Becoming someone else, Diane Hebley

Tomorrow All Will Be Beautiful
Brigid Lowry
Allen and Unwin, $19.99,
ISBN 9781741751604

The Transformation of Minna Hargreaves
Fleur Beale
Random House, $19.99,
ISBN 9781869418366

David Hill
Mallinson Rendel, $17.00, 
ISBN 9781877423062

Full marks to the three well-established authors here for their direct focus on the current concerns of many teenagers. Happiness jostles with despair in love and friendship, sex and pregnancy, in coping with authority at home and school, and in finding individuality and freedom.

All three writers show great sympathy for their characters. Teenagers grow through encounters with once-foolish, now-wiser adults, which encourages similar growth in readers. Humour is skilfully employed to ease difficulties without losing the poignancy of the moment. Dialogue accurately incorporates current slang. Narration, usually first-person confessional, is immediate and sure. Yet the voice of the author remains individual in each book.

Brigid Lowry’s Tomorrow All Will Be Beautiful is a collection of her short stories and poems written specifically for young adult readers. Such collections are rare enough when featuring different writers, for example, Like Wallpaper, edited by Barbara Else (2005). But most rare is Lowry’s publication with its overall individual voice. Witty, quirky, moving accounts cover the vulnerable teenage years and beyond from both contemporary and retrospective standpoints.

Nearly half the 28 stories or poems in this collection were published previously, mostly in Australian magazines during the 1990s. Lowry’s preface explains that the book has “a semi-autobiographical flavour, though at times it verges wildly into the fictional”. Many characters are very fragile, as in the longest story of 30 pages. “Petalheads” features several teenagers who are variously depressed, anorexic, bipolar, or addicted to drugs and alcohol, but who need love and friendship.

Other stories contribute to a kaleidoscopic effect as happiness alternates with hopelessness. The poem “My Hat” is a delight: “In this hat/I am poised/on the edge of an afternoon/poised on the edge/of becoming/somebody else.” “The wedding poem” is full of hope, the couple “flying a light plane into the winds of possibility and chance”. But in “Bittersweet”, a solo mother’s life crumbles around her as she empathises with her son and other competitors – the fat and the fleet – at the school athletics day. In “Tenth Floor”, Julia, pregnant at 15, endures violence, drugs, attempted suicide, the loss of her two babies to foster care, and finishes 20 years later in detox, battling demons.

Storytelling techniques vary from an email correspondence in “A True Story Involving Elves and Starlight ” through traditional narration to the use of subheadings before paragraphs. For example, in “Coffee, Love, Everything” set in a café, subheadings give the time and name of a pop-singer – Norah Jones to Van Morrison – to mark the progress of the day. Pen and wash illustrations from Beci Orpin Studios are individually unacknowledged, but charmingly decorate the pages, though they sometimes obscure the text. This, then, is a book to be dipped into and savoured at intervals, rather than swallowed at the speed one usually keeps for a novel.

Fleur Beale’s The Transformation of Minna Hargreaves concentrates on feisty, 14-year-old Minna and her family. Through their father’s enthusiasm for conservation, they are taken by helicopter in early August to tiny, fictional Motutoka Island in Cook Strait in order to carry out a year-long custodial project. In time-honoured fashion, Beale uses the isolation of her characters to intensify situations and relationships. The lack of most home comforts, including mobile phones, adds to Minna’s misery.

As in her previously successful novels, Beale effectively uses contrast in mood, behaviour and attitude. Initially, Minna enjoys happy relationships with her three girlfriends and new boyfriend Seb. Despite knowing he has got another girl pregnant, she lies to her mother Liv about her plans to sleep with him. Scoring, after all, gives status. Yet she complains her mother won’t trust her, and feels furious when Liv grounds her.

But Beale also conveys understanding and sympathy for her adult characters. Liv, for example, knows Minna is lying, as is Minna’s brother Noah. Trust becomes impossible. Indeed, Liv agrees to the island project only to protect Noah from drugs, and Minna from the very predicament that she, Liv, finds herself in. The drama of the novel intensifies when this predicament is exposed on day one on Motutoka Island. Liv’s morning sickness, exacerbated by the helicopter ride, forces her to admit she is pregnant, and her husband Wes is not the father. Wes, not surprisingly, scorns Liv and expects Minna to do all the domestic chores. Minna rebels, especially as Wes is soft on Noah, but she shows kindness in caring for the mother she declares she hates.

By day 15, Minna realises that Liv is dangerously ill and calls on the maritime radio for a doctor, much to the fury of Wes, an energetic man, but blustery and changeable (like Cook Strait), who cannot see that his absences from home have contributed to his wife’s loneliness and ensuing one-night stand. The remaining four months on the island pass sometimes quietly, sometimes stormily, sometimes tensely as when Minna and Noah abseil down the cliffs to go fishing. The monthly helicopter trips, bringing supplies and visitors, become high and low points. Strangely, however, the November helicopter visit doesn’t take place.

What makes this story yet more dramatic and humorous, even cynical, is the family’s agreement to having the whole project filmed as a reality-TV programme, for which they will receive a large sum of money. Producer Cara has had fixed cameras installed in the ceiling of the open-plan family room, and Minna has also agreed to use a portable camera. The family’s dysfunctional behaviour will thus be exposed to the world. So Liv’s agreement to the project is all the more surprising, since the revelation of her infidelity will inevitably destroy the family. Surprisingly too, the “toyboy” father of the baby agrees to TV exposure by visiting the island on the October helicopter trip.

Minna, however, does indeed undergo a transformation as the result of her island experience. In particular, she discovers pleasure in cooking, and a comic flair for filming, especially in her sequences with the chooks when she discusses family issues. She learns the value of fidelity in relationships, the importance of avoiding unwanted pregnancy, and her strength to cope with change. And, of course, the TV component should make this novel a prime candidate for film rights.

Sporting codes have been widely explored in young adult novels by various writers, including David Hill himself. But only a few writers, such as William Taylor in Spider (2002), have drawn on the richness of classical music. In Duet, Hill invites his readers to accompany his likeable male protagonist into an exciting new musical world, thus making a valuable cultural contribution to the teenage genre.

Kallum, who enjoys playing blues rather than classical guitar, is persuaded by his percussion mate Saul to join the local Youth Orchestra and perform Suite for Guitar and Flute by Manuel Castella (an obscure, if not fictional, composer). Kallum’s early training makes his achievement possible, while Paige, the orchestra’s lead flautist, is already a fine musician. Hill also conveys the particular delight of real composers: Copland in Fanfare for the Common Man, and Stravinsky in a suitably reduced version of The Firebird Suite. The concert itself is described vividly, although the question of balance between guitar and flute, usually achieved through amplification of the guitar, is not addressed.

Hill also makes a valuable social contribution by writing from a male perspective about teenage relationships. Kallum and Paige fall in love. A predictable pregnancy results. In the wonder and confusion of three crucial moments, Kallum does not use a condom, although Paige knows well the suffering that teenage pregnancy caused her own mother. The pity is that this young couple want to look after each other, but at 15 they are too young to cope with pregnancy. Hill clearly outlines personal and legal ramifications, softening the information spiel through his use of humour.

A familiar teenage world of home, school and the community includes idling in the mall, interacting with friends, shopping for CDs, or working in Saul’s mother’s café. The support teams of parents and other family members and friends help to widen perspectives which consider individual responsibility and the lack of blame.

But what the novel really seems to lack is closure. Readers have come to care about Kallum and Paige, and though the novel ends on their triumph in the concerto, the outcome of Paige’s pregnancy is left indefinite. Maybe bouts of cramp will lead to a miscarriage. Or maybe she will choose an abortion, which Kallum doesn’t want. Then how will she manage if she decides differently? Will Kallum be able “to make the future right for her”? Perhaps an epilogue would have given closure. Or is a sequel on the way?

The first two of these books were short-listed for this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, and deservedly so. Hill’s Duet missed out, which means it may miss out also on publicity and therefore readership. Yet all three deserve to catch the attention of those who wish to promote teenage reading.


Diane Hebley is a Hawke’s Bay reviewer. 


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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Review, Young adults
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