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Book review: Grow Up by Ben Brooks

GROW UP By Ben Brooks Canongate, 223pp, £8.99

At only 19, Ben Brooks is the youngest writer on Canongate's books, even though he's already written four other novels. Grow Up, a sharp and witty exploration of adolescent life in modern Britain will, his publishers assure us, appeal to fans of The Inbetweeners and Skins.

Actually, it ought to appeal to an even wider readership than that, so oddly engaging is his swaggering, cocky git of a central character, Jasper, who aspires to write his own novel as well as getting drunk, doing drugs and having sex.

Outwardly, Jasper has all the hallmarks of a stereotypical teenager, unable to haul his carcass out of bed, ignoring his mother and scornfully rejecting his stepfather's attempts at bonding. He is in the middle of his exams at sixth form, placing him squarely in the transitional point between the stifling restrictions of the home and the potential freedom of university.

Jasper still has to pacify his mother's demands for rigid revision timetables and her attempts to entice him into accepting his stepdad, but, on the brink of liberation, he rebels and finds himself in several tricky, and often delightfully comic, situations.

The subject matter edges into dangerous territory - date rape, teenage pregnancy, suicide - but Brooks handles it with maturity and wit. Grow Up is one part serious, the rest is simply laugh-out-loud funny, even when dealing with awkward situations.

At first glance Grow Up appears to lack any kind of plot. Like its protagonist it drifts from one scenario to another, as Jasper drinks and backchats his way through life. His best friend Tenaya provides the sobering antidote to Jasper's mischievousness, allowing Brooks to deal with a themes of depression and family disintegration.

Even when he tones down the comedy, though, he is able to deal with issues such as self-harm and suicide with a tenderness and sensitivity that one would have thought beyond his years. Ironically, given the novel's marketing campaign on Facebook, Myspace and Twitter, social media sites take a battering for the way they are used to destroy, rather than enhance, lives.

None of this, though, would even register if Brooks lacked the talent he so evidently has for characterisation. He has an ability to show us the world through the eyes of a teenage boy and his fast-paced, expressive narration. Without all of this, we might feel as though we were being led down too many familiar paths; instead, our expectations are neatly subverted. Jasper's obsession with the lustrous Georgia Treely yields unexpected results, as does the potential romance between Jasper and Tenaya. The conclusion is, however, a little too well rounded, leading away from the rebellious nature of the rest of the novel into safe territory.

The novel by no means advocates the sex, drugs and rock'n'roll lifestyle, but offers a refreshing and unique take on age-old material.

Rather than appealing solely to a younger audience, Grow Up has the potential to appeal to adults too, despite the obvious specific marketing at teenagers. Brooks's style is poised on the edge of adulthood just like his protagonist, and while the subject matter might discourage some of the more restrained readers, the fact remains that Grow Up is contagiously funny, well-written and no doubt marks the start of a promising career for a talented young writer.

 
 
 

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