Thursday, 2 May 2013

Innocence at large

Review: The Innocents by Francesca Segal

As a mother, I slightly dread the teenage years. All that recklessness and rebellion to contend with, not to mention underwear over saggy jeans and raging hormones. A friend who teaches in a secondary school assures me that teenagers are endlessly fascinating. They see the world in a unique way and are constantly challenging their environment. Yes, fun for the dispassionate observer, but a bit of a trial for any parent obliged to witness her offspring's lovely experiment with liberty. 


Earlier this week I joined a Mumsnet webchat with Francesca Segal, author of the prize-winning novel, The Innocents. She described this tension between conformity and freedom as a universal conflict. "Navigating between social pressures and individual needs is one of the fundamental challenges of growing up." In her book, Francesca uses a close-knit Jewish neighbourhood in North London "to explore questions and dilemmas that face almost everyone, coming of age - independence versus security; one's own needs versus the needs of a community." 

Loosely based on Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, Segal's brilliantly observed novel charts the emotional journey of a young man called Adam. He is on the verge of settling down with his childhood sweetheart, Rachel, when he becomes beguiled by her exotic cousin, Ellie. Though the book is complex and insightful, Rachel and her affectionate parents come to represent community living, while the siren-like Ellie offers Adam the chance (or the challenge) of existing independently, beyond the influence of friends and family. 

While describing Rachel's limitations in the novel, Segal neatly encapsulates Adam's own dilemma: 
"Her world was one in which her own highest aspirations had always been those wanted for her by a community, and the concept of innovation at a cost of isolation (or even mild disaproval) wasn't worth it."
Rachel, who displays a lack of intellectual curiosity, doesn't always get a sympathetic write-up in the book. As Francesca pointed out during the webchat, total conformity can be as much a sign of immaturity, as pursuing one's own selfish desires at the expense of the community. 

Therein lies a lesson for our children, but also for us as individuals and parents. "I think true maturity is being as honest as we can with ourselves about what we need to make us happy," Francesca told us on Mumsnet. "And then, as far as possible, balancing that with the needs of those we love." 

I struggled as young person under the weight of societal expectation - I was eager to please, but burdened by the pressure of wanting to please. As a parent, despite my fears, I hope I can ease that burden for my children and give them the space to find their own balance. By the end of the book, Adam makes his choice too - you will have to read it to discover how he lost his innocence.

Francesca Segal's The Innocents, published by Chatto & Windus, is the winner of the Costa First Novel Award and has also been longlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction.

Emma Clark Lam is the author of A Sister for Margot. "This was such an enjoyable read and the quality of the writing was what made it so. I could not put it down as the plot was so meaty with so many twists and turns." -- Amazon review