Kirsten Krauth is an Australian blogger, editor and novelist. She is also the curator of Friday Night Fictions, an exciting new monthly online series for debut fiction writers that I follow with interest. Kirsten's own debut novel, reviewed by me below, was released this year, and I was, proudly, at the launch. She has also just launched this new web initiative called I'll show you mine if you show me yours in which authors exchange reviews of each other's work. It's another terrific idea that helps grow the review space online. You can read Kirsten's review of my latest book, Destination Cambodia, here.
In the meantime, let's see what I made of Kirsten's debut novel, the intriguingly-titled just_a_girl:
Another reviewer of Kirsten Krauth’s recent novel just_a_girl – Danielle over at Alpha Reader – described it as “a tough book...a necessary book. And one that I want to pass on to quite a few people.” This is precisely how I felt after reading it, having been skilfully managed by Krauth as she constantly teases the reader’s emotions, sliding us from anxiety, into fear and out into a kind of defiant memory of adolescence that leaves you with very conflicted feelings about the state of contemporary early adulthood.
The novel’s heroine, Layla, is a sullen and sexually precocious 15 year-old, more woman than child, and struggling to deal with the various roles she feels forced to fill. The author is adept at creating thoroughly believable characters, and I was absorbed in Layla’s own self-destruction, so wilful, so bloody-minded and so reminiscent of my own attitudes at that age. Just_a_girl is no moralistic, eye-winking lecture about the badness of yoof today. It is much more complex, much more subtle and much more real than that. As such I should imagine it will make for confronting reading for parents, and hugely entertaining for young people entering adolescence. Layla is the most flesh-and-blood teenaged character I have encountered in Australian fiction for years.
Layla’s mother is, perhaps because I am an adult reader, the most fascinating and engaging character in the book. A single parent immersed in the life of a Sydney mega-church, her chapters, written in the first person, expose a spiritually confused, emotionally raw woman who aches for the love of God but who is still too wounded from a lack of more conventional affection. She is coming off antidepressants and is more than half in love with her pastor, a Pentecostal smoothie called Bevan who, with his picture-perfect wife, encourages Sydney suburbanites to prosper through praising the Lord. The mother’s entire life becomes filtered through the prism of Riverlay Church’s peculiar worldview, and the celebrity pastor often stands in for Jesus himself in her own peculiar theology.
Kirsten Krauth captures so perfectly the myriad anxieties and bathetic crises of adolescent life, occasionally making me laugh out loud in recognition. When Layla describes her teacher, for example, who, underwhelmed by a lack of student participation, says “Well, it looks like I’m just going to have to pick someone. And I know my name is coming next.” Part of the charm of the novel is its own lack of pretension and the restraint the author shows in depicting some of the conventional concerns about modern childhood. Yes, Layla does get involved in cybersex, hooking up with older men and on-line bullying. But yes, she also has a kind of regular teenage life in which bigger, more historically conventional, matters loom, like a mother who drives her crazy, a largely absent father, and an overwhelming desire to find a hot boyfriend who loves her back.
Layla, with her casual obscenities and a very acute awareness of her own sexuality, is a perfect teller of stories, and has a capacity for acid social observation that will be familiar to anyone who has encountered the caustically honest tongues of teenagers. Observing that she is the inevitable crazy-magnet on the train, she describes one encounter with perfect economy:
“...he’s got the look. It’s always about energy. Crazies move around a lot. They can’t seem to control their limbs.”
What I loved about just_a_girl was its daring. There is very little cliché in here, and a great deal to challenge lazy pop-cultural assumptions about premature sexualisation and the readiness of young people to deal effectively increasingly social forms of online media. While she is very often powerless and shamed, Layla is also frequently aware of her own incredible power, both psychological and sexual, and the ways she can exploit that to her advantage. The book raises complex and deeply uncomfortable questions about the role of the internet in the development of the sexual identities of 21st century teenagers, and just because you may not like it doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. This is a story about the pragmatism, and even the occasional wisdom, of youth, and never lets itself stray into the shock-media’s narratives about what’s going wrong with our children.
That’s not to say this is a laugh-riot about coming-of-age. The book has justly been compared to Puberty Blues, and for me the most poignant moment came when Layla, through a series of worrisome sexual misadventures, is left feeling ugly and alone, unsure of her body and of the dynamics of adult sexual encounters:
“Was I too tall, too fat, too thin, too smart, too hairy, too sweet, too knowing, too sexy, too talkative, too self-conscious, too angry?
Too fucking alive?”
There is laid bare the real memory of adolescent awakening in which existential angst is imposed upon the fragile and inexplicable body. Anyone reading this passage, female or male, will be jolted by painful memories of their own, similar, internal dialogues at key moments of crisis. The angst is unsubtle, corporeal, and almost laughably simplified. Krauth just gets teenagers.
I’m wary of making this book sound worthy, like some kind of self-conscious exercise in social observation. Above all it is a fantastic read, a well-crafted and brilliantly engaging book which I know any young reader would delight in. It is naughty, irreverent and constantly honest, and Kirsten Krauth keeps the reader engaged through short, pithy, first-person chapters and constant unexpected twists in the story.
Read Shelleyrae Cusbert's review of just_a_girl on Book'd Out here