We all have those traumatic moments during our lives where elements seem beyond our control. And even if we never discuss them at great lengths, they haunt our consciousness forever. No doubt, these moments do need to be considered by us once in a while and that is the beauty of the coming-of-age novel. Reading one allows us to remember certain moments in our lives and reflect on them AND to realize we were not alone in our predicament. Hence Bitter Rose by Martine Delvaux is such a great example of a coming-of-age novel.
On the evening of July 1st, my mother would wake me up to watch the colourful explosions of the fireworks, I was half asleep at my bedroom window so high in the sky that it floated. That was before the village. That was before my second life. I was still wearing my blue flannelette pajamas, I carried my pink blanket with the satin ribbons everywhere I went, it was cool to the touch, its silky weave was full of bumps, a kind of popcorn stitch you make if you knit very very tight. In that world, men were pale stars in the blind stain of the universe. People said that life was a thing you had to face on your own, you couldn’t expect anything from men, or not very much. There was the story of the one who had left. That was no secret for us, it was a secret for other people, a story full of holes. People said he was tall, he had green eyes like a lake whose bottom is invisible, algae between you toes and soft, gluey mud you sink into far enough to be afraid you’d get stuck. People said it wasn’t the first time, he’d done that kind of thing before, he’d known his share of girls. People said he wore wooden shoes and came from houses that waltzed upon the water. People said he had yellow hair and that he must have gone back to his country, where everyone had yellow hair the way he did.
There is a beauty in the ambiguity of this story. We witness the protagonist go from one situation and one place to another in different stages of her life yet we really get no concrete idea about her life. Her life is somewhat of a muddle and she is trying to figure it out yet quite can’t. And we as readers are along for the ride as we witness her confusion.
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My village was the kind of village where people were proud to say that everyone knew everyone else. It was a village like any other, like any other place where people keep watch and claim they love one another. It was that way, and sometimes worse than that. You had to work hard to protect a secret. You had to be skilled, and sneaky, you had your hands full. It was a little like carefully building the plot of a detective novel, and afterward, for weeks, you lived off the effort.
It was the kind of village you were better off forgetting, and even when you tried, you were haunted by the hot dog stand on the main street and the swimming pool at the campground that was stuck out by the exit to the highway, where villagers streamed when July rolled around. Families left the grid of the centre of the village and set up shop one kilometre away, at Camp Kittawa, one next to the other in tents and trailers, they spent their weeks’ vacation there and of course every weekend, from Friday evening to Sunday.
As the summer days went by with the chlorine treatments, the skin of my nose would peel off in slices, worn-out skin that I pulled off, underneath was the pale pink of fresh flesh. We would forget the sunscreen and our hats. For the duration of the summer, the children turned into crustaceans forced head first, their arms flapping, into boiling water. My stained face was discoloured, like an old car whose doors had been eaten away by rust.
While it is a short novel (only 105 pages) it is a complex and gritty read at times. There are thoughts and emotions (especially angst) that are complex and they are given detailed descriptions to ponder over. It is a read that shouldn’t be dismissed or breezed over for sure and one that should be re-read again.
School was over, and I lived in the heat of hay and mosquito bites. My mother complained about a referendum, then brightened up when an actor became a candidate for the presidency of the United States, and when we decided to boycott the Moscow Games, since everything was a mess everywhere. She spread out the brochures on the kitchen table, and sung out the praises of horseback riding, sailing classes, mountain climbing, but I shook my head and categorically refused her idea, no matter how quality the campers were said to be. I told her, “The problem isn’t leaving here, it’s being with people and having to sleep, eat, wash, play and talk with them, all the time, rain or shine.” She said I was a hopeless case.
I remembered the summer of 1976, that summer of perfection, the Olympic Games on television, Nadia Comaneci’s perfect 10s, the whole world watched in amazement, the contortions of that small body, her little ponytail held in place by a soft cloud of cloth, the arc of her back, she was like a feather, an angel. Soon we missed the little girl with the dark eyes on the beam in Newsweek.
Bitter Rose by Martine Delvaux/Translated by David Homel is a perfect example of a coming-of-age novel. It is well-written and complex. Not a quick read but one that engages the mind with thoughts and reflections.