Kirsten Krauth, just_a_girl (Review)

Kirst Krauth, Just a girl

Courtesy: UWA Publishing

If you’ve already heard about Kirsten Krauth’s debut novel just_a_girl, you’ll know something about its confronting nature – and it is confronting, though perhaps not quite in the way I expected. It was both more and less, if that makes sense.

However, if you’re not Australian, you may not have heard about this novel. Essentially a coming-of-age story, just_a_girl is told in three voices. Two are first person – Layla, a 14 to 15 year-old-girl, and Margot, her mother – and the other is, interestingly, told third person, Tadashi, a lonely Japanese man. The main voice, though, is Layla. She opens and closes the novel, which is set around 2008 in Sydney and the Blue Mountains.

Layla typifies the modern knowing teenage daughter that parents worry they may have. She’s sexually precocious and is acutely aware of her effect on men. She’s what many would call “a tease”. She tells us, though, that she’s a virgin (technically, anyhow, because she’s done pretty much everything else). She wants, she says, to wait until she’s 16:

Fifteen just seems too skanky. You tell your kids you lost your virginity at 15. They’ll just want to do it even younger.

This tells us something more about Layla – her street-wise wisdom. It’s believable because Layla has had to grow up fast. Her parents separated when she was in primary school because her father finally admitted his homosexuality. Her mother, prone to depression, turned to an evangelical church. Layla has learnt to navigate these waters with smart talking, and by using all the weapons at her disposal including personal attributes and modern technology. With studied insouciance, she tells us about her relationships, with her mother, her friend, her father, and various boys and men. She is not innocent, but she is also abused in several ways, by old and young, through the novel.

Meanwhile, her mother Margot struggles with depression, a sense of rejection and failure, and consequent inability to properly relate to her daughter. She has turned to God, but unfortunately the church she has chosen, with its hypocritical leader, is unlikely to be her salvation. You see how easily relationships can go awry during these turbulent years if family members are not strong and confident in themselves. But, Krauth keeps it real. This is not melodramatic. There are no over-the-top mother-daughter scenes, just lack of real communication leading to distance and lack of mutual support where both need it. By the end of the novel both have learnt something and are starting to see each other as people, rather than simply as roles. In other words, it’s not only Layla who needs to grow in this contemporary coming-of-age novel.

Into this mix is added a third voice, Tadashi. He often travels on the same train as Layla, and on one occasion rescues her from a risky situation. Like Margot, he’s lonely, used to relying on a mother who has now gone. In scenes reminiscent of the bitter-sweet movie Lars and the Real Girl he orders and takes possession of a sex (or love) doll which he sees as “a person” who will alleviate his loneliness. In some ways it’s an odd inclusion in the story but, besides his probably not essential role as rescuer, he adds another angle to the exploration of loneliness and relationships, and the use and misuse of sex to address gaps in people’s lives.

In her “Sources and permissions” note, Krauth tells us about her sources for “love dolls” and other ideas or events in the novel. She also explains that some of Layla’s comments have been inspired by teenagers who have appeared on SBS’s Insight program. She has listened well, because from my experience of similar programs I felt very comfortable (if one can call it that!) with Layla’s voice. She’s so fresh, so funny, so knowing, that you can’t help liking her and worrying about her vulnerability, while also being horrified.  Here’s a short example:

Mum says I have to be careful now that I’m in year 9. Because men will start looking at me in a new way. Fuckadoodle, they’ve been looking at me like that for years. Especially when I eat Chupa Chups on the train.

I was going to share the Chupa Chups (“I have a favourite game on the train trip home from school”) episode with you, but I reckon you should read it yourselves. It would be funny if it weren’t so disturbing. It’s a fine piece of writing about a sexualised young girl who “knows” too much. Talk about playing with fire!

Margot’s voice is quite different – the long run-on sentences versus Layla’s short ones convey her anxiety and uncertainty well. Here she is, for example:

When is this soul-searching going to end, I mean, I knew coming off the meds would be hard as I’ve tried it a few times before but it’s like I’ve sunk into a bog, and it’s been a horrendous week because of that film Layla hired, Brokeback Mountain, you know she loves Heath Ledger and was completely devastated when he died last year and everyone thought … [and on she goes for several more lines]

I feared at times that Krauth was trying to pack too much in – single mother, gay father, hypocritical evangelical church, breast cancer scare, viral you-tube, sex doll, workplace sexual harassment, and so on – but no, she made it work. They are treated as things that happen. She doesn’t trivialise, but neither does she labour. Instead, she keeps her focus on the main game, which is how we, and particularly young people and their parents, must navigate the modern digital world with its potential for serious ill, and how in such a world might we still forge meaningful relationships. A thoroughly modern book for a thoroughly modern audience. It will be interesting to see what Krauth does next.

Lisa at ANZLitLovers also liked the book.

awwchallenge2014Kirsten Krauth
Crawley: UWA Publishing, 2013
ISBN: 9781742584959

(Review copy supplied by UWA Publishing)

16 thoughts on “Kirsten Krauth, just_a_girl (Review)

  1. I have not heard of this writer even though I live in Australia. Sometimes I think I do not pay enough attention to Australian writers and many of them are really excellent. I need to focus a bit more on more own country. This book sounds really interesting and some of the contemporary writing about Australia’s young people is interesting.

    • That’s not totally surprising Pam …. I think a lot of debut writers slip under the radar even though they produce books well-worth reading. This is a book well-wroth reading and that is likely to make us all think about how the world is going and the impacts of the changes that we can’t stop even if we wanted to.

    • Yes, that’s it Louise – it is close to the truth. It recognises that this is how it is. There’s no point berating, the horse has already bolted. What we need to do is discuss more, particularly with young people, and books like this could very well help. I had it on my pile since January.

  2. I’m glad you admired it too, Sue. I think that Kirsten Krauth is a very promising writer. Not afraid to take risks, writing about contemporary life from a different angle, and a fine grasp of characterisation. More power to her pen!

    • Good question Max. It was an odd switch from first person for the mother-daughter to third person for him, but yes I think it worked, but it wasn’t particularly unusual. I just chose the other two to show how she differentiated their voices to convey their different personalities.

  3. I like the sound of this. It does seem as though there a considered ‘mix’ of characters but if the writing has power – and it seems as though it does – why not? Might order for my 18 year old daughter as well?

  4. You know that I wasn’t sure about this when I started reading, but by the end I’d come to value the experience of reading it. I still can’t quite say I loved it, I think in part because I struggled to connect with any of the characters at a personal level (which is funny, thinking about it, because it’s not like I had anything in common with the protagonist of Burial Rites, for example, and yet her voice caught my heart), and by the end still didn’t really like any of them at all. But I had, by the end, come to feel for them, and to be glad for the tiny small steps Margot and Layla had made in understanding each other.

    Layla did tug at your heart, though. Such a painful blend of vulnerable and fierce, loving and closed-off, hurt and capable of hurting others, aware of her power and also like a little child you just want to hug.

    Should I apologise for not being as wayward and “exciting” as a teenager as she was? 😉

    • Absolutely not Ms Gums Jr! I like your assessment … And particularly of Layla’s vulnerability – especially when she felt so invulnerable and on top of things when making those arrangements with men. It’s scary how confident young women can be, but they just, mostly, don’t know.

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