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7 Coming-of-Age Mysteries That Capture “The Oddness of the Moment in Question”


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The “coming-of-age” novel is its own multiverse of stories, spanning genres from fantasy to romance to adventure. Varied though these novels may be, they are generally underpinned by the universal themes of self-discovery and a fall from grace. The difficulty of finding your way into a rigid society is always in the ether too, authority of one kind or another looms large and a protagonist will either succumb to the tight space of adulthood that is on offer, or find a way out.

The “coming-of-age” novels that have elements of mystery or the supernatural are my personal favorites. They are like fairy tales for grown-ups where the notion of the end of innocence is taken to extremes; the difficult truths about life, love and identity explored through a prism of the unsettling or the weird. I like them because they capture the oddness of the moment in question, drawing on the power of the physical and emotional turmoil within a character at a point of transition in order to imagine familiar yet uneasy worlds.

In writing my first novel The Temple House Vanishing, I sought to explore the dynamics of desire in an oppressive, conservative catholic boarding school in Ireland in the early 1990s. With a disappearance at the heart of the story, the supernatural and gothic-tinged elements allowed me to explore the dark side of teenage obsession against the rich backdrop of an all-powerful moral force.

I think books that fall into the “coming-of-age” mystery genre have a kind of dreamlike (sometime nightmare like) waver or shudder to their perspective that mirrors the uncertainty of the moment they explore. These are some of my favorites:

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We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson

This is the tale of two unusual sisters, Merricat and Constance Blackwood, one of whom may, or may not have poisoned the rest of their family. Jackson plays with murder, mystery, isolation and includes a copious of amount of food references to create an eerie and lasting portrait of alienated young women in a falling down house. An American gothic classic.

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Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

An immeasurably sad meditation on the notion of what it means to be human. Ishiguro takes us to a banal yet nightmare-like version of an England of the future and a school called Halisham where the teenage students learn and prepare for their “special” fate as donors. An affecting and poignant exploration of friendship, nostalgia, meaning and mortality.

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The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides 

Dreamy and ethereal. We are immersed in the obsessive, male teenage gaze watching the unfolding tragedy of the mysterious Lisbon sisters who one by one will take their own lives. Claustrophobic, gothic and beautifully written, it is a story of lost innocence, both of the Lisbon sisters themselves and the boys, now men, who once watched them.

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The Secret History, Donna Tartt 

It is the ultimate campus murder novel—elegant, dark and clever. The aura of beauty and darkness is played to perfection as we follow our outsider narrator on his journey to infiltrate the elevated lives of an elite group of Greek mythology obsessed students.

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Picnic at Hanging Rock, Joan Lindsay 

The unexplained disappearance of three students from an Australian boarding school while attending a picnic on a monolithic rock in the outback is filled with heat and lassitude. Author Joan Lindsay presents the novel as a possible true story, giving it added weight and mystery. The book is eerie and iconic, as is the 1975 film version directed by Peter Weir.

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Water Shall Refuse Them, Lucie McKnight Hardy

Folk horror at its chilling and odd best with hints of The Wicker Man. In a remote Welsh village in the heatwave summer of 1976 we meet troubled sixteen year old Nif and her family who have relocated there to overcome the loss of a favored younger child. Nif is a disturbing witch-like presence in a village of unusual people. Hot and unsettling.

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Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng 

Questions of identity, race and family thread through this extremely thoughtful excavation of a teenager’s death in the 1970s. It’s a book about absences and failure, both real and imagined, and of the gulf between people, even those who live under the same roof.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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