The beginning of a new year habitually brings with it some reflection on times gone by. Suddenly, the hopes and worries of the future are laid out before us will frank immediacy, and we are left peering into the past to wonder how we became the people we are at the start of 2008. What was it along the way that moulded us into the individuals that now stand on the brink of another year, and must push on into the unfolding uncertainty of the future?
Inevitably, the formative years of youth are pivotal in the making of the individual – those troubled and treasured memories of our first forays into the adult world. Many a prolific writer has tired to capture the agonies of that difficult no man’s land between childhood and adulthood, a literary genre know as bildungsroman. The intriguing thing is that no matter what era the author comes from, the same set pieces always seem to surface. It’s as though life’s little recipe for those last gasps of childhood contain certain indispensable ingredients.
Although ‘I’ll Never Be Young Again’ was published back in 1932, du Maurier’s evocation of the slow ebbing away of naivety is timeless – testament to her extraordinary storytelling ability. It was one of her first novels – she would go on to write her masterpiece, ‘Rebecca’, some six years later, which was eventually adapted for screen by Alfred Hitchcock. Neatly divided into two halves, ‘I’ll Never Be Young Again’ tells of the fumbling beginnings of a young man, Dick, as he tries to forge his identity in the shadows of his father’s fame. The first half takes him on a glorious journey through the wastes of Scandinavia, showcasing du Maurier’s talent for conjuring terrifically vast landscapes. Dick’s travels with his strange friend, Jake, are full of adventures, from their vagabond mountain treks on horseback, to gangster violence in back street bars, finally ending in shipwreck and death off the coast of France. Du Maurier has a strong masculine narrative voice that never falters throughout the novel, making her portrayal of boyhood adventures utterly convincing.
The second half of the book explores first love: an indispensable part of any bildungsroman. Dick catches sight of an orange beret in a Parisian café one day as he struggles to write his first novel, and from that moment is lost in the emotional pandemonium induced by its owner, a beautiful young musician, Hesta, which can only end in heartbreak. What surfaces from these neat plot pieces is the restless search for identity: an exploration of the formulating moments in Dick life. But du Maurier is also a mistress of suspense and a first rate storyteller, and it is Dick’s trepid adventures into emotional and physical wilderness that stay with the reader after the last page has been turned.