This year I am reading and rereading children and young adult ‘classics’ written by Australian women. Read more here.
Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta
(1992, Puffin Books)
When I was younger, we didn’t have a library in our town. Or the nearest town. In fact, our nearest library was a good half an hour away. Instead we had the mobile library, a bus adapted to carry shelves of books instead of people. It visited our town at 9am, Tuesdays, stopping outside our school. When we first moved to that town, the school let kids out of class to visit the mobile library. But that stopped after a few years and I was dependent on my mother to restock my library books.
That’s how I discovered Looking for Alibrandi.
I have an unusual first name – Melina. So when my mother found a new book written by an author called Melina Marchetta, she thought I’d be interested in reading it. (She had some unusual criteria for choosing my books. It usually worked really well for us) She picked really well – I loved the book, rereading it several times between then (1992 or 1993) and now. However, it’s been a couple of years since I read it last, and I was interested in reading it again for the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge – this time with a more critical eye.
Looking for Alibrandi is a ‘coming of age’ novel, like both The Min Min and Playing Beatie Bow. However, instead of looking at the emotional coming of age of a 14 year old, we’re spending some time in the life of 17 year old Josephine Alibrandi: “The seventeen that Janis Ian sang about where one learns the truth”. It turns out to be a tumultuous year for Josie, when she falls in love, learns some serious truths about herself and her family, loses a friend and gains a father she never knew she wanted in her life. It’s also her last year of school, her HSC year, just to add to everything else.
This is a really hard book to review objectively. I loved it when I was younger and I still think fondly of it. However, it’s not the best written book in the world – Marchetta’s later books are much better in terms of writing craft. From what I can tell, though, Looking for Alibrandi was a bit of a game changer in Australian YA books – bringing a very different voice into the arena, and paving the way for a lot of the books which came after. It deals with serious issues – racism, identity, family shame, suicide – but there’s still a lightness over it – Josie is a good person, her family will probably be ok in the end, she’ll probably go on and have a good life. We’ve just had a peak into a difficult time for her.
One of the themes which really resonated strongly for me on this reread was that things aren’t necessarily what they look like on the surface. John Barton (who I was thankfully able to disconnect from Matthew Newton on this reread) isn’t the self-assured debater with a guaranteed future – he’s a deeply troubled kid drowning under a sea of expectations. Josie and her friends aren’t the unpopular outcasts she assumes they are, they are all leaders in their different ways. Her family story doesn’t follow the narrative she thinks it does – there’s a lot more twists and turns and human failings and successes underneath.
There’s parts of this story which don’t work as well today. I’m not sure if Josie’s illegitimacy would be such a big feature, such a big scandal amongst other students at her school (students from different backgrounds to Josie) and some of the references are really dated. But the story of Josie and Jacob Coote continues to ring true in a lot of ways, and I’m still happy with the choice Josie made to do what felt right to her in that situation. (However, the scene where Anna and Josie are threatened at MacDonalds gets scarier as I get older)
I could probably ramble about this book for ages, and go even longer if I introduced the movie. Looking for Alibrandi may not be the best book in the world, but I do think it’s an important one in the history of Australian YA writing. I think it’s essential in telling the very real story of a young woman, while telling the equally real stories of the other women in her life – her mother and grandmother, her friends, even her teachers.