Growing Up Is Hard to Do…

… especially when you are a girl. Two books I read recently reminded me very graphically of that.

At first glance, they couldn’t be more different.

Zazie‘Zazie dans le métro’ by Raymond Queneau is a zany romp through Paris, seen through the eyes of young Zazie, who has been dumped by her mother to stay there with her uncle for the weekend. The book contains zero metro journeys, but numerous taxi rides, bus journeys,  crazy characters (including a very relaxed approach to paedophiles and cross-dressers), swear words, phonetic spelling and a parrot who’s fed up with all that ‘talk, talk, talk’.

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‘The Blue Room’ by Hanne Ǿrstavik (translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin) is the latest Peirene Press offering. As you probably know by now, I am a fan of Peirene’s translations of unusual and often challenging literature (novellas and short novels), and this is a much darker, more thought-provoking book than the French one. It’s about Johanne, a young girl who has been hitherto pretty much the model daughter, well-bred, studying hard, regular church goer, attentive to her rather narcissistic mother. One day, she plans to abscond with her boyfriend to the United States (just for a holiday, possibly, although a longer stay may be on the cards too), so her mother locks her in her room to give her ‘the chance to think things over’. In the course of that day, Johanne relives her ostensibly quiet home-life with all of its hidden tensions, her encounter and love affair with Ivar. She starts questioning her religious upbringing and has vivid sexual fantasies at inappropriate moments.

Queneau’s style is exuberant, experimental, over the top, while Ǿrstavik is restrained and subtle. Yet both books are far deeper than they first appear to be. It’s about the taboos society imposes upon young women and girls, what they are supposed to know or desire, how they are supposed to behave. Zazie ignores and breaks the rules with a nonchalant ‘mon cul’ at the end of every sentence, while Johanne finds it harder to not live up to her mother’s, her friends’ or her own expectations.In both books, the girls end up having a transformative experience within a short time (and space: they are both quite slim books).

The final sentences in the Zazie book sums up the situation perfectly. Zazie’s mother, knowing how eager her daughter was to see the Paris metro, asks:

– T’as vu le métro?

– Non.

– Alors, qu’est-ce que t’as fait?

– J’ai vielli.

Have you seen the metro? – No. – So what did you do? – I’ve grown up (or grown older).

10 thoughts on “Growing Up Is Hard to Do…”

  1. Marina Sofia – I always respect authors who can portray a growing-up experience, or the process of growing up, effectively. It’s emotional, difficult, sometimes exhilarating and sometimes heartbreaking, but always intense. Hard to portray that without getting melodramatic.

    1. You are right, some ‘coming of age’ books gild the lily a little too much or are too melodramatic. I certainly don’t much like the so-called ‘misery memoirs’. But these were different: Zazie is pure fun, while The Blue Room is quiet and yet ominous, and finally leaves a strange taste in your mouth.

  2. nice… i love reading children’s and teenager’s books… two of my favs are blaubeersommer by polly horvath or the book thief by cornelia funke

    1. Cornelia Funke is a firm favourite in our house too. Blaubeersommer rings a bell, but I don’t think I’ve read it. I don’t think either of these two books are really for children, though…

  3. I love the way you’ve teased out the contrasts and connections between these two books. I have a copy of The Blue Room on my shelf here, and I’m hoping to get to it at the weekend. Your review has me anticipating it all the more.

  4. Zazie est un chef-d’oeuvre! A wonderful film was made, forgot who did it… Brings back sweet memories 😉

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