Enigma and in­ten­sity in teenage awak­en­ing

So­phie Mas­son

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

THE first novel of Sonya Hart­nett’s that I read was the haunt­ing Wil­ful Blue ( 1994). Hart­nett’s lush yet fresh prose, spiced with gothic, her novel’s com­bi­na­tion of in­tense ob­ser­va­tion, sen­sual de­tail, per­va­sive me­lan­choly, sen­sa­tional events and char­ac­ters with un­usual, fin-de-race names, had for me more the feel of, say, Amer­i­can south­ern lit­er­a­ture, or the work of writ­ers such as Wilkie Collins, than what we were ac­cus­tomed to in Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture.

And her char­ac­ters, in their 20s, were older and more so­phis­ti­cated than peo­ple were ac­cus­tomed to in the field of young adult fic­tion, in which genre the book was first pub­lished.

Con­tro­versy raged over Hart­nett’s subse- quent nov­els, sev­eral of which re­ceived nu­mer­ous chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture awards. The ar­gu­ment was not be­cause of the qual­ity of her writ­ing, which was rarely in dis­pute, but about whether her books were truly YA.

Many crit­ics, li­brar­i­ans and teach­ers felt the is­sues dealt with in her nov­els — such as sui­cide and in­cest — put them be­yond the YA pale, when a com­mon fate of prizewin­ning nov­els in this field is to be mined for themes and is­sues for dis­cus­sion in the high school class­room.

Typ­i­cally, the con­tro­versy be­gan to die down once Hart­nett’s books started be­ing pub­lished over­seas — some­times as YA, some­times as adult — and be­gan gath­er­ing chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture awards there too, in­clud­ing The Guardian ’ s chil­dren’s fic­tion prize in Bri­tain and, most re­cently, the very rich and renowned Astrid Lind­gren Memo­rial Award in Swe­den.

Mean­while, the au­thor con­tin­ued to con­found ex­pec­ta­tions by di­vert­ing from her trade­mark Aus­tralian gothic to the lovely chil­dren’s novella set dur­ing World War I, The Sil­ver Don­key , and the folk-tale feel of The Ghost’s Child .

And now to But­ter­fly , which again oc­cu­pies her fa­mil­iar cross­over ter­ri­tory, but which is nev­er­the­less a de­par­ture.

It is Jame­sian, per­haps, rather than gothic, in its ex­plo­ration of the in­com­plete knowl­edge of the child face-to-face with the adult world, a bit like What Maisie Knew, but with a twist.

It is not only the child who has the in­com­plete knowl­edge in But­ter­fly.

Never mind those class­room is­sues, Hart­nett’s in­ter­est is in the way fam­i­lies work — es­pe­cially un­happy ones, of course, fol­low­ing

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