Reviewing Grow Up by Ben Brooks
May 4, 2013 § Leave a comment
I resent and refute the claim that Grow Up by Ben Brooks is ‘a revelatory portrait of the pills, thrills and bellyaches of growing up today.’ At the very most, this novel is an indulgent portrayal of a select group of bored, middle-class soon-to-be school leavers, who seem and act far younger than their 17 years. It’s true that Grow Up does provide moments of genuine humour amidst the depravity and debauchery, and although they’re few and far between, moments of pathos too.
I am being confronted with real human emotions. I should do something. I want to do something. ‘Does anything help?’ I say.
‘People,’ she says. ‘When there are people here.’
‘Okay. Then text me when you feel like that, please.’
‘We just had a serious talk.’
Jasper is our narrator, and though he insists he’s seventeen years-old, I have my doubts. He frequents sex chat rooms, messing with the minds of the poor Thai women working them for the sake of his own amusement. He’s convinced his stepfather, Keith murdered his first wife and so makes plans to excavate the woman’s grave to prove it.
I am excited about seeing justice done and also about getting to hold a dead body. A real dead human body. A human that Keith killed, maybe with his bare hands or with a kitchen knife or a sawn-off shotgun or poison. There will maybe be a crater in Margaret Clamwell’s skull where he hit her with a lamp or his trombone and she will maybe have fractured legs from where he broke them so she couldn’t run. The police will find out all of these things in the post mortem but I will find them out first.
Jasper also sets abandoned sheds on fire. He’s a vandal, who believes himself a future Booker Prize winner, and spends his time nutting out the details of a graphic rape scene he believes his manuscript needs. Or he’s getting high with his drop-kick friends. Basically, the guy’s a sociopath, which makes relating to him and empathising with him difficult from a reader’s perspective.
To add insult to injury, nothing really happens in Grow Up. It suffers from a significant lack of story. There’s a party, a school trip, another party, and not a lot else. Well, unless you count the sex and drugs. There is hardly any character development, with Jasper seemingly learning little from his actions. Similarly, his friends are merely supporting characters with no real substance of their own, except for maybe Jasper’s best friend, Tenaya. Unfortunately, the resolution of her arc is the most frustrating of all.
The characters are generally detestable and what is even more infuriating is that not one of them has enough sense to address the shortcomings they recognise in themselves. Jasper somewhat redeems himself when he begins to feel concern for the people he unashamedly manipulates, hurts and uses, but then brushes those feelings of guilt aside, never to acknowledge them again.
I failed to relate to a single character and while their experiences are worlds away from my own, I had little interest in their selfish, violent and aimless adventures.
Needless to say, I didn’t get Grow Up. I just don’t understand it, what it’s trying to show, do or explore. Reading it felt like watching reality TV: junky and shallow (and not always in the good way). Brooks, who was only nineteen years-old himself when the novel was published, places great emphasis on capturing a particular way of living unique to a British subculture, and in turn, puts little energy into exploring his characters’ motivations on the page. There are hints of a deeper story here and Grow Up could have been an insightful commentary and interrogation of the way these kids are living, but it’s not. The failure to delve deeper is what hinders Grow Up as a novel and comment on today’s youth, and is ultimately what will prevent it from finding a place amongst the coming of age classics.