Primal loss

The author of "Black Tickets" picks six powerful books on the first wounds of childhood.

Published September 27, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

These are books focused wholly or partially on childhood in which the child's point of view is obviously -- or not so obviously -- that of the writer her- or himself. They are not only studies of a world but of an evolving artist's consciousness in that world, particularly ways of looking, speaking, remembering, inventing and bearing witness that were forged in childhood and comprise the evolution of an artist. Truth or fiction? It doesn't matter. What matters is literature as a means of survival and descent into mystery, the knitting together of time and loss into meaning and everpresence -- not the denial of death, but death's utter defeat, the triumph of language.

A Death in the Family by James Agee

Agee's masterpiece, in which a father's sudden death becomes a prayerful inquiry into identity itself.

They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell

Maxwell's brief, beautifully rendered novel in which a boy loses his mother.

An Angel at My Table by Janet Frame

Frame's distilled, harrowing survival of her own life.

During the Reign of the Queen of Persia by Joan Chase

The interwoven, overlapping consciousnesses of girl cousins and sisters in Ohio.

Stop-Time by Frank Conroy

The classic autobiography of a young man in which time, memory and identity coalesce into improvisational triumph.

Careful, He Might Hear You by Sumner Locke Elliott

Wonderful novel about an Australian boy caught in a custody battle between the working-class aunt who has raised him and the wealthy aunt enamored of his absent father. Inexplicably out of print on three continents, but available in libraries.

By Jayne Anne Phillips

Jayne Anne Phillips is the author of four acclaimed works of fiction, the novels "Shelter" and "Machine Dreams" and the short story collections "Fast Lanes" and "Black Tickets." She is the recipient of numerous awards, including a Guggenheim fellowship, two NEA fellowships and a 1997 Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her new novel, "MotherCare," will be published in 2000 by Knopf.

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