which three excellent authors used that platform in such different ways.  Burnside explores the decay and destruction of a community (both physically and morally) through the experience of Leonard.  McCabe examines how the world in which he himself has lived has changed through the life of C.J.  And Murphy dissects the choices we all face in growing up about which “community” we will decide to make our own.

I have no hesitation in recommending any of these three books.  If you ask me which one I like the best, my answer is The Holy City — the experiences of C.J. McCool raise so many memories of my own that I found myself enrolled in the book from the start.

On the other hand, if you ask me which one of the three that I think is the best novel, I think I would have to say Glister.  In many ways, I think Burnside has set a higher bar and, in the final analysis, is a better writer.

And if you asked me which book creates the best character (surely a relevant question in a “coming of age” novel), I’d say John The Revelator.  Murphy uses John Devine to look inward, the other two novelists use their characters to look outward — so it is no surprise that this book succeeds on that front.

I’d say that Samuel Richardson was on to a pretty good device when he wrote Clarissa.  Jane Austen, Henry James, Edith Wharton, J.D. Salinger and a host of others (I make no claim that that list is exhaustive — one only has to consider Philip Roth’s Indignation from last fall to start another) have used it to good effect.  All three of these books continue a tradition of putting the device to good use.

And if you have a favorite coming-of-age novel of your own, please don’t hesitate to use the comments to express it — this review is meant to open that door not close it.


8 Responses to “A Trio of Coming of Age Novels”

  1. adevotedreader Says:

    I’ve seen glowing reviews of both Glister and John the Revelator and after reading your thoughts will look out for them.

    A favourite coming-of age book of mine is The Harp in South by Ruth Park (the first of a trilogy)- an Australian novel I’m sorry isn’t better known or more often read elsewhere.


  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    They are both worthwhile books. Thanks for the pointer to Ruth Park — I have not heard of her and will be investigating. I am quite interested in some of the similarities that I find in Australian and Canadian fiction and my quick look so far indicates that this is a book that may fit that description.


  3. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Fascinating, of the three Glister has the most appeal, I’m not really familiar with Just William’s Luck so I’ll need to follow the link.

    For some reason, the phrase coming of age novel always makes me think of two works, Catcher in the Rye (which you reference) and The Bell Jar, both perhaps at their best if read in adolescence (though perhaps that’s unfair, having read them then it’s hard now to say).


  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I’d say that Glister is the most modern or closest to post-modern of the three in the way that Burnside uses a young central character to introduce other themes. I suspect that means it is closest to your taste. The reason that I liked The Holy City best is probably my taste for “reportage” — I tend to like books that use the novel form to observe the society in which they are and change in that society.

    As my post notes, John The Revelator is the most “traditional” of the three in structure. One thing the post doesn’t note — given the title and a lot of the Scripture that is quoted in the book, I’m pretty sure there is an entire theme that I missed which has John’s story paralleling The Book of Revelations. I’m not religious and my childhood background never included reading Revelations so it would soar right past me.


  5. deucekindred Says:

    Probably one of the most perverse coming of age novels i’ve read is Toby Litt’s ‘Deadkidsongs’ and Ian McEwan’s ‘The Cement Garden’ both are pitch black reads but addictive, especially the latter one.

    I guess Ali SMith’s The Accidental is a sort of coming of age story too, now thinking of it.


  6. William Rycroft Says:

    Hello Kevin, thanks for mentioning my review. I’m finally back online after moving home but all over the place organisationally so it will be a stuttering return to blogging I think. Lovely for me to have a chance to catch up on all the posts I’ve missed in the last couple of weeks though…


  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    William: You have been missed but your site did warn us. Welcome back. Since you liked Glister so much, I would be very interested in your opinion of the other two novels in this trio. I’m guessing that you quite like The Holy City and find John The Revelator somewhat lacking, but that is just a guess.

    Now, unpack those boxes.


  8. William Rycroft Says:

    Well, I’ve read neither but I’m tempted by McCabe. Once I’ve started functioning again I may well give it a go.


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