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Extremist coming-of-age.

September 1, 2012

The older I get, the more I enjoy reading novels that seek to encapsulate the wonderful and confusing experience of growing up. I suspect it’s not just a foolhardy attempt to recapture my youth, but a dawning realisation that life doesn’t, in fact, become any simpler with passing years. The crises and dilemmas faced by many fictional teenage protagonists are just as relevant to those of us who no longer drive with P plates (or, indeed, V plates).

Jennifer Miller’s fantastic debut, The Year of the Gadfly, is a fine example of crossover fiction: it navigates not just the confusing territory of youth, but the equally challenging terrain of early adulthood, and the universal burden of grief. But, like any classic coming-of-age tale, it also tackles those Big Themes that anyone negotiating the uneven hinterland between childhood and adulthood will stumble on: identity, belonging, self-belief, and self-doubt.

The Year of the Gadfly is a high school campus novel with a dash of mystery and a generous squeeze of nostalgia. While it’s set in 2000 and 2012, events unfold in an old-fashioned East Coast prep school; more unusually, the novel’s 14-year-old protagonist, Iris, has an ongoing imaginary dialogue with deceased journalist and broadcaster Edward R. Murrow, who haunts the novel’s pages emitting puffs of Camel smoke and pearls of journalistic wisdom.

In the wake of recent trauma, Iris—whose unashamedly nerdy journalistic ambitions quickly mark her as a misfit—starts her junior year at the prestigious Mariana Academy, which prides itself on a time-honoured code of ‘brotherhood, truth, and equality’, and its student-led Community Council. But all is not as it seems: Prisom’s Party, a secret society named after the school’s founder, is suddenly terrorising staff and students alike, publicly vilifying anyone who appears to contravene the school’s sacred code.

In this peculiar atmosphere of distrust and paranoia, Iris sees a golden opportunity to investigate her first breaking story. But not everyone shares her terrier-like commitment to exposing a scandal: she’s thwarted at every turn by the uptight Community Council, whose senior class delegate happens to be the editor of the school paper. ‘God forbid that one of the Watergate Seven had been E-I-C of the Washington Post!’ Iris notes with disgust.

She’s not the only one doing some amateur sleuthing—new science teacher Jonah Kaplan, a former Mariana student haunted by demons of his own, is also intent on exposing the Party. Miller skilfully alternates between Iris’s and Jonah’s first-person perspectives, gradually revealing how tragic events in Mariana’s recent past are the key to its present mysteries.

Miller combines a riveting mystery with a cast of wonderfully memorable characters. Iris and Jonah sound as though they’ve stepped straight out of central casting: she’s the plucky would-be journalist who won’t take no for an answer, he’s the young high school teacher who’s determined to break the rules and give his students a real education. But Miller doesn’t allow either character to tumble backward into the jaws of fiction cliché: she captures her shifting narrative voices with aplomb, and uses them to cleverly negotiate the different perspectives of science and literature.

While Iris’s irrepressible nous sometimes feels a little twee, she’s a charming and sympathetic narrator, and her imagined exchanges with Murrow are wittily handled. ‘”So now you’re using clichés?”’ he accuses her when she tells him she’s ‘”going in whole hog”’ to solve the mystery. ‘”I’m not using the phrase as a cliché!”’ she snaps back. ‘”It’s a literary allusion to Huckleberry Finn.”’

Jonah, on the other hand, characterises his worldview with the language of science, although Miller sometimes takes this too far: ‘I refused to conform and therefore was considered dangerous’, Jonah admits of his days as a student at Mariana. ‘In entomology terms, I was an endoparasite: an exploitative entity sapping the life force from its host.’

But science proves an apt way to articulate the dilemmas at the heart of the novel: the difficulties of being true to yourself, and of coping with grief, as Iris and Jonah attempt to do in very different ways. While Iris throws herself into a one-woman undercover investigation, Jonah is intent on teaching his students the value of extremism, which, in biological terms, is the key to survival: ‘”embracing extremity”’, he tells his bewildered science class, ‘”will bring out the characteristics that make you unique and independent—different from everybody else.”’

Difference, of course, can be social suicide in high school, and the evolution of our biological ancestors is the perfect metaphor for the trials of adolescence. ‘How was it’, Jonah wonders, ‘that humans had adapted to conform, long after such conformity was necessary or even advantageous?’

There’s no easy answer to this, as Gadfly’s thematic flipsides demonstrate: it gives us extremism versus conformity, love versus hate, surface versus depth, and silence versus speaking out. Of course, between each of these oppositions lie myriad shades of grey, complications wrought by the simple state of being human. ‘Humans were part of nature too’, Jonah observes, and ‘as catalysts, humans made all kinds of awful things happen.’

But they make wonderful things happen, too, and The Year of the Gadfly is one of them. With its smart cultural references, sharp characters, and well-crafted plot, it’s the best kind of crossover fiction, and a moving reminder of how our high school years continue to haunt the halls of our memories no matter how old we are.

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