Review – just_a_girl – Kirsten Krauth

I occasionally complain that no-one writes books any more that require a bit of effort from the reader.

Whatever happened to the dense and difficult works that we all remember from our literary upbringing? Fiction these days seems mostly to fall into two camps – the escapist holiday novel, or the didactic political message novel – and neither leave you in any doubt about what the author really thinks.

just_a_girl by Kirsten Krauth falls into neither camp. Her debut novel is a welcome return to subtlety, ambiguity and the idea of literature as art. The best stories are those that bounce along at a decent clip, while at the same time gradually revealing their complexity, and finally leaving you to contemplate the consequences.

Always leave the reader wanting more.

To give an idea of the flavour, it reminded me a little of Morvern Callar, with a few nods to the intense internals of The Shipping News, but no debut novelist will be ashamed of such comparisons.

The story is almost a fabliau – a triangulation of narratives – two first person and one third. The main voice is Layla – Lolita with a webcam. She is 14 and ready, but despite her sometimes graphic disclosures about her developing sexuality, we are aware that she is not telling us everything.

The next voice is Margot – Layla’s mother, whose problems stem from a husband who left when he could no longer ignore the truth of his innate homosexuality. Margot has never quite recovered from the humiliation of being left for another man. She is worried about her daughter, but she is more worried about her own plight and is attempting to find redemption in one of those plastic/commercial churches that infest the West of Sydney.

Third, there is Tadashi – a displaced soul in an ill-fitting culture. The object of his poetic and deeply reverent affection is unable to properly reciprocate and he finds his thoughts increasingly turning to ‘the girl on the train’ – who is, of course, Layla.

The main theme, I would say, is loneliness (or maybe separateness), which is counterpointed by the connected world of the internet. Both Layla and Margot’s chapters read like blog posts or diary entries, and reveal their loneliness (Margot) and separateness (Layla). Tadashi is both lonely and separate. All three characters explore the condition in their own way while circling each other – never quite able to reach out for each other, or for the others who pass in and out of the story to complicate the fabliau and contribute to the revelations at the end.

If I had a criticism, it is that I could believe the sexual precociousness of Layla, but I struggled at times with her articulate insight into the condition and motives of adults:

“The train’s packed at this time with weekenders. North Shore couples retreating to their ye olde worlde cottages. Where they can fuck in the spa and have cups of tea on doilies. The cooler people head for Katoomba. They can buy alpaca wool. Or score some heroin to help the local junkie culture.”

I laughed out loud when I read that, but I sincerely doubt that any 14 year old could achieve the coolly jaded sensibilities requisite for such sophisticated sarcasm.

It is a small criticism, and the book more than makes up for it with page after page of profound, humorous, harrowing and (it must be said) very brave writing. There’s no way a man could get away with writing this style of work (Nabokov’s time has passed) but even a woman has to be tremendously gutsy to write about adolescent sexuality in such disgustingly PC times.

This was an entertaining and beautifully written novel which will have me contemplating for some time. Kirsten Krauth is likely to emerge as an important voice in Australian literature.

1 Comment

  1. […] finally leaving you to contemplate the consequences.” Adrian Deans, The Book Hammer. Read review. 10 August […]

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