Your teenage reading will haunt you forever

Writers are always told to read as widely as they can. As a teenager, I devoured books, but thinking back to my endless free time and zippy neurons, I sometimes wish I’d drawn a line. At Flowers in the Attic, perhaps.

Anyone who has conversed with a four-year-old will know that a child’s brain is like a sponge, capable of wild leaps and strange connections. And then, throughout adolescence, the brain prunes unused circuits and hard-wires the ones that are already in use.  

Which might explain why, years after reading Flowers in the Attic, dark wardrobes and creaky houses and simmering men and thwarted women still lurk in my imagination. The book took lodging in my brain at a critical point, never to be evicted.

Flowers in the Attic and its sequels were the work of American author Virginia Andrews and a sort of collective madness in the late 1980s. They were passed around at lunchtime, and sometimes I’d even read them in the newsagent if the necessary pocket money funds weren’t available to buy the latest release. Noticing my avid interest, my grandmother read one herself and was appalled at its contents.

‘I don’t know if she should be reading those,’ she apparently told my mother, but I was too far gone into the world of small blonde twins, arsenic-laced donuts, swan-shaped beds and wounded ballerinas to tolerate a parental book ban. After Flowers in the Attic came Petals on the WindIf There Be Thorns and Seeds of Yesterday, until all the characters were dead, and then Andrews moved on to new tales of orphans and mountain hovels and teenagers with violet eyes and dead siblings.

Her success came late in life – she published Flowers in the Attic in 1975 and died in 1986, producing a book a year in that time. A prolific ghost writer produces new sagas under the VC Andrews brand today. But for me, the gothic magic died with her, and I have never touched one of the many ‘in the spirit of VC Andrews’ books that followed her death.

I was also a huge Stephen King fan, but sometimes I regret letting him into my fretful adolescent head, too. My anxiety around trucks is permanently heightened by the memory of poor Gage in Pet Sematary. John Irving was a writer whose books I inhaled by chance, because we had all his old paperbacks at home. But looking back, none of them were suitable for a teenager. Certainly what happens to the young son, Walt, in The World According to Garp was another thing my overactive imagination could have done without. I was depressed for weeks.

Our required English reading wasn’t what you’d call uplit, either. HamletTess of the D’Urbervilles. You have to wonder at those choices. Thomas Hardy was, arguably, the angriest writer who ever lived. And Tess – why make sixteen-year-old girls find out what happens to her? To top it off, we read 1984, and I practically needed to be stretchered from the classroom when we got to the final chapters. Do it to Julia! Not me! Julia! I swear, there’s a brain cell in my head that still plays that line on repeat. To top it all off, it was the Nineties, so the soundtrack to all this reading was Kurt Cobain, The Cure and Smashing Pumpkins, and then – the icing on a very poignant cake – Portishead.

Looking back, it’s all a bit chicken and egg. Would my teen years have been happier if I wasn’t filling my head with trashy horror and grunge music, or did I gobble it all up because I was a stereotypical gloomy teen?

Fortunately, there were moments of clarity, too. One day I was drinking tea with my grandfather while The Smashing Pumpkins played on the radio. As I inwardly despaired along to that classic line – despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage – I noticed something odd. The lyrics had absolutely no effect on him.

He was half-listening, nodding along, yet completely unaffected, this sanguine eighty-something man who had lived through the loss of his mother at nine, the loss of his father at fourteen, two world wars and the Great Depression. But unlike me and my morose contemporaries, he did not view himself, in any sense, as a rat in a cage. Nor was he enraged. I’d never even heard him swear at the news. Looking at him, something lightened in me. Was some of the prevailing angst of the era perhaps a little overcooked, self-indulgent, even?

It was around this time that something else started to happen, too. A few of my classmates – all young, healthy men – were suddenly absent. Snatched away by cars and motorbikes and the sea, their familiar names became heartbreakingly indelible in the fine print of The West Australian. I became aware of my luck in getting to grow up at all.

The reading years that followed were decidedly better. New writers arrived on my beside table. A school friend gave me The Passion by Jeanette Winterson, and Cloudstreet by Tim Winton for my birthday. His mother, a fellow bookworm, had chosen them. They were such a liberating respite from what I’d been reading: Winterson with her bold imagination and vivid imagery, Winton because he made me see that even Perth was a place rich in stories, and gothic ones at that. As is the way, those books led me to read more of their work, and gave me the curiosity to try others. Helen Garner. Gillian Mears. Kate Grenville. Alice Walker. Audre Lorde. Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And on and on and on.

It’s hard to overestimate the sway of the books you read as a teenager. The characters are real people. The stories play out before your eyes. You can taste the food and hear the dialogue. The authors, on the other hand, are as remote and mysterious as gods.

These days, my wide-eyed abandon is accompanied by a wrinkled brow and half an eye always on technique, sentence structure, the way the author deals with gaps in credibility, not to mention what I know about him or her in real life, thanks to social media. And my reading is constantly interrupted by annoying distractions like having to put dinner on the table, instead of waiting for the call from downstairs that it’s ready.

In some ways I miss my teenage reading self. I wish I’d pushed myself harder when I’d had all that free time, and such good eyes. I still love books, but don’t fully inhabit them like I used to. If I read Virginia Andrews now I’d probably laugh, or put it to one side, and that makes me wistful. But it’s also a reminder to use any available reading time wisely. Which I why when I came across a battered copy of Seeds of Yesterday at a free library a few months ago, I fought a short, hissy battle with my inner teen, and left it where it was.

First published on the Overland blog in March 2020

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