I recently picked up a couple of highly anticipated contemporary Young Adult novels to read. Coincidentally, they are both Aussie novels which are now being published in the US with stories featuring positive focus on female characters and their bourgeoning sexuality and sense of self.
Wildlife (Poppy/Little, Brown; Sept. 16th, 2014) is a stand-alone companion novel to Fiona Wood’s Six Impossible Things. It has a split narrative that alternates between two girls – Sib and Lou – as they spend their posh high school’s nine-week wilderness experience.
Quiet, studious Sib is experiencing a sudden change in popularity after a modelling gig put her face on a billboard. Between that, then falling in love with the coolest and most popular guy from school whilst trying to stay true to herself, Sib also has to navigate the tricky waters of a dysfunctional friendship with best friend Holly, who is the one used to the spotlight.
In the meantime, Lou is the New Girl. A supporting character from Six Impossible Things, Lou is grieving over the death of her boyfriend who died in a terrible accident – the first boy she has ever loved. She is hiding from life and keeping from others, telling the truth of her intense feelings only to herself (and us). Slowly, Lou starts to care about experiencing life and developing friendships again but that journey is always framed by a lingering sense of guilt and attachment.
Wildlife truly excels in many ways: in the juxtaposition of both girls’ experiences with friends and first lovers; in the way that female sexuality and experience are treated positively and in a way that empowers then rather than allocating a sense of shame; how Sib is a self-proclaimed feminist and friendships develop and change. It’s also interesting in the way that each girls’ narration feeds off each other’s and how through Lou’s astute observations we see what Sib doesn’t voice, doesn’t see (or rather doesn’t want to see). Including in that is the damaging dynamics of Sib’s friendship with Holly, the latter’s cruel machinations the one slightly off-note in an otherwise excellent novel. Bonus points for the heady mixture of heartbreak and humour:
“You said it again, softly, I love you; you were looking right into my heart. You said it again, almost shouting. And you were laughing and it was as though you were so happy you couldn’t believe that someone had given you this good thing.
And it was partly that, and it was partly because you were thinking you’d had a premature declaration, whereas guys your age were more generally associated with premature ejaculation.”
The burgeoning sexuality of its main female character in the context of a budding, difficult friendship is also one of the focus of Simmone Howell’s Girl Defective (Atheneum; September 2 2014) . Author of the equally excellent Everything Beautiful, Simmone Howell displays her hallmark careful approach to complex, multi-faceted characters and rebellious teen girls.
Skylark lives with her father and her little brother in a shabby apartment above their vintage soon-to-be-out-of-business record shop. Dealing with feelings of abandonment since her mother left and frustration with her father’s continuous irresponsibility and struggle with alcohol consumption, Sky is a “girl defective”, her perceived imperfections a side effect of her evolving self-identity.
Part of that is experiencing the first signs of love and lust for both a charismatic girl and a sad boy but also getting drunk and taking drugs, lying to her father, leaving curt, sardonic messages on her mother’s website all leading down the path of self-determination and understanding of her own wants and desires.
It’s a family story, a love story and the story of a town portraying its struggles and the underbelly of a place struggling with economic disaster, drug and crime – all of it underscoring the relationships in the book. Also: a lot of music. It’s a great book and one that beautifully captures those moments of frisson just as you are about to experience things for the first time.
Both hugely recommended.
Rating: 7 – Very Good
(The original plan was to also include my thoughts on I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson. This is a novel I have been waiting to read for what feels like a century, ever since I read, loved, Top-10-ed her first book The Sky is Everywhere. I started reading and the first chapter already blew my mind away with the prose, the voice, the mixture of humour and heartbreak I love but then the second chapter went full on into This Is a Tragedy Mode and I found that it’s not the right moment for me to read it. To Be Continued.)