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The Agony and the Ecstasy: Three Very Different Coming-Of-Age Books

At some point, or at many points, in every reader's life, the coming-of-age novel (or the bildungsroman - as the Germans so beautifully put it) will enter your life. It will appear either at the behest of someone else ("I can't believe you've never read The Catcher in the Rye. It's a classic") or through school/college ("Please read chapter 4 of Lord of the Flies for discussion tomorrow") or simply because you sought it out for your own reasons. The coming-of-age book is a book of transitions, moving from childhood to adulthood through the oft difficult teen years. It is a book of shifting hormones, uneasiness, insecurity, exploration, struggles, but mostly it is a book of growth both inner and outer. The three books I have chosen below are full of wonder and awakening and they offer three very different slants on the typical coming-of-age book. They generally lack that feverish rush to jump adolescence and go straight to adulthood I myself so desperately wanted and all three books are entirely unique from a geographical standpoint each creating their own exclusive atmosphere.


Though this relates to a young thirteen year old's struggles to understand herself and her surroundings, it's done so with a very edgy dark humour (Towelhead, the expression, is a derogatory term used to refer to someone of Middle Eastern descent). Jasira feels out of place at home, at school, even in her own skin. She is utterly confused with how to handle her quickly developing body and the hormones racing along with it. Her parents are not prone to showering her with affection, nor do they provide the answers she seeks, so she goes looking for attention in all the wrong places. 

Towelhead is a challenging read and one that really searches for placement and reassurance, one that really takes the context of society and the world around us into consideration. These factors affect Jasira's daily life, day after day, week after week. She is truly isolated and lost in each and every environment she steps foot into, adrift with no friends and no proper guidance. It is a frustrating read but a very distinct and very powerful one.


When a plane crashes in the Australian outback a young brother and sister, Peter and Mary respectively, must follow the young Aboriginal stranger they come across in order to survive the harsh desert conditions. Walkabout is an extraordinary book (and a great film) for a number of reasons. The older sibling Mary is crossing over from child to adult and the circumstances she finds herself in seem to speed up the process. Not only is she struggling to understand this startling young naked Aboriginal and her feelings towards him, but she has also been cast rather suddenly into the role of both mother and father to her brother Peter.

All this takes place away from the social boundaries and expectations of her city world and she must process everything while navigating the surreal desert surroundings. A coming-of-age far far away from the comforts of home. Conversely, their guide goes through his own personal movement - from life into death - first through a realisation, then through acceptance. An incredible book.

We Need New Names

Bulawayo is a beautiful writer and her debut is a really touching book. There's a scene in We Need New Names when the group of children are walking home  - to a shanty town nicknamed Paradise, in Zimbabwe - they come across a dead woman hanging from a tree. At this point, Darling, our protagonist, is very young, a preteen, and although she and her friends are naive and silly, they have become numb to incidents such as these. There is no crying out for mom. There is little shock. There is just an acceptance of, well, that's just how things are. And soon the adult logic and the adult reality come into the picture and their thoughts turn to the woman's shoes and back to food again. 

There's another scene when Darling meets a pregnant girl, another preteen, and neither really understands the circumstance put before them. I've never forgotten either scene. They are examples of the climate of the country and it's poorest surroundings pushing Darling into adulthood amidst constant hunger and the backdrop of Mugabe's bulldozing. There is a sinister background pressure across almost every page nudging her to grow up and enter the frightening real world. Thankfully, her true coming-of-age moment takes place after transplantation in the USA. And that's a whole other story.

Shane O’Reilly has lived in Dublin all his life; that’s 34 years of memories and adventures around the city centre. While he watched as his friends emigrated during the recession, he started ... Show More


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