I see him from the train as it pulls in at Newcastle. He’s not bad enough to make me run away. But he’s older than I thought. Old enough to be my … maybe. He looks average but also kinda sweet when he spots me. He’s got a pretty hot bod. His smile lights me up. I can feel him framing me. Sizing me up as I swing towards him. I’m in my poxy school uniform.
When we first meet Layla, she’s on her way to meet a man she knows only from the internet. As she waits for her new lover to return to the hotel room they’re sharing for the night, she begins to tell us her story.
Layla is 14. The stranger she’s travelled to Newcastle to meet isn’t the only man in her life. There’s also Davo, her 18-year-old boyfriend, and an older man she refers to only as Mr C, whom she had seduced with a YouTube video made in her bedroom using the webcam on her laptop.
Margot, Layla’s mother, has no idea. She has her own problems to contend with. She’s still battling a lingering depression over her failed relationship with Layla’s father, who left her after realising he was gay. Margot has traded her antidepressants for religion … but is it really God she worships, or Pastor Bevan, the dazzlingly handsome leader of her new-found church?
Kirsten Krauth’s debut novel just_a_girl explores what it’s like growing up in the age of the internet. As catchy and incisive as the No Doubt 90s anthem that gives this novel its name, just_a_girl turns a critical eye on the often contradictory expectations society places on women of all ages.
Writing about the online world isn’t easy. So many novels that attempt to convey the experience of being online fail dismally, leaving us with characters who spout hackneyed, cliché-ridden txtspk that bears no relationship to the way anyone actually communicates online.
Thankfully, just_a_girl is different. It’s clear from the moment we meet Layla on the train to Newcastle that Krauth really gets the internet. Her characters chat, email, post and tweet in voices that ring true.
When it comes to voice, Krauth is in her element. Online and offline, every word of dialogue hits its mark. Though just_a_girl has three distinctive narrative streams, it’s Layla’s chatty, likable voice that, like that of most teenagers, can be heard above the crowd.
Layla’s chapters are a rapid-fire outpouring of information – frequently distracted, but always entertaining. Often sentences are split into pieces in Layla’s eagerness to express them:
Davo’s just got his Ps. For his 18th birthday. His dad gave him keys to his old car. It’s just been sitting in their garage. Waiting for someone to love it. Davo’s dad’s a mechanic. There’s a sea of car parts out their back door. The car doesn’t go too fast. But Davo’s not complaining.
Interspersed with Layla’s narrative are chapters written from her mother’s perspective. In direct contrast to Layla’s short sentences, Margot’s chapters are narrated in a breathless italicised barrage of information, piling idea after idea on top of each other until you’ve forgotten where she began. Here she discusses her marriage to Layla’s father:
And the way Geoff handled it in the end, I mean, he said he wanted to stay living in the spare room for a while to give him time to adjust, and I was in denial and thought I might be able to save us, you know, and we were about to renovate the kitchen and bathroom and there was mess everywhere in the house and I wanted to focus on that, not think about losing my husband, and I felt that everyone would think I was so stupid, that I was an idiot to have married someone who wasn’t attracted to women, and so I let him stay and we kept organising the plumbers and builders and renovated a house for a family that was slowly falling apart.
Sitting alongside Layla’s and Margot’s narratives is that of Tadashi, a quiet, lonely Japanese man in his 20s. Tadashi regularly sees Layla on the train, and develops a fascination for her. Layla notices Tadashi, too. She starts reading the same Murakami book he’s reading in the hope that he might speak to her. Without ever exchanging a word, Tadashi and Layla unexpectedly manage to meet.
Tadashi is the perfect counterpoint to Layla and Margot, the masterstroke that makes this novel complete. His detached, third-person point of view provides the reader with welcome moments of respite from the noise of Layla and Margot. It’s Tadashi’s presence that brings the novel into focus.
At heart, just_a_girl is a meditation on loneliness in the age of social media and the things we reach out for to comfort us. Whether it’s strangers on the internet or religion or antidepressants or alcohol or sex, all of Krauth’s characters rely on something to dull the ache of being alone and confused.
just_a_girl is more than just a coming-of-age novel. Krauth shows us that it’s not only Layla growing up; many of the adults in the novel are as adrift as she is. just_a_girl reminds us that growing up is hard, it’s lonely – and it never really ends.
Kirsten Krauth just_a_girl UWA Publishing 2013 PB 192pp $24.99
Michelle McLaren blogs about books, time travel and nice, hot cups of tea at Book to the Future (www.booktothefuture.com.au).
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