This is yet another amazing Australian young adult book that knocks you over with its honesty and emotional impact.
The story is told from the point of view of two sixteen year old girls in Fitzroy, Australia. One is Louisa (“Lou”), who is trying to come to grips with the accidental death of her boyfriend Fred; and the other is Sibylla (“Sib”), who must confront a slew of social pressures that include sexuality. They are thrown together as two of six bunkmates at a school nine-week wilderness experience.
Lou wants to keep mostly to herself, but it’s not an environment conducive to privacy. She makes a connection with Sib’s oldest friend, a brilliant and reclusive (possibly Asperger’s) boy named Michael. Among the things about which they bond are bewilderment and frustration over Sib’s loyalty to her nasty best friend Holly, and Sib’s infatuation with Ben Capaldi, the school’s golden boy.
The entry of Ben into Sib’s life presents a number of new dilemmas for her. One, he is in the “popular” group, and that group has an edge of cruelty that is not really part of who Sib is. (But who is she, she wonders? She has always been someone who just “goes along”… Things happen around her and she just reacts, rather than stand up for her beliefs. Is insensitivity to others the price for being with Ben?)
Then there is the issue of sex, which seems to accompany a relationship with someone in the popular group. Sib has not yet had sex, but it looms large in her life:
“…at sixteen, whether you have, or have not, had sex can sometimes feel like the Great Divide. It’s not like friends who used to be close are gone, it’s just that they’ve migrated to another country.”
Sib is “dead keen to cross ‘sex’ off [her] to-do list.”
She is fully aware of the risks and precautions involved. Her mother is a doctor who runs a Sexually Transmitted Infections Clinic in Fitzroy. Sib has memorized all of the “fun facts for teenagers” regularly promulgated by her mother, an excellent list which Sib runs through when thinking about what her mother would say about her having sex.
Lou’s agonies are of a more tortured nature. She is “dead keen” as well, you might say, but in her case it is to honor Fred’s memory. She misses him terribly, and worries that even taking an interest in the people around her would be like “cheating” on him. Why should she feel any happiness out of living if he is dead? She reflects:
“I love you by remembering you. If I don’t think of you every time there’s something important, then doesn’t that mean you are no longer important to me? And how can I let that happen when you were so very much the important one to me?”
But she also understands, although it hurts her to do so:
“And if I don’t keep you always in my mind, won’t memory walk away? Or stave thin? Don’t memories need maintenance? The trouble is that keeping it alive, giving it all that energy, will, determination, stops me from being alive in the present.”
Although Michael is rejected or ignored by most of the other kids, Lou thinks he is a lovely person – kind and thoughtful. He is, however, as besotted with Sybilla as Sybilla is with Ben. Nevertheless, he does so much to help Lou. At one point, he introduces her to the snow gum trees:
“They have to survive such harsh conditions, such extremes of weather, bits of them die. And they are able to grow new wood around the old dead wood. That’s how they get to be such strange and beautiful shapes. They are hardier and more complicated than, say, the messmate or peppermint eucalyptus farther down the mountain, which are protected by a softer climate.”
Lou is caring and smart too. She has affection for Michael, and is concerned about Sib, wanting to “save” her from the detrimental influence of her new crowd. She doesn’t feel free to speak, however, until the actions of some mean and vicious kids create a crisis. Lou exhorts Sib:
“The only person you should be is yourself. You can’t control perception. All you can control is how you treat someone else.”
Sib is forced to try and figure out at last who she wants to be.
Discussion: There are so many aspects to this story that deserve mention, but the most significant is the treatment of sexuality. The author takes us through the gamut of attitudes toward it, especially the differences between how the boys and the girls think about it, and how, within those groups, those with good self-esteem differ from those without it. The author also puts into relief the heteronormative assumptions so characteristic of the majority.
The absolute best message of the book to me, however, is a somewhat spoilery one, so if you want to avoid it, skip to the Evaluation.
DISCUSSION WITH SPOILERS: SKIP TO EVALUATION TO AVOID:
I was rather surprised that Sib ended up having sex with Ben, although given her physical attraction to him combined with her susceptibility to social pressure, I should not have been. But I loved her reaction to her first experience. After having sex for the first time she thinks:
“Orgasm – huh – sooo much easier on your own. Who knew? How do people even coordinate it with all that distracting – sex – going on?”
I also loved that after she had gotten this landmark experience out of the way, she doesn’t feel the need or desire to repeat it until she is ready to do so; until there is a better prologue and build-up, which she and Ben have not had. It’s an important step she takes in asserting her own preferences apart from social pressures.
END OF SPOILERS.
Evaluation: This is a moving and memorable story. The two issues it explores in depth – grief and sexuality – are handled expertly and with keen insight. As for the sexuality, I’d say it is about the best YA book I’ve seen for presenting the pros and cons of premarital sex with intelligence, understanding, and without didacticism. This book has won a number of well-deserved awards, including Book of the Year (Older Readers), Children’s Book Council of Australia.
Published in the U.S. in 2014 by Poppy, an imprint of Little Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group.