This week my first novel, Isabel and Rocco, is being re-published in German by Diogenes Verlag. I wrote the book aged seventeen, on school holidays and sick days. I wrote it while my father had cancer, while I was temperamental, in love, severely anti-social. I wrote it quickly, in bursts of inspiration on an old wooden desk in the corner of my bedroom.
I’m reading a half-broken copy of this novel while sitting in a Berlin coffee shop now, an adult living far from my old wooden desk. “The original collectors items of a person’s pleasure are their first times,” my seventeen-year-old self writes to me through time.
Over the novel Isabel describes all her ‘first times’, from sex to ice cream, that are morphing her into an adult. “The next time might feel better, stronger, whatever, but the world doesn’t shift on its axis like during time number one.”
My teenage alter-ego is both intimate and shockingly alien to me. Her voice makes me feel sick. I keep shivering. There is such a terror of adulthood in the her words, such absolute dread. I feel quite guilty at having grown up. Like Peter Pan’s Wendy, I’ve allowed myself to solidify into an adult.
My seventeen-year-old self wanted to catalogue her first times so that when she’s “used them up like a box of happy pills” she would be able to “look back at the good, the bad, the violent and be sixteen again”.
So here I am, reading my catalogue of partially-fictionalized first times, and feeling dizzy from the time warp.
It’s unnerving to read my publically offered teenage thoughts on sex (“Sex I found to have a particular smell too, like two smells mixing, sheet friction, hot saliva and the inside of underwear”) and sin (“When you’re young, each first sin has the originality of fire or snowflakes. Sin when you get older must become duller because you’ve read too many newspaper articles”).
Having not touched Isabel and Rocco since it was published, it’s weird to see how many of my current fascinations were there from the start. Burning, collecting, cities and adulthood all haunt my new novel, as they haunted my first. Although many years have passed since Isabel and Rocco was published, the characters I write are still scared of the real world.
I’ve been living in Berlin for the last eighteen months, writing a novel set in the Natural History Museum here. I’ve spent my time pinning moths and learning the art of taxidermy, but mostly writing. It's been wonderful and exhausting. The protagonist of this new novel is an entomologist, a moth curator. Flicking through Isabel and Rocco, moths and insects are everywhere: the characters collect dead moth bodies, they watch nature documentaries about beetles, and they obsess about how various insects make love.
It may be that Isabel and Rocco is a kind of hate letter to my future self, a kick in the face of adult worlds, but reading it feels like time folding in on itself. Perhaps I haven’t changed as much as my teenage alter ego feared she would. Maybe, just maybe, my alter-ego wouldn’t hate me. Or maybe she would.