Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Review: Kirsten Krauth's just_a_girl and teenage concerns

just_a_girl by Kirsten Krauth (UWA 2013)

From the back cover: 

Layla is only 14. She cruises online. She catches trains to meet strangers. Her mother, Margot, never suspects. Even when Layla brings a man into their home. Margot’s caught in her own web: an evangelical church and a charismatic pastor. Meanwhile, downtown, a man opens a suitcase and tenderly places his young lover inside.

From the book:

"When we watch porn on Davo's computer it's like he's stoned. I don't even feel like I'm in the room. . He likes girl on girl action. Actually I like it better too. Or boys on boys. But Davo won't watch that. When it's a guy and a girl it's so mechanical. Like they're putting together Ikea furniture." (Layla, p27)

Kirsten Krauth's debut novel just_a_girl is such a great and unsettling read. I finished it two days ago and parts of it keep returning, like clouds passing across my mind, ones that maybe don't have silver lining. The novel has three voices, and of them Layla's was the one I connected with the most. Layla sounds so desperately detached - she almost fools you into thinking she's impermeable. She's a wry social commentator, especially when it comes to sex - and she is mostly concerned with sex and the power that it seems to give her - but there are moments where her pose slips and these are so poignant and powerful and real. I felt like I knew her, and wanted to put her in a box until she turned eighteen, or maybe twenty-five. Oh, the world is this vicious place and it's so hard to be just_a_girl when everyone around you is projecting their fantasies onto you! Layla's mother, Margot, is foggy and full of regret - all of her energy invested in being Born Again. Layla's father is a celebrity chef who's pretty much absconded from his fatherly duties, and embarked on a new gay lifestyle - you get a sense that neither knows what to do with their daughter - and this idea of parents who are more child-like than their children permeates the book - and it's very crushing and contemporary.

I was recently on a panel with Kirsten and Ellie Marney - we were talking about the difference between YA and NA and adult and how there can be no clear markers. I think just_a_girl definitely crosses-over. I found much to admire: the writing is sharp, the voices alive, the book is full of tiny, strange, wonderful observations, some that stop you like glancing blows. The third narrative strand, that of Tadashi feels more symbolic - here is alienation, and impending violence, disillusionment. The third person tempers the emotional intensity of Layla and Margot's voices. I'm thinking of books it reminded me of: Dianne Touchell's Creepy and Maud - (a book which has the ability to make old people anxious for young people - as evidenced in this situation where the author was dis-invited from a festival for fear of how the parents would respond ...) It also called to my mind the books I've read by Amy Reed, which I always have to buy online, read so fast but never regret - such powerful voices!

Often in YA parents are absent and the teen 'making their mark' on the world is the crux of the story. Here it all seems to be unravelling at once - the parents are in the middle of failing, Layla is in the middle of changing. Or have they already failed, has she already changed? I wonder if the lack of a clear hopeful end is the point where it gets shifted into adult. Or if it's because of the inclusion of adult voices - personally I don't mind some adult voices in YA - when it's done well - like say in A.S King's Vera Dietz, then I think a book can be more than entertainment and be like a tool for  a teenager to help navigate the hairy stuff. For this reason, I'd like see just_a_girl on some teen shelves too...

Kirsten Krauth is launching just_a_girl this Saturday in Castlemaine at Lot 19: See here

But for everyone else, you can find it at all good book shops. Highly recommended!

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