Emma Jane Unsworth’s Adults, published earlier this year to widespread critical acclaim, is a fun and clever portrayal of a (relatively) young woman living in London, but more significantly living in the digital age. I sometimes felt personally attacked by Unsworth’s witty perceptions of what it means to care more about what’s happening on the phone in your hand than in the world around you, but this is not to say that I disagree with her presumptions. In fact, in a rare moment of lockdown clarity coincidentally just weeks after reading this book, I deleted all of my social media apps and – better still – am yet to add them back.
The plot follows 35 year old Jenny McLaine as she navigates the tricky business of being alive – or, at least, present on the internet. Some of the novels themes are lighthearted and often deliberately frivolous – such as what to caption an instagram photo of a croissant, or whether wine with art on the bottle can be considered more ‘classy’. It also deals with more serious issues: from miscarriage to tricky mother-daughter relationships to what happens when you realise you don’t know who you are. It is through a combination of the two that Unsworth is able to create a story in which we are both invested and all-too-aware that the tragic/comedic protagonist she is describing could just as easily be ourselves.
I bought Adults on Apple Books to read on my phone; a great irony in itself. As I lay in bed in the early hours of the morning, or sat in the passenger seat of a car, scrolling down my screen to get to the next chapter, barely giving myself time to process the words I had just read, I couldn’t help but feel that I was part of the joke. Do we now receive all of our entertainment from a hand-held device that has about as much of a physical presence as a bookend we use to order our shelves?
Of course, what Unsworth is trying to establish through her fundamentally flawed but no less likeable heroine – is that our digital realities can only survive insofar as we continue to uphold the more genuine principles of our lives. The largely chaotic and somewhat manic prose that Unsworth is able to contrive reflects the very sentiment she wishes to convey. We as her readers are on the receiving end of this life lesson which seems to be ever increasingly ignored. Just as Jenny herself seems to take it for granted that everything in her life will continue to survive and thrive without her input into it, I was aware while reading this book that I often overlook the hindsight that novels like these give me into my future – a weakness which I am determined to overcome.
After finishing this book, I immediately sort out to read (or more accurately, listen to the audiobook of) Animals, written six years earlier than this novel yet still bearing some similarities to the themes and ideas explored here. The film adaptation of Animals, released last year and starring Holliday Granger and Alia Shawkat as best friends Laura and Tyler, was also thoroughly enjoyable- a status I rarely award on-screen reworkings of my favourite novels. It is confirmed also that Adults will be adapted (but no doubt now delayed) for television by Playground and wiip, so at least that is something we have to look forward to.