First made famous in Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, the formula is familiar. Angst-ridden adolescent, tongue loosened during psychiatric treatment, slags off parents, school friends and everyone else in a stream of bile enlivened by black humour and a streetwise vocabulary. Self-pity and social analysis walk hand in hand, together offering a satisfying read both to teenagers and to those adults still nostalgic for the angry disillusion of their youth. This recipé has remained a staple of bestselling fiction over the past 50 years.
All this is true of Faïza Guène's Just Like Tomorrow, published in France in 2004 and shifting over 100,000 copies even before its translation rights were sold. What makes it different is that its 19-year-old author, far from sniping at society from a position of middle-class security, has Algerian parents and was brought up in one of the grim tower blocks of Paris. She has produced in Doria a teenage heroine who speaks up for a new and previously unheard cast of dispossessed characters.
It's not just her Paradise Estate, tawdry local shops and intolerant teachers or employers that get the blame. The greatest rage is reserved for Doria's Moroccan father, "Mr How-Big-Is-My-Beard", who has returned to his former country to marry a new bride. Doria's depressed, illiterate mother manages as best she can while her furious daughter sulks at school. Other first-generation immigrant husbands and fathers are also held up for inspection, and found wanting.
However expertly translated by Sarah Adams, an authority on the near-impossible task of swapping one country's slang for another's, some of the original humour has inevitably been lost. But enough of Guène's comic irreverence remains to make this novella entertaining as well as searing. Doria's long-suffering psychotherapist and social workers, usual butts of disaffected teenage fiction, are grudgingly allowed some worth. A disastrous first kiss is also viewed more positively.
Doria decides to cheer up a little, even contemplating a career in politics. But the fate of Youseff, wrongly imprisoned before re-emerging politicised and very angry, overshadows any feeling of hope at the end of this sparky, engaging story. Describing a world more often written up by journalists after the latest riots rather than by authors who have lived there all their lives, this is literature that needs to be read.
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