Book Reviews - Review 378
Adrian Mole: The Wilderness Years
Category: Fiction | Published: 1993 | Review Added: 13-01-2019
I continue my non-chronological journey through Adrian Mole's adult diaries. The Wilderness Years was the first full volume of Mole's journals to be published after the narrator hit his twenties, and Sue Townsend had the challenge of supplanting the humour of the first two books, which derived substantially from their naive teenage perspective, to a more sophisticated adult context.
The transition is only partially successful. Mole's writing style has matured, and is often witty ("Bianca is a Malteser: Leonora is an Elizabeth Shaw gold-wrapped after dinner mint"). Yet his personality, and his level of self-awareness, still seem those of an adolescent. He takes women on dates to Burger King. At the beginning of this volume, he is living in Oxford in the spare bedroom of his childhood girlfriend, Pandora, convinced - despite eighteen months of eventless co-habitation - that he is on the cusp of winning her back. He has a job monitoring newt colonies for the Department of the Environment, gained through a lie on his CV about a Biology "A" Level. He is far from grateful for this cushy position, complaining that he doesn't like newts and aggrieved at being told off for using the office's postage stamps for personal correspondence.
Mole's life in The Wilderness Years is peripatetic. He is forced to resign from his job at the DoE, and subsequently undergoes several changes of address, ending up sharing a flat in London with his girlfriend Bianca, an engineer-cum-waitress. She gets him work washing up in a restaurant, but personal and professional stability continues to elude him.
Another thing that eludes him is literary success. Editor after editor returns the sample of his unfinished novel Lo! The Flat Hills of My Homeland with comments ranging from the discouraging to the derisive. Excerpts from the novel are inserted into his diaries, and they considerably detract from the credibility of the narrative. No explanation is provided as to why somebody who can write an erudite account of his own life chooses to fill his fiction with clichés and bathos. The reason, of course, is that bad writing is funny. But a funny story has to be more than just funny: it also has to be a story, it has to be internally convincing.
Dialogue is quite weak. Most of Townsend's characters speak with the same voice: sardonic, sweary, and slightly belligerent. Mole's employers and landlords/landladies call him "Mole" or "Mr. Mole". Even in Britain, these formal modes of address had mostly lost their currency by the early 1990s.
Finally, Mole's behaviour is often at its worst, which detracts from the reader's sympathy and makes his trials seem well-deserved. He reflexively lies, fails to rise to moral challenges, and regards his fellow human beings with self-pitying misanthropy. While a likeable protagonist needs vices, and Mole commits a few small acts of kindness, he generally comes across in The Wilderness Years as a bit of a cad.
An easy read, but very much a potboiler.