Author: Kirsten Krauth 
UWA Publishing RRP $24.99
Review: Monique Mulligan 

At once darkly disturbing and infused with hope, just_a_girl is a clever debut novel by Kirsten Krauth. It’s tagged as adult fiction, but would also suit older teenagers, with much of the subject matter probably more familiar to them than oldies like me! Dipping into topics such as internet hook-ups, cybersex, sexuality, religion, mother-daughter relationships, teenage rebellion, and growing up, just_a_girl has plenty to offer, particularly for parents of teenagers and pre-teens; it’s one I’d recommend to mothers who are trying guide their daughters through the confusing maze of social media.
I try to imagine my mum when I was born. All lanky and full of hope. My dad driving them home from the hospital. With a little bundle of me. But my mum’s such a neat freak. She likes everything in its place. She says I was always getting into everything. I just can’t see how I came out of her. (just_a_girl by Kirsten Krauth, p18)

just_a_girl is told through three distinct narratives: 14-year-old Layla, her mother Margot, and Tadashi, a young Japanese man Layla sees on the train as she travels to school. Layla’s story begins in a hotel room in Newcastle where she is meeting a man she’s met online, but as she waits for him to return from the shop, she takes the reader back a few months, inviting the reader to see her life of cruising online, hooking up with an older man, and navigating a tense relationship with her parents. Her digital name just_a_girl and streetwise manner hints at the mask she wears to cover her loneliness, lack of confidence, and desire to be valued. Her voice is young but engaging, full of stop-start sentences that typify the speech of teenage girls everywhere. The characterisation is spot on. 

Margot has no idea about what Layla gets up to, both online and in and out of the house. Her depression, lack of self-worth as a parent and a woman, and her religion (or is it her desire for her pastor?) have blinded her to what’s going on; she wants to connect with Layla as she goes through adolescence, but just can’t seem to figure out how. There’s a telling sentence here, in which it’s clear that Layla craves boundaries: “Mum lets me down sometimes. She’s not on the ball like she used to be. I get away with my Newcastle adventure. Maybe I should start leaving clues. To make it easier for her to track my whereabouts.” Margot is still hanging on to the idea that somehow she could have prevented her ex-husband, Layla’s father, from being gay; she hangs on to her love for him and the idea of what could have been, if only she’d done something (what?) differently. Her voice (distinguished by italics) is like an extended stream of consciousness, where she pours out her thoughts with hardly a breath; it’s as if she’s so glad for the chance to say something that she just has to get it all out. I know how that feels.

Tadashi’s voice is smaller than Layla and Margot’s and provides some respite from their fast-paced narratives. His story is loosely linked via Layla; they see each other on the train and he later purchases a life-size doll (basically a sex doll, but Tadashi, it’s clear, wants more than that) that resembles Layla. I found his story almost haunting – a lonely young man, who acquires a doll for a lover because it lessens the feeling of isolation. Was it absolutely necessary to the story? Maybe not. However, it added another perspective on how people in this digital age deal with life’s challenges – for some it’s alcohol or drugs, for others its sex and/or porn, and for yet others, it’s religion or other activities.

Set mostly in Western Sydney (where I grew up) and the Blue Mountains, with a few scenes in Newcastle (north of Sydney), I felt on familiar ground as soon as I started reading. The location wasn’t the only thing that was familiar to me; I also related to Krauth’s description of how some bigger churches run. Lots of good words preached, but the reality is that flaws in character and behaviour, and feelings of depression, confusion and pain cannot be wiped away simply by attending church. That said, I particularly liked the way she showed that people within the church are not all good (interestingly, in this case it was the pastor), but didn’t come across as judgemental of churches as a whole. I do believe that while Christian people can be judgemental, reverse judgement also happens.  

just_a_girl is one of those books that inspires a lot of thought and talk; there’s so much I could say about the issues it raises and the way it’s written, but it’s time to wrap up. Although it’s disturbing at times, Krauth tempers that with the occasional laugh; it’s interesting, complicated, confronting and unusual all at once … just like life. just_a_girl is both a coming-of-age story and one that examines mid-life with perception and honesty, making it a worthwhile book for parents of adolescents, but also for book clubs.

Available from good bookstores and UWA Publishing. This copy was courtesy of UWA Publishing.

Bookish treat: I took a trip back to adolescence and munched on Twisties while I read this.




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