Grief, pain and ordeals by fire
Missing mothers, misogyny and grief feature in these compelling stories for young adults. Publication of a new novel by Claire Zorn is an Australian YA literary event. In Zorn’s latest book, One Would Think the Deep (UQP, 304pp, $19.99), Sam is a skateboarder about to start Year 12 when his mother dies suddenly. His aunt moves him abruptly from his home in Sydney’s inner west to the beaches near Wollongong, an area the author knows well.
Sam’s two cousins are surfers. Minty is expected to win a major competition and shows Sam how to surf. Sam had planned to study meteorology, but drops out of school and hones his skills finding the best waves.
Zorn’s descriptions of surfing and the sea are sensory, allegorical and charged with adrenalin. Her title and symbolism come from a quote in the biblical Book of Job (known for its suffering protagonist) about the Leviathan monster that leaves a “glistening wake; one would think the deep had white hair”. She draws further parallels between Sam, surfing and suffering.
The author also offers an insight into the male-dominated, misogynist surfing culture, where talented Aboriginal Ruby is cold-shouldered and girls are treated like livestock: rated and told what the guys would like to do to them when they walk past.
Sam notices a girl, Gretchen, who swims laps wearing Speedos and runs every day. Gretchen is beautifully formed: understated and “classy” rather than hot, and with darker hair than the blonde, bikinied beach girls. They meet through mutual friend Jono, who is neutral like Switzerland. Jono treats people fairly and his large Catholic family makes Sam feel comfortable.
Sam is attracted to Gretchen but loses his usual cool and has trouble speaking to her, even when he invites her to a party. Their nascent friendship is described through shared music, particularly the songs of Jeff Buckley, whose Loser, So Real and Grace are sewn into the story. One Would Think the Deep is set in 1997, when kids still listened to their favourite songs on the radio and when Buckley disappeared into the Mississippi River.
Music helps but doesn’t heal Sam’s residual rage. He seeks confrontation and feels that his family is disappearing. His grief causes snapshots of debilitating images to wind through his brain like a warping film reel.
The 13-year-old protagonist, Summer, in Emily Gale’s novel The Other Side of Summer (Random House, 336pp, $16.99), also faces raw grief. Her older brother Floyd was killed at Waterloo station in the 2005 London terrorist bombings. The Ibanez Artwood guitar that never left his side is recovered and returned to Summer and she plays the songs he left her: Waterloo Sunset, I Will Follow You into the Dark and Wish You Were Here. But once she plays each song, the sheet music inexplicably disappears.
The guitar becomes a leitmotif connecting past, present and future as Summer, her father and sister Wren move from England to Australia. Their inconsolable mother stays behind. Summer meets Gabe (Gabriel) a dreadlocked, brown-skinned, elusive boy at the creek. He has mysterious qualities and seems to appear and disappear. Time becomes fluid.
The natural Australian bush setting allows the author’s imagery to shine, particularly in contrast to the icy cold of London. Gale, a former Melbourne bookseller, is also skilled at evoking character and emotion in original, thoughtful images: “The night sleep covered every part of me like an oversized blanket. It was strange because usually sleep didn’t fit me properly and my feet would poke out the end and get cold.”
Summer changes after Floyd’s death. Her loneliness and anger cause her to behave nastily towards her young neighbour Sophie, but Floyd’s voice in her head urges her to be gentle. She remembers her Gran’s words about seeds in the dark growing once they find light. As the title hints, Summer learns that she, and everyone, has another side.
Books are an important part of Summer’s life. Her loyal best friend in London sends her a parcel of books, which includes Rebecca Stead’s thought-provoking Goodbye Stranger (which I reviewed in this column in January). Summer is fortunate also to be newly befriended by Becky Wong and her group. Becky is searching for the magic inside books and invites Summer to a book signing by a real-life Australian author, Justine Larbalestier. This is a carefully written, groundbreaking scene, the first of its kind I can recall reading in Australian YA literature.
A kind new friend and more missing mothers also appear in Melbourne-based Nova Weetman’s The Secrets We Keep (UQP, 232pp, $16.95), which, like The Other Side of Summer, is aimed at younger YA readers. Clem has to move to a flat in a new suburb and begin another school midterm because her old white weather- board home has burned down. There are battles with the insurance company, so money is short. Clem’s clothes are sagging and different from those of the girls at her new school, and she has to wear sticky-taped-together Converse sneakers for the running she excels at. She is grieving the loss of her mother and feels displaced and angry.
Clem and best friend Bridge from her old school were too lost in their conversations and sport to consider how new students felt. Fortunately for Clem, Ellie is friendly, particularly once she hears that Clem’s mother has died. Ellie’s mother has breast cancer and the two girls become closer, although Clem is burning with a secret.
Clem’s mother did special things with her such as swimming in the winter sea and having chocolate cake for breakfast. She was easygoing and the envy of Clem’s friends until “she went black … Slept a lot. And was really sad. And then she burnt down our house.”
Fire is used with malicious intent to burn more than a house in American writer Julie Berry’s second YA novel, The Passion of Dolssa (HarperCollins, 335pp, $29.99), set between 1241 and 1290 during the time of the medieval Inquisition in France. Dolssa is a pious young noblewoman who calls Christ her beloved. Her desire is “to shine his love into the world”, causing her to be accused of heresy. Her mother is burned on a pyre, but an unseen man unbinds Dolssa so that she can escape.
The tale is structured as a sophisticated mise en abyme where the stories of Dolssa and earthy matchmaker and tavern keeper Botille are told within the framework of Friar Arnaut D’Avinhonet’s later historical account. Dolssa and Botille are the main narrators and protagonists, although others, particularly fanatical friar Lucien de Saint-Honore, record events and give testimonies.
The young women’s lives intersect when Botille finds Dolssa dying near the river. With help from Symo, “the surliest, most unco-operative pig I’d met in a long history of meeting pigs”, Botille gets Dolssa to temporary safety in the tavern where she and her soothsayer and beautiful sisters care for her. Once healed, Dolssa creates miracles by saving three of the villagers’ lives but, as the author explains, the best way to “squash an inconvenient idea is to … quietly burn its records, discredit and suppress its voices, and deny their existence”.
A group of young people is also hidden and subjugated in Melbourne-based Em Bailey’s psychological thriller The Special Ones (Hardie Grant Egmont, 319pp, $19.99). They are locked away on a farm and moulded into a cult where each one must look like their counterpart in an old-fashioned photograph. “The Felicity” is a young blonde with braids, “the Harry” is bearded and broad-shouldered, “the Lucille” is a defiant, curvy brunette and “the Esther” is a tall, thin enigma who isn’t allowed to touch the other Special Ones. People are “renewed” (exchanged) at times, and the latest Lucille has been missing for several weeks, with Harry searching for her replacement. Her followers in the online evening chat rooms, where the four Special Ones guide outside devotees, are becoming impatient. The “collection” or kidnapping of the new Lucille looms.
Bailey has created a convincing world where the Special Ones are controlled by “him”, a man they have never seen but who has planted microphones and cameras in the farmhouse and who leaves written orders for them to obey. They each have a “remembering book” that outlines their roles, rituals and Amish-like duties such as bread-making, preserving fruit and sewing their cumbersome costumes. They face regular “verifications” where they must stand in front of their photograph, testing that they still resemble the original figure. There are many rules such as not mentioning their former lives or climbing trees, and the “punishment wheel” metes out self-inflicted sentences of fasting, cutting and whipping.
Danger, menace and fear build and Esther, who was previously soft and sentimental but is now an obedient girl of “stone”, starts losing her self-control and mutely challenges their lifestyle. As the sinister “renewals” escalate, we begin to hear “his” chilling voice and backstory. An ultimate reckoning is coming.
THE AUSTRALIAN BUSH SETTING ALLOWS GALE’S IMAGERY TO SHINE