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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
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.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions