Over the next few months, Annette Ong will be reviewing a series of ‘coming of age’ novels. ‘Coming of age’ fiction does not necessarily focus exclusively on the transition from childhood into adolescence into adulthood, although these are popular recurring themes. The genre also encompasses the shift from naiveté to wisdom, from fantasy to harsh reality, and the stark knowledge that the world is a place of ever-changing contrasts. The series begins with John Green’s Looking for Alaska.
“For she had embodied the Great Perhaps – she had proved to me that it was worth it to leave behind my minor life for grander maybes…”
Most things in life are hinged on uncertainty, taking firm root in the fertile soil of the ‘Great Perhaps’. Miles Halter, affectionately known as ‘Pudge’, is in search of his own adventure in the ‘Great Perhaps’. He leaves his humdrum town for Culver Creek boarding school; the same school his father attended. Pudge has endured years of loneliness, having no real friends and dealing with bullies on a regular basis.
However, brighter days are ahead.
On starting at boarding school, he befriends a group of misfits beginning with his roommate Chip ‘The Colonel’ Martin. The Colonel briefs Pudge on all things ‘Culver Creek’; snippets of imperative information, like the unwritten social laws that govern the school – all intended to serve Pudge well as he takes his first tentative steps into the ‘Great Perhaps’.
Through the Colonel, Pudge meets Alaska Young; an intoxicating, intelligent and confident girl. She is his complete antithesis and Pudge is instantly drawn to her. Alaska is a complicated girl: troubled, outspoken, headstrong and impulsive.
Looking for Alaska is a novel by American author John Green, also known for his novels Paper Towns and The Fault in Our Stars. Green seems to be the ‘author-of-the-moment’, winning numerous awards (Alaska won the Printz Award) and his books are set to be made into films. Looking for Alaska is considered Young Adult fiction and there are obvious nods to coming-of-age milestones. A handful of ‘Firsts’ take place; like Pudge’s First cigarette, his First drink, his First kiss and his First love.
Running congruently alongside many ‘Firsts’ are some very adult themes. Green has used Pudge’s Theology class, taught by an aging Mr Hyde, to ponder life’s big questions. It is these moments in the narrative that the author’s voice is strongest.
When tragedy strikes Culver Creek, Pudge is forced to grow up and accept the unacceptable. Through Pudge, we hear the reflections of a person having to deal with the stark realities of life. He wrestles with his own culpability, while dealing with unexpected loss.
Coming of age novels encompass a gamut of themes and issues; indeed, one does not have to be a teenager on the brink of adulthood to ‘come of age’. You could say Alaska came of age when as an eight-year-old child, upon witnessing a traumatic event that shaped her entire personality and impacted her life in inexplicable ways. Coming of age is the loss of innocence, the precise moment you realise that most things are beyond your control. Pudge and his friends learn this truth very quickly; that once you know something, it is virtually impossible to ‘un-know’ it.
Wisdom, after all, comes at a price.
Surprisingly, sitting comfortably alongside the devastation in this novel, are some very funny moments. Green is an exciting writer; sharp wit and humour on one page, poignant and philosophising on the next. Looking for Alaska is a great book, no matter your age; a story for those who, like Pudge, are in search of their own ‘Great Perhaps’.