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April 4, 2011 | by  | in Arts Books |
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The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4

When I was 12, I had a nervous breakdown in Frankfurt airport. I cried so enthusiastically that a random passenger offered to buy me a Big Mac if it would stop the hysterics.

This was due to a sudden realisation that I was about to spend the entire summer in the second-world, terrorist-filled, culturally-oppressive country of Algeria, surrounded by the most intrusive people in the world: my mother’s family.

The next three months were tumultuous. Power- and water cuts were frequent, I started locking myself in bathrooms to avoid my psychotic cousin, and even considered developing an addiction to Paracetamol just for kicks. All while documenting my “tortured” existence in a diary. Somewhere in between counting the days until I could legally emancipate myself and watching Friends reruns in French, I discovered The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ stashed at the bottom of my suitcase. I began to read.
Adrian was a kid my age, who lived in near-poverty but didn’t know it yet. He had an adulterous, happily neglectful mother, a dishrag of a father, and an Everest-sized load of problems (many real, and even more imagined). Having not been familiar with the concept of an unreliable narrator, I believed everything he said. I smiled in his rare moments of triumph and laughed when life kicked metaphorical sand in his face. And it was profoundly cathartic to realise that no matter how bad I imagined my situation to be, there was always someone who enjoyed being miserable more than I did.

Despite traversing the literary scene as a children’s book, Sue Townsend’s classic doubles as humorous social commentary. Adrian joins the Good Samaritans (to get out of math class) and finds himself taking care of a cantankerous war veteran who teaches him that life is no rosier when you’re old. This goes down a treat for the already-pessimistic Adrian. He gains insights on gender perspectives when his mother and girlfriend become feminists in 1980s England, and faces emasculation head-on with pre-pubescent body issues and his father’s nervous breakdown. Poverty gets a look in too, as he goes from pleasantly lower-middle class to doing homework via candlelight, eating baked beans for dinner, and hiding overdue bills under his mattress with the porn mags.

Which brings us to the book’s treatment of sex. Realistically portrayed and lacking in moral condescension, Adrian’s frustrated yet always-polite accounts of his inability to get action speak honestly about the complexities of gawky boyhood. This doesn’t keep a healthy dose of awkwardness from creeping in—Adrian’s diary is peppered with sentences like “Sometimes she talks to me as though I were an adult and not her lover’s teenage son”. Religion, politics, and race are underlying themes. Adrian loses God and finds atheism—although this could be a side-effect of his attempts to read Tolstoy at a young age—and, for a brief time, becomes brainwashed by a group of religious con artists. He tries to make sense

of the class divide as he falls in love with wealthy, socialist-leaning Pandora. Hell, the book even refere-nces Tony Benn.

Plagued with delusions of grandeur, Adrian convinces himself that he’s an intellectual and begins sending poetry to the BBC. His lack of self-awareness and emotional immaturity make him hilarious. The fact that we know this and he doesn’t is the comic axis around which the novel rotates. Though some may find it the children’s book equivalent of grainy cell phone footage, if nothing else, Adrian can be remembered as the character who taught children everywhere that real-life problems are easier to deal with if you blow the little things way out of proportion.

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  1. Laneta says:

    You’ve ipmrseesd us all with that posting!

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