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.
Crawley: UWA Publishing, 2013
(Review copy supplied by UWA Publishing)