Being young never gets old

Managing Editor Jon Sutton reviews Fiona Neill's novel 'The Good Girl', ahead of her appearance at Latitude Festival as part of 'The Psychologist presents…'

Was there a moment in your life when you felt you had finally become an adult, when everything made sense? Or are you just muddling through the best you can, learning to do a better impersonation of being a grown-up? Romy, the teenage girl at the heart of this story, looks to her Mum for answers, but she hasn’t got them. She’s harking back to her own lost youth, tempted to be more playful, to ‘play truant’ from her family… teenagers may have ‘Ferrari engines and crap brakes’, but ‘adults can be reckless too’.

Employing the unusual device of alternating chapters with Romy’s voice and the third-person perspective, Fiona Neill’s novel unfolds as a chain of events that denies its own existence – ‘there was no chain of events’, it’s just the comforting narrative we tell ourselves. Psychological theory and evidence abound - Romy’s father, Harry, is a cognitive neuroscientist bearing more than a passing resemblance to Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, who is thanked along with other psychologists and neuroscientists at the end of the book. ‘He was never happier than when talking about his work’, Neill writes, and consequently he does talk about his work rather a lot. I suspect I was not the only reader cheering when Ailsa’s tolerance finally snaps: ‘I’m not interested in your science any more, Harry… it doesn’t help me feel anything differently and it won’t resolve anything.’

But the science does illuminate the book’s consideration of growing up, growing old, growing young, in the modern world. ‘Age doesn’t exist anymore’, when your parent’s death can send you ‘hurtling back through time’, when adults can be as conscious of what others think of them as any teenager, and above all when grown adults can constantly 'fuck up'.

Perhaps the only difference left between the teenagers and adults in the book is that the latter can implode in relative safety, stumbling along in marriages that are ‘a series of atonements’. For teenagers, there’s the ever-present threat that one mistake can end up defining their lives. Neill writes this like a love letter to a lost, analogue age, when teenagers could fuck up in private. Perhaps the main message is that as parents we should encourage children to believe in the possibility of renewal, of rebirth.

There’s lots more for psychologists and parents here… a delicious clash of parenting styles that builds nicely to a comic confrontation; a touching meditation on how our babies are always there in our mind’s eye, coming to the fore in times of crisis (‘she cooked food that I used to eat when I was a child’); and plenty on addiction and the role of ‘the ever-pervasive male porn industry that permeates contemporary culture’. And spun right through the spiraling plot is the oldest story of all: ‘We all have darkness and light within us and are in control of neither’.

- Reviewed by Dr Jon Sutton, Managing Editor of The Psychologist. At the Latitude Festival in July, Jon will host a discussion between Fiona Neill and Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore. See also our report of Professor Blakemore's recent Annual Conference keynote, and the Latitude announcement.

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