Shortlist Golden Owl for Children’s Books 2007
Charlie Wallace by Stan van Elderen is a daring novel for young readers: a modern-day version of American masterpieces such as Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye and John Green’s Looking for Alaska, about Jonathan, a lonely, introspective teen in New York who seeks refuge in his books and thoughts, and tries to find an explanation for his recent act of despair.
Thanks to a budding friendship with the free-spirited, extrovert daredevil Charlie Wallace, who has recently moved to New York, Jonathan, the only child of a well-off family, almost succeeds. Almost. In a composed style, full of imagery, and with a sober voice that is in keeping with this ‘big-city novel’, Jonathan relates how a tragic chance event that doesn’t feel like chance means he ultimately is unable to find the explanation he’s looking for.
The friendship between Charlie and Jonathan develops after an English lesson when the new boy Charlie bravely enters into a discussion with the stiff British teacher Wainwright about what ‘Literature’ is, with Van Elderen subtly criticising the way taste is dictated by the cultural elite. Frustrated about the lesson, the boys, who both detest insincerity, decide to skive off for the day.
Jonathan takes Charlie to visit the Museum of Modern Art, a pizzeria, Ground Zero and the zoo. Charlie then invites Jonathan home with him: oncologist father, cool mom, four children. A happy family. The friendship grows in the days that follow. Charlie finds out that something dramatic has happened in Jonathan’s past. Something he can never put right. Which means that there’s a constant, unspoken threat hanging over Van Elderen’s postmodern New York. Van Elderen writes in a beautifully evocative style and leaves a lot unsaid, expertly building up tension and ensuring that every word of this novel has significance. Only a few speculative, slightly cynical remarks from Jonathan (about Charlie’s home life: ‘everything’s hunky-dory, until, surprise, surprise, something dreadful happens’) arouse any suspicion about what is to come. These, however, are pushed into the background by the references to and animated discussions about paintings, books, films and evolution, which reflect and amplify the events. This means that the conclusion is unexpected when it comes, and painfully illustrates how pure chance can make life seem futile.
By Mirjam Noorduijn