Literature is crap. Fiction is, anyway. A pretense. Ersatz... When you read a story you are pretending a lie.
I love Aidan Chambers, I truly do. I'm quite excited for the release of his latest novel, Dying to Know You, which has just been published in Italian. However, I want to read and review all his books from The Dance Sequence. Now I'm requesting them through inter-library loans, and Breaktime is the first one.
Breaktime is a story about two teenage boys, Morgan and Ditto. One day at recess they have a discussion about fiction and literature. Morgan states that fiction is "crap", a pretense, a lie. He formulates his Charges Against Literature, in which he claims fiction is neat and tidy and well-constructed, while life is often everything but. He accuses his friend Ditto of getting everything he knows about life from books, even sex.
Ditto wants to defend literature as something worth reading. After his father has a heart attack during one of their fights, he decides to go away for a couple of days during half-term holidays to sort out his life and gain some hands-on experience. His goal is to meet Helen, the girl he's dreamed of for a while, but he also has a couple interesting adventures before that. His report of the trip becomes his defense of fiction, because Morgan cannot know for sure whether the facts narrated did actually happen, or if they were justa figment of Ditto's imagination.
I labelled this book as "contemporary" YA fiction, and it was such when it was written, in the middle-to-late Seventies. Of course it hasn't become historical fiction since, but it's quite evident how life in the Seventies was different from life today, and not only for teenagers. Ditto needs to find a telephone boot in order to call his mother home when he's away. It's not like I'm a total stranger to phone boots, of course; I used them in my early-to-mid-teens (then cell phones became so popular they took the phone boots away), but it's like a reminder of a far-away past to me (which is just silly, but thet's the way it is). The absence of computers is another, stronger characteristic. Ditto and Morgan use a typewriter to compile their essays. I've never used one in my life, and my father bought our first computer when I was eight, so I've had a computer at home ever since I was a young child. I won't even get on the subject of social networks, because I can remember very well how it was to grow up without them, and they still feel kind of weird for me.
The whole book consists of Ditto's rebuttal to Morgan's anti-fiction claims. Ditto's relationship to his father has been strained since his father fell ill and was forced to leave his job. This left their family dynamics umbalanced, as Ditto's mother started working and juggling her profession with housework. They belong to the working class, and it's clear that they don't have much money to spend. It seems that Ditto's father has suffered from a sort of identity crisis since falling ill, almost as if he felt that there was not much to himself once they took his job away. The conflict between Ditto and his father arises from Ditto's staying in school and being very interested in books and literature, while his father would have preferred him to get a job.
Are Ditto's experiences real, or only imagined? Morgan thinks they are real. At first I thought that too, or rather, I wanted them to be true. Then I started thinking. What would the best answer be to someone who claimed fiction is a lie? To tell them a story and make them believe it really happened, when it actually was invented. I still don't know if Ditto's story was real or not, but it is a good story nonetheless. I especially loved the last part, after he meets Helen. The narration becomes sort of poetic. It's also kind of perfect, which made me wonder if the whole thing was real or just invented. I feel his adventures prior to that were peculiar and sort of improbable, which increased the probability of them being true, while his encounter with Helen could easily have been invented- it's the classic episode of "boy-loses-his-virginity-to-more experienced-girl/woman".
It might also be that some parts of Ditto's story are true, and some invented or exaggerated or distorted for fictional purposes. However, I feel the whole true-or-not debate is not the most important point. The point is, Ditto manages to prove to Morgan that fiction is as true as real life, and sometimes it feels even more true than that. This is a book about physical experiences and growing up. It also incorporates different kinds of literary genres, which keep the narration interesting and unpredictable.
Breaktime manages to stand the test of time, and still rings true to me now, in spite of being more than 35 years old. It amazes me when a book specifically written for a young adult audience is still read and well-known after so many years. There's a sort of prejudice against YA fiction that makes you think these books are meant to be read quickly and then forgotten, but it does not have to be that way.
Breaktime is a book about physical experiences and growing up. I think it would be a good book for boys. Definitely recommended if you're looking for YA fiction with believable male protagonists.Cover attraction:
there are various covers for this book, so I chose the one I liked the most. I like the colours and the whole watercolour feel of it. I'm not so sure about the kiss on the forehead, as I feel the relationship between Ditto and Helen wasn't the main subject. There is also a volume containing both Breaktime and Dance on My Grave with a beautiful, watercolour-feel cover which you can see above. I think this one best captures the spirit of both books - camping tents for Breaktime, sailboats for Dance on My Grave. I'd love to own that book. On the left I'm also posting the Italian cover. I'm not crazy about this one. It might be spot-on, as this is very much a book about writing as well as about growing up, but it feels sort fo bland. More to that, I seem to recall that Ditto explicitly mentions he's typing up his chronicle on his old typewriter, so it's not very accurate to show him writing long-hand. I would've preferred to see him at the typewriter.