This week we present three literary novels set outside the United States — in Mexico, Cambodia and England — that make great suggestions for mature teen readers.
Juan Pablo Villalobos was born in Mexico, where Down the Rabbit Hole takes place. At just 75 pages this novella is a powerful experiment in voice, one that would enthrall an older teen reader looking for something fresh and different.
Down the Rabbit Hole was published in September 2011 by the London publishing house And Other Stories. The author’s debut, Rabbit Hole was shortlisted for The Guardian First Book Award. In the U.S. it is published by MacMillan as part of FSG Originals.
And Other Stories is a not-for-profit company that hopes to promote diversity in literature. For more about the company take a look at Jenny Diski’s article from the London Review of Books, which addresses both the current straits of book publishing and the way And Other Stories confronts the industry’s problems.
The Rent Collector is based on truth. The author’s son shot a documentary about residents of the Stung Meanchey dump in Cambodia. Camron Wright could not get the main “character” of his son’s documentary, Sang Ly, out of his head. So he wrote a novel about her. The book’s website includes a short video, reading guide, and FAQ’s about Wright’s inspiration.
And last, the latest from master novelist Ian McEwan. Sweet Tooth is the story of a young woman recruited out of Cambridge to join the spy trade in Cold War 1970s England. I think teens will be attracted to the genre mixture here.
Adult/High School–Tochtli is the motherless child of a Mexican drug lord. Because his life is circumscribed by the walls and guarded gates of a villa compound in the mountains, he has met few people and has no friends. He spends his time almost entirely on his obsessions: a collection of hats, the honor of Samurai warriors, his dictionary, the Liberian pygmy hippopotamus he wants for his zoo, and the ways bodies become corpses. He is also a keen observer of his father, Yolcaut, and the henchmen, prostitutes, and corrupt politicians who populate his home. A precocious innocent coming of age is insulated within a world of violence, corruption, wealth and death, and Tochli remains unaware of the psychopathy that envelops him. He only knows that certain words from his dictionary fit his experience: “pathetic,” “disastrous,” “sordid,” “devastating.” While this novella details the illegal procurement of hippos for Tochtli’s exotic zoo, it is also an allegory about the impact of the drug war and its public violence on Mexico–the names of the characters derive from Mexico’s indigenous language, Nahuatl (Tochtli means ‘rabbit’ and Yolcaut means ‘rattlesnake’). Villalobos dispatches simple words with the precision of a marksman to create a powerfully disturbing novella that teens will find accessible, dark, humorous, and provocative. Teachers will discover a literary tool that expands the discussions of perception versus reality in the context of the drug war that continues to plague Mexico and its people.–John Sexton, Greenburgh Public Library, NY
Adult/High School–In a contemporary story of hardship and hope, guilt and forgiveness, 29-year-old Sang Ly lives with her devoted husband, Ki, and her sickly baby, Nisay, at Stung Meanchey, an enormous municipal waste dump in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Sang Ly and Ki are trash pickers, eeking out an existence by salvaging recyclables. The couple dreads the monthly visit of Sopeap Sin, the drunken, ill-tempered rent collector. But when Sang Ly discovers that Sopeap can read, she asks to learn and a tenuous friendship develops. Hoping to give her son a better life, she studies her lessons intently. As she works with her unpredictable but motivating teacher, Sang Ly uncovers Sopeap’s improbable past as a teacher and lover of literature and as a traumatized victim of the Khmer Rouge 1970’s reign of terror. When Sopeap disappears, Sang Ly’s understanding of her enables her to find the dying rent collector and to help her find redemption. Metaphoric dreams, fables, proverbs, and literary references are effectively woven into Sang Ly and Sopeap’s dual stories of salvation. Sopeap opens Sang Ly’s eyes to the heroes and positive aspects of her wasteland home. And, Sang Ly brings Sopeap face to face with a family that has haunted her life. Inspired by the lives of real people living in Stung Meanchey, Wright infuses this story with cultural nuance and authenticity. Initially, Sang Ly’s eloquent narration seems inconsistent with the limited realities of her life, but her engaging voice gains credibility as her compassionate, literary relationship with Sopeap unfolds. Through Sang Ly and the rent collector, readers will discover a wealth of insights: the lingering ravages of war, the common bonds of humanity, and the uplifting power of literature.–Gerry Larson, formerly at Durham School of the Arts, NC
Adult/High School–In 1972, young English women had restricted opportunities in the professional world. Thus 22-year-old Serena Frome, a new MI5 recruit, is intrigued when she is plucked from lower-level clerical work for a role in a secret operation. Serena has three important qualifications for the job: She is beautiful, intelligent, and a voracious reader. Her role is to find a promising young writer and offer a fake grant from a fake foundation that will allow the writer to concentrate on producing a book. The underlying intention of the operation is to sway popular culture away from communist influences, still a vital threat in the continuing Cold War. Serena selects writer Tom Haley as her mark, after obsessing over his wonderful and strange short stories. Their first meeting ends in Serena’s bed, beginning a passionate love affair always overshadowed by the truth of Serena’s covert mission. McEwan immerses readers in this bleak era of English history, replete with its inherent anxiety over Cold War fears, the stubborn oil crisis, and escalating violence in Northern Ireland. His extraordinary storytelling, nuanced with secrets and twists aplenty, blends wit and literary allusions without pomposity, making it accessible to readers of all backgrounds. Although the espionage element makes this novel an excellent recommendation for Tom Clancy fans, there are also strong currents of mystery, historical fiction, and romance. Offer this one to sophisticated teens looking for an absorbing, literary novel.–Diane Colson, Palm Harbor Library, FL