TEXT review

Not just any girl

review by Sandra Burr


Macintosh HD:Users:lindaweste:Desktop:justagirl_web.gif

Kirsten Krauth
UWA Publishing, Crawley 2013
ISBN 9781742584959
Pb 272pp AUD24.99


Layla is only fourteen with a life centred on online cruising, experimenting with sex and meeting strange men in hotel rooms while juggling school, a part-time job and an older boyfriend Davo who desperately wants to have sex with her. Layla’s dad says she’s ‘fifteen going on fifty’ (197).

Her mother Margo has her own concerns. Abandoned by Layla’s father who left her to pursue a homosexual relationship with a man on the Gold Coast, Margot is depressed, and increasingly obsessed with the sleazy, yet charismatic pastor who leads the evangelical church that she attends in the hope of deadening her pain. Margo knows Layla needs her but her daughter is an expert at avoidance and deception, ‘Mum lets me have the laptop in my room for homework. She has no idea of what I really get up to. The internet means I can play with myself. In all kinds of ways’ (85). The connection between Layla, her mother and her father is frayed almost beyond repair. 

Layla and Margo live in Springwood in the Blue Mountains and Layla spends a lot of time on the train. Tadashi, a lonely young Japanese man who carries a large suitcase, is also a regular commuter and while he and Layla develop a fascination for each other, they never connect.

Krauth tells the story in two narrative styles: first person for Layla and Margo, and third person for Tadashi. Layla’s story is the distinctive, sometimes maddening voice of a fourteen year old girl who fluctuates between being aggressively worldly and off hand, and desperately in need of her mother, ‘Mum just can’t seem to talk to me directly. She’ll hand me a book. Or leave bits of paper around for me to read’ (25). Layla’s sexual adventures are underpinned by a longing to be loved, ‘What I’ve always wanted from a guy is a love letter. Not an email but actual words down on paper’ (14). The author uses short sentences, disjointed thoughts and contemporary idioms of speech to create the voice of Layla which is convincingly authentic.

Davo catches the 7:15 train to Penrith. When he gets up on time. Same school but no uniform. I can’t believe he’s in year 12. On our first train date it was front carriage. Bad hair day. I was sweaty in my tunic… Dark curly hair and great shoes. Skateboard dreams. He leans over and swirls his tongue into my world. Our kiss went from Glenbrook to Emu Plans. (14)

Margo is a less convincing character. The chapters devoted to her are written in italics to emphasise the difference between Layla and her mother, and while the latter is cast as overwhelmed, and desperately unhappy, there is also a somewhat self-conscious inflection that verges on the didactic: ‘I grew up thinking I’d have a brilliant career and that many possibilities were open to me … it feels like I never switch off, I wake up working and I fall asleep working … (47) … ‘And the thing about depression is it makes you feel fuzzy around the edges and you can never quite grab it with your mind …’ (121). For someone who is so dysfunctional, Margo displays a self-awareness that tends to override her supposed fragility.

Tadashi’s story, told in third person, offers a different perspective. Tadashi’s aching loneliness reaches out to the reader, and yet offers welcome relief from the relentless unhappiness expressed by Margo and Layla. Tadashi finds his own creative, if warped, way to make ‘the silver serpent of loneliness start to slither away’ (175), but ultimately this is a book that hammers home its underlying theme of overwhelming hopelessness: the moth battering against the train window is released only to flutter straight back into the train carriage; and Layla’s growing realisation that the world is one big ball of lies and disappointment leads to the fake bravado with which she faces life, ‘But fuckadoodle, I don’t really care’ (118).

The author describes just_a_girl as a work of contemporary fiction, but it also fits into a growing body of Australian young adult fiction that deals with disaffection and the difficulties of negotiating the narrow divide between childhood and adulthood in a world fraught with danger.  just_a_girl displays all the hallmarks of the genre: characters ground in gritty realism; a location set in the stifling mundaness of suburbia; references to popular culture; meditations on the power of social media; and protagonists like Layla struggling to find where they fit in the world. Comparative examples might include Sonya Hartnett’s All My Dangerous Friends (1998), Alyssa Brugman’s Finding Grace (2002), and Christie Thompson’s Snake Bite (2013).
just_a_girl had its genesis in the author’s Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Sydney. While not perfect, it is an edgy, confronting, thought provoking work that deserves a wide readership and much success.





Sandra Burr is an adjunct in the Faculty of Arts and Design at the University of Canberra where she is currently research officer on the ARC funded project ‘Understanding Creative Excellence: A case study in poetry’. She is a member of the University’s recently established Centre for Creative and Cultural Research and her research interests include human-animal relationships and animal art.


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Vol 17 No 2 October 2013
General editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Reviews editor: Linda Weste