I’ve read some outstanding Australian YA novels over the past year: Undine by Penni Russon, Magic or Madness? by Justine Larbalestier, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (reviewed here)… But as far as I’m concerned, if we’re going to accept Markus Zusak as the King of the Australian YA Renaissance, then I’d like to crown Margo Lanagan as the Queen. If you read Black Juice, the 2006 Printz Honor winner, you know what I’m talking about. Anyone who can pull off a story where clowns are revered like royalty has to be a bonafide genius. And I’m happy to report that she shows the same astonishing combination of imagination and eloquence in White Time.
If you haven’t read either book yet… well. You’re in for a serious treat. Remember the first time you read something by Ray Bradbury? It’s like that.
Like some of Bradbury’s work, Lanagan specializes in speculative fiction - “what if?” stories. Stories set in worlds that are almost just like ours, but with a little sci-fi twist, a supernatural tweak. And with her utterly original “what if” scenarios - What if your secrets and sadness were as visible to the world as as those twenty extra pounds you’re carrying? What if your anxieties and desires were personified, and followed you everywhere? What if you had seen the future, and it left you too scarred and broken to live with the knowledge of what’s coming? What if your entire fortune depended on having a really good hair day? - Lanagan deftly explores the complex terrain of the human psyche.
Let’s face it - a lot of writers have good ideas. What’s great about Lanagan, though, is that her creativity is matched by her skill with language. Each story-world has its own slang, each character its own voice. There’s a sophistication here that makes me a little sad that her books are labeled YA - I think adults who don’t know any better will pass her by, and they are sorely missing out. Check out this passage from “Big Rage,” a story about a woman who hooks up with some, ahem, unusual characters who appear outside her beach house, and finally finds herself looking honestly at her failing marriage:
Run up there. Tell him. Explain, say my instincts. Feelings - relief, joy, love - swoop through me, a familiar fly-past. But instead of flying with them up the dune, I stand, weighed down by the mail-shirt and the sword. I see the shadowy banners those shiny little aeroplanes drag after them, the other feelings: my fear of James’s opinion, the pain of holding myself in this unnatural shape he professes to love, the anger at all the crap I take, all the ground I give, because I think that’s love, I think that’s a marriage - or thought it until, now, there’s nothing left of me, and James is married to a shadow-James, with all the life and interest and self squashed out of her.
I really don’t think I’ve read a more poignant and precise depiction of what it’s like on the bad end of a codependent relationship in any book, much less one intended for teens. Most of the protagonists are teenish, though, and the stories manage to be smart and accessible. Read this for yourself, and then pass it on to anyone, grownup or teen, who appreciates a chance to stretch the imagination. You’ll want to have someone to talk to about it.