Top critical review
A Teenager in Love?
on 20 April 2017
The life and loves of a teenager set amongst the racial tensions of late 1950s London.
The heart of this novel is a story about a father and a son, and it is well illustrated and drawn out.
This links to the theme of the 'teenager' as a new force in modern British society and is neatly set out by the Dad character when referring to his own up-bringing and the 1930s: '...nobody gave you money whatever you'd do for it, nobody let you Iive like you kids can do today.' (p37)
The regular discussion between the narrator and his father about the differences in lifestyle, cause a reflection later on about his own fortunate position with regards to money and being able to do pretty much as he wishes.
Through the relationship at the centre of this novel, the reader is drawn into the debate around the creation of this designation of 'teenager' and what it now means to be one. I get the idea that this is an older author (MacInnes) looking in with envious eyes on a set of young people enjoying their time, but then growing up and realising that life is dangerous and serious. The writer was forty-four when he published this book in 1959, but in my opinion it is only an older person who understands the contrast to this way of living in the 1950s that can draw these parallels and highlight the changes to British society since the thirties; By definition teenagers have not lived through an earlier period and are not self aware enough to understand how their lives relate to others older than themselves.
I think I agree with rock star, Paul Weller's quote on the front of my copy: 'A book of inspiration,' as it is inspiring to read about the fashions and the culture of the times, especially if this is new to you as a reader. It is also inspiring to take in the attitude of the teenagers towards race, money and relationships. Absolute Beginners represents a new way of thinking about life and we can see the attitudes that formed modern social mores beginning to come through and start to take shape, this is particularly characterised by the concluding sections.
Part of the attraction with this book must surely be its contemporaneous publication with the events depicted inside its covers. It managed to pick up something of the 'Zeitgeist' of the time and this has stuck with it. The plot is not very strong, but individual scenes are well written and stand out. The actual violence at the end of the book is quite thinly described and the main narrator doesn't seem that involved with the action, mainly riding around on his Vespa. I only take an atmosphere from the book of the period of London being written about, it doesn't describe the specific events and confrontations at all well.
There is a lot of political polemic in Absolute Beginners, but it is because the writer is observing and has a whiff of the future that he wants to write about those views and detail how they've come from a pessimistic past.
Whilst the language and the reference points have obviously dated, as a statement of modern values the novel has not.