11 February, 2008

'Saving Francesca' - Melina Marchetta

Melina Marchetta is the author of one of the best-received Young Adult novels by an Australian writer, Looking for Alibrandi. Her second novel, Saving Francesca, published 11 years after that debut, draws on many of the earlier novel's fundamentals. The title character, at 16 a year younger than Marchetta's first heroine, is an Italian-Australian school student attending a strictly religious high school in inner-city Sydney. She has family issues, complex and sometimes conflicting friendships and, although she starts out with no such intention, strong feelings for a brooding member of the opposite sex.

Both books centre around identity. In the earlier text this search was strongly rooted in culture, in the sub-groups that make up the Australian milieu. The identity issues in Saving Francesca are less concrete. Francesca is a teenager brought up in a modern household, with a (sometimes embarassingly) emancipated mother and an unfailingly optimistic father. She dearly loves her younger brother. In the year on which the novel focusses however, she has been taken from the girls' school and group of friends to which she was acclimatised, to start Year 11 at a boys' school as part of its first intake of girls.

The friendships at the two schools polarise Francesca's identity crisis. She is a strong, dramatic and articulate young lady, but for the sake of acceptance had made herself into something else at her former school. Yet within that pretence she had certainty and a group in which she felt placed. Now, starting again, she remakes herself, this time into a more introverted form.

It is a canny way of highlighting the despair and discomfort of adolescence. It also runs well alongside Francesca's mother's depression, as an adult also struggles to meet the peg-and-hole expectations of her community.

The themes are strong, but on occasion the language is clunky, too obscure to make a powerful emotional statement. It can sound somewhat like teenage poetry: full of powerful words and analogies but somehow the adjectives and nouns don't quite gel so the precise intent is lost to the reader. It is also a victim of the curse for writing for youth: anyone who has been young knows how awkward most conversations are, yet the writer has time to craft, hone and select the exact way to evoke that hit-and-miss. The inevitable juxtaposition was better handled in Looking for Alibrandi.

However, like Richard Flanagan, this book is proud of its birthplace. It's from Sydney, and more specifically the Inner West: Annandale, Leichhardt, Broadway Shopping Centre. That's important because right there is a reality in which any reader, teenager or not, can find some identity. The teenagers in this book are entrusted with mature topices: they talk about history, politics and women's rights. That respect may just help a teenage reader feel more confident in who they are.

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