Songs for Alex
The Rome Olympics are a perplexing memory for Alex, now returned to Auckland, to the routines and strictures of training for uncertain goals, and returned, too, to the confinement of life in the sixth form.
Everybody wants to stake a claim: the sports-obsessives want time trials for the next Olympics, the press wants to serve her up as news-fodder for the sports-journalists’ columns, the clubs want her for publicity stunts: her school, pleased enough to bask in her reflected glory, makes a fine point of guarding its academic reputation by not accrediting Alex for University Entrance. The clobbering-machine takes many forms and different guises.
Fans of Tessa Duder’s ‘Alex’ series will again enjoy the lucid working-out of storyline detail that runs back to the very first part of the quartet and will find pleasure in the narrative technique of two first-person accounts, the who-is-telling-the-story-now? that both entertains and educates young readers in finer points of storytelling possibility.
Some will find Alex more egocentric, more enclosed, more sour than ever. She has few friends now, is largely hostile to everybody, and since so much of the story is entirely hers, other characters are somewhat thinly sketched, or have simply not developed. Family seem to be classified as background etceteras: chook-feeding Gran quotes Shakespeare from the Woman’s Weekly, poor Keith, gnome-like from the start, has no chance as would-be boyfriend, and has no chance of a sensible word anywhere either. Some narrative from him might have been valuable – and not outside the bounds of possibility. Tom, such a pill in Rome, makes his coincidental return considerably toned-down but having to be a kind of hand-person/ chauffeur/ door-opener for Alex for much of the story. And did they really carry on like this in Auckland University drama productions? Did sixteen-year-olds stomp all over their directors as Alex does when rehearsing the title role (no less, of course) of Saint Joan? (Imagine if she had been further afield and tried this on with Ngaio Marsh!)
These points aside, those who have enjoyed the series will not find Songs For Alex lacking in the qualities that pleased them, and they will doubtless applaud the conclusion.
Duder has written with great affection for, and involvement with, her Alex. It may seem that the tough-minded individual of the first volume has become more the representative, the embodiment of a number of ideals in her author’s mind by the end. Were there perils in sustaining so much obvious high-mindedness through four books?
Perhaps – and interestingly – Duder acknowledges this in the closing pages, as she approaches her leave-taking of Alex: ‘Goodies … are much harder, and can come over as complete prigs, dead boring,’ Tom says to Alex about performing Saint Joan. ‘It takes rather special people to play goodies convincingly.’
Prickly always, tendentious most of the time, Alex has never been boring.
Tim Mapplebeck is head of English at Paraparaumu College.