Books: Towel girls and surfer boys

THE TRIBES OF PALOS VERDES by Joy Nicholson Viking pounds 9.99

At first glance, the idea of a Californian surfer novel is about as enticing as that of a rock band fronted by Iris Murdoch. Joy Nicholson's first novel, however, set amongst surfing teenagers in the exclusive Californian beach resort of Palos Verdes, is infinitely more interesting and complex than it has any right to be.

Telling the story of 14-year-old Medina Mason's struggle to break into an all-male clique of surfers, while dealing with her parents' vicious divorce and an effortlessly popular elder brother, The Tribes of Palos Verdes sounds like a teen-novel by numbers. But it isn't. From the first paragraph, the writing has an authority and profundity that transcends the conventions of adolescent literature.

Although it is being presented as a girl-versus-boys surfer-war, the tribes of the title are not, as we are at first led to believe, the adolescent cliques that populate the local beach: "The towel girls, the Jews, the Chinese girls, the softball players ... They wear the same lipstick colours and have similar bathing suits. Their parents have roughly the same amount of money." Rather, the real tribalism is that which dominates the interior life of a family.

The novel is, in essence, a meticulous and agonisingly accurate portrayal of how a divorcing couple manipulate their children's loyalties. Using affection, money, threats and self-pity, the squabbling parents turn the emotional lives of Medina and her brother into a battlefield. The character of the mother, in particular, is a breathtaking portrayal of bitterness - a bitterness which transforms into pure evil as its force is brought to bear on her children.

As the unnamed mother suffocates Medina's twin, Jim, with overbearing love, Medina is pushed away: cast out for alleged loyalty to the now absent father. A new battle ensues, with Medina fighting her mother for Jim's affection.

The real stroke of brilliance in the book is in Nicholson's insight into adolescent psychology. She resists the cliches about moody histrionics, and perfectly captures the emotional repression that dominates the interior life of unhappy teenagers.

Nicholson is magnificently strict in her use of the narrative voice, causing much of the story to be told by omission. The surfing, which is energetically described, serves a clear psychological function - it is Medina's cover for the story she is really telling. Like a genuine adolescent Medina will only talk to us to describe an emotionally neutral topic: surfing. The real story, about her misery, isolation and fear, is only present between the lines.

It is precisely her failure to describe how she really feels about her parents that communicates her suffering. Equally, we only discover that she is a social outcast through what people say and do to her (she is bullied at school). She never actually tells us directly that she is friendless and lonely.

The Tribes of Palos Verdes is a pained and angry novel, hiding behind a happy tale of riding the waves in Californian sunshine. Ever since The Catcher in the Rye, streams of novelists have tried to update the adolescent experience for successive generations. Few have succeeded. The most common stumbling block is that an adult authorial voice peeps out from behind the adolescent narration.

For this sub-genre to work, the novel has to be shaped and structured without feeling so. Part of the fascination with J D Salinger is that he is so brilliantly absent from his own novel. Through the course of The Tribes of Palos Verdes, we come to feel that we know everything about Medina Mason, but nothing about Joy Nicholson.Taking this as the ultimate measure of success in the literature of adolescence, few writers have come as close as Nicholson to Salinger-esque perfection.

Arts and Entertainment
Jude Law in Black Sea

film

In Black Seahe is as audiences have never seen him before

Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops

film

Arts and Entertainment
Full circle: Wu-Tang’s Method Man Getty

Music review

Arts and Entertainment
When he was king: Muhammad Ali training in 'I Am Ali'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game