Secrets and lies, Fleur Beale

Love and Other Excuses
Jane Westaway
Longacre, $14.95, ISBN 1 877135 28 3

Hostel Girl
Maurice Gee
Penguin, $15.95, ISBN 0 14 130653 X

Jerome
William Taylor
Longacre, $14.95, ISBN 1 877135 29 1

I started reading Love and Other Excuses late at night after an arduous walk. I thought I would read the first chapter. I put it down when I’d finished it. This is a good read.

It takes skill to drip-feed in the terrible secret that the character (in this case Zoe) knows and the reader doesn’t. I dislike books where I feel I’m being teased and tormented for no good reason. Jane Westaway handles it brilliantly. The mystery concerns Zoe’s mother, where she’s gone and why. Zoe, who narrates the story, can’t bear to talk about her mother, can’t even think about her. And yet the problem of her mother consumes her.

Zoe is dropped with devastating abruptness into a different life when her mother leaves. She has to face her father’s disintegration, her own falling in love and hence her sexuality. For a start, she rejects sex in her relationship with Tom. To do otherwise would be to confront her feelings about her mother and her mother’s sexuality. She doesn’t want to have sex with Tom because she doesn’t want to be a slut like her mother.

Surrounding all this is the non-sense of her mother’s betrayal. She wants to know why, but she doesn’t want to have anything to do with her mother.

The characterisation is strong. Zoe is real and believable as are the issues she struggles with. What is love? Does one person’s happiness automatically mean that someone else has to be unhappy? What about sex? Should she or shouldn’t she? Will that mean she’s as bad as her mother? Why did her mother betray her?

The relationship that sustains and then challenges Zoe is with Tom. It is intense, warm and very real. Tom’s vulnerability, needs and strengths make him a character who stays with you. Maybe Westaway’s next novel will be about Tom. What does he do about his mother and her smothering love that feeds him physically but is likely to choke him? I was desperately sorry for him, returning home out of a sense of duty in order to keep his vacuous mother company. She starts off being friendly, cuddly and motherly but as Zoe gets to know her, the sinister clinging side is exposed. She is a nice contrast to Zoe’s mother and to her friend Monty’s mother. These two women, while apparently having damaged their daughters, both seek the best for them. Tom’s mother can’t see beyond her own needs.

The big sex question is present for Zoe’s friend Monty as well and her solution is different from Zoe’s. Monty, dealing with the results of her solution, discovers what is really under her mother’s “television feminism”. For this is also a story about the tortuous relationship between mothers and daughters. Zoe is much more unbalanced by her mother’s deception and betrayal than she is by discovering her father’s fallibility.

The theme of sex is well handled – it’s not a clear-cut choice for Zoe. But what comes through is not the “issue” – it is Zoe herself, making her own decisions from the pain and joy of her own life.

The ending doesn’t wrap everything up in a happy-ever-after package, but it is one of hope and possibilities. A problem when writing of a strong teenage love affair is that it can’t realistically end in the couple being together forever. What novelist wants to tie a feisty heroine to her first love at the age of seventeen? Westaway’s ending is satisfying.

2

Maurice Gee does 1955 very well. I was there and I remember it. The setting in both time and place is meticulous. The description of the hostel and its rules took me right back (although not to the Woburn Hostels of the story) – with a shudder.

Ailsa lives there with 300 other girls. She is fourteen and her widowed mother is one of the matrons. Every six months Ailsa gets a different room-mate when the new intake of dental school nurses arrives.

At the start, she’s fairly negative about the hostel. Its rules, food and ambience are described in enough detail to make you glad time travel hasn’t yet been invented. However, when she meets the Page family and the formidably snobbish Mrs Page, she defends the hostel. There’s company there and exciting things happen. It’s a lively place and her current room-mate, Gloria, is colourful and has a love life which fascinates Ailsa.

It’s at the Pages, when Calum (the son who has a weak leg from polio) is coaching her at tennis that she has the first confrontation with the sinister Errol Parkinson.

This is the beginning of things going wrong, of a sense of something not being right. Who is sending the love letters to Gloria? Who is the man in the dark coat who waits and watches? Is there still a peeping Tom round the hostel? Is Gloria pregnant and if so, what will she do about it? How can Ailsa help her?

The plot is skilful. It twists and turns as the tension rises. Ailsa’s night bike ride to try to find out the identity of the man in the dark coat is pulse-raising stuff. “Love is pure,” he tells Ailsa, but she knows the love he professes for Gloria is anything but pure.

The relationship between Calum and Ailsa develops despite Calum’s mother saying that Ailsa, with her common vowels, is straight out of the Mazengarb Report. Calum supports her in trying to unmask the man who is obsessed with Gloria. Both Ailsa and Calum are there at the finish, but, realistically, not participants in it.

Hostel Girl is fast-paced and the main characters of Ailsa, Calum and Gloria come alive. Errol Parkinson is deeply sinister and unpleasant. Not the sort of man for a fourteen-year-old girl to meet alone on a bike at night.

I did feel that the plot took precedence over characterisation in some cases. Ailsa’s mother should have come to life, but she remains a shadowy background character. The snobbish Mrs Page, who is less evident, is much more real. But this is a minor quibble. The writing is, as always, masterly: Ailsa’s heart doesn’t thud with fear – it “made a hard flat bounce like a cricket ball.”

3

Jerome is a book that is going to polarise people – you’ll either love it or hate it. I loved it. William Taylor has taken the too-hard basket and given it a clean-out. Jerome deals with a fair number of taboo issues – homosexuality, suicide and racism. It is also well-seasoned with the dreaded F-word.

It is the story of two friends, Katie on a year’s exchange in America, and Marco back home in New Zealand. They are desperately trying to come to terms with the death of their friend Jerome. They communicate via phone, fax, e-mail and chat line. When Katie comes home for Christmas, they talk.

The voices of the two teenagers are distinct and very real. Marco is the sort of guy you wouldn’t want your daughter – or son – to bring home. He drinks, he smokes, he swears and he isn’t too keen on school or study. He’s very macho, very homophobic and is in denial about his friend’s death being suicide, and about a few other fundamental issues in his life. Katie, on the other hand, is articulate and as up-front about the things Marco is trying to hide from as she is about her own sexuality. She refuses to let him romanticise Jerome or the relationship he had with Jerome.

As their correspondence progresses, Katie hammers away at Marco’s prejudices. She forces him to start thinking; she makes him do things like go and talk to Jerome’s mother; she challenges his beliefs and behaviour.

This isn’t a miserable book. It captures all the energy and humour of the teenage world. Marco sends Katie several small e-mails rather than one long one because he likes doing them. His e-mail address is “bigballs”. He’s amazed that he’s writing “all this shit” to Katie, is delighted with the odd big word he discovers.

The book deals with hefty issues, but teenagers will relate to it and want to finish it. Marco’s way of coping with his agony is all too familiar – cover it up with alcohol and make jokes. Katie, perhaps because of her distance, is able to make him face his fears and his pain. When she comes home she takes the final step and tells him what he doesn’t want to hear.

The issues in this story are ones kids – and their parents and teachers – face regularly. There are not too many books around that deal with them head-on and in an authentic voice. This one does. Kate de Goldi, in a radio broadcast, has called it “incredibly self-referential”. I find that a strength. That’s what happens when someone you love dies. That’s what the world is like when you’re an adolescent.

Required reading for homophobic teenagers – as well as for those who might be wondering about their own sexuality. Highly recommended for those who want a story that gets to the guts of things.

Fleur Beale’s novel Playing to Win was reviewed in our October 1999 issue.

Love and Other Excuses has been shortlisted in the Senior Fiction Category of the 2000 New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards.

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Posted in Literature, Review, Young adults
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