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Francesca Segal (left) and Anna Stothard: Grappling with teenage angst (Francesca Segal ©Laura Alice Hart. Anna Stothard ©Charlie Hopkinson)


What if Holden Caulfield had been, not an adolescent in 1940s New York, but a modern Millennial? He’d have had an Instagram account — @CatcherInTheRye — streaming mood-lit pictures from Central Park, Greenwich Village and the Rockefeller ice rink. To be a teenager today is to have every spit and cough of angst photographed, hashtagged and live-tweeted.

The 16-year-old Gwen in Francesca Segal’s second novel The Awkward Age — her debut, The Innocents, won the Costa First Novel Award — writes an online diary, illustrated with shoebox-theatre scenes of family, friends and boyfriend re-created in modelling clay. It is read, to her irritation, not just by other agonised art students, but by her “traitorous” mother.

She wanted the blog to capture the formative events in her life, good or bad, while as much as possible sparing the humdrum, or repetitious. This was not the way her friends depicted themselves on the Internet but she had no interest in varnishing her life as they did, glamorous moments threaded one after another like an endless string of glossy and identical fake pearls.

How unvarnished is she willing to be, though, when life gets very bad indeed? Segal has written an unnerving cautionary tale. The awkward age isn’t Gwen’s alone. Her widowed mother Julia has fallen in love after ten years’ loneliness and doubts her right to her late, little mess portion of happiness. Gwen’s grandmother Iris, seemingly so certain as she shops in Selfridges and takes taxis to the Wigmore Hall, reverts to the blind and stroppy fury of a sixth-former when she is betrayed. One dreams at 16 of growing out of doubt and ill-fitting skin, but what if it never ends?

Gwen, who feels herself to be “no sort of person at all, only a wisp”, imagines her dioramas will serve their purpose, that at some point self-possession will be hers:

This was her coming of age story, after all, and one day when the story was over and life had acquired stability — perhaps when she was twenty-five or twenty-six — its coherence and powerful narrative thrust would be united into a book, or possibly an animated television programme, her own history re-enacted by tiny clay figures in shoebox worlds. It would be an album of memories. It would be proof that she had been, and felt, and lived.

Gwen’s faith in her “Art” with a capital A is pricked by her unfeeling family: “a joyous adolescence playing with Play-Doh won’t pay the gas bills later on.” Her step-brother Nathan, raging when her state-school exam results beat his Westminster ones, tells her: “Amazing for a school like yours where everyone does Goat Milking and General Studies and fucking Art, amazing for you with your accidental, ‘Oh, I only care about rainbows and glitter and oops! I get As.’”
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