I simply wanted to write a book which would be interesting to teenagers. I never want to write a message or a moral in my books – I don’t think that’s a novelist’s job. If I can write a strong story that moves my readers, then that is as much as I want to do – Berlie Doherty
When I think of Berlie Doherty’s books, I think of stories within stories – folk tales retold, secrets embedded in family life, confessions, and family records passed down the generation. Her novel, Dear Nobody, published 25 years ago this month, has all these qualities.
The ‘Dear Nobody’ of the title refers to the letters seventeen-year-old Helen writes to her unborn baby, mapping her feelings about her pregnancy, her relationship with the child’s teenage father, Chris, and her family. Helen’s letters are a story dispersed within the story of her and Chris’s final year together before heading their separate ways, on to university. Chris writes letters, too – to the mother who abandoned him (and his brother and father) when Chris was only young. The letters lead to the unlocking of more stories.
The landscape of stories covers not only the present but their past histories, too. Chris and Helen speak of life before their baby’s conception, referring to an irretrievable time when they were ‘only kids’. They look to the future, too – talking about forever and schemes and plans. Still intangible, not accessible.
But Dear Nobody is also about the physicality of life too. Helen describes her baby’s development from fluttering and arching to thrusting and pushing. Helen takes herself off, rather desperately, horse-riding; Chris has a life-changing cycling holiday. Characters are climbers, potters, musicians – all using hands and feet and make or remake or unmake themselves.
I remembered Dear Nobody as being a brittle, fragile and tender composite of narratives. It’s all these things but there’s a raw, almost violent emotion running throughout too. Reading the first ‘Dear Nobody’ letter is, for Chris, ‘like opening the door on a nightmare.’ There’s a lot of unhappiness in this book, a great deal of regret, but also, in the best sense, a lot of hope for the future.
Dear Nobody has had an astonishing reception since it was first published twenty-five years ago. It speaks to readers around the world. It’s been awarded many prizes, adapted for stage and screen. You can find out more about the lives of this wonderful book on a dedicated page on Berlie’s website. In particular, she offers a link to an in-depth blog piece about the book’s reception at the time and in subsequent years. You can access the blog piece here.
Now the book has been reissued by Penguin Books as part of its Originals series of ground-breaking, era-defining books for teenagers. Other titles include The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton, Postcards from No Man’s Land by Aidan Chambers and I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. These are books to grow into adulthood with and – as I’ve just discovered when I reread Dear Nobody – to want to carry with you long into your life.
Puffin have done some wonderful publishing this year. In the Summer, they released their third tranche of modern classics, three of which I’ve revisited on this blog: The House in Norham Gardens by Penelope Lively, The Whispering Mountain by Joan Aiken, and Thunder and Lightnings by Jan Mark.
Visit this blog on Wednesday to learn more about Berlie’s books when she will be the twelfth guest in my bookbybook interview series.