09 August, 2011

'Little Sister' - Aimee Said

Al Miller is in Year 10 and living in the shadow of her pretty, popular, super-talented, super-respected older sister Larrie, who's about to do her Year 12 exams.

Using this simple, and common, story basis, Aimee Said has crafted a young-adult novel that covers an admirable number of areas of teenage angst, from identity to popularity to sexuality, in a plot that is both modern and believable. Said is young enough to remember what high school was like, but old enough to bring a degree of wisdom to her book. Most impressively, Said's novel doesn't patronise teenagers, but rather respects the issues it raises.

Social networking is a key issue in the novel. Facebook, blogs and mobile phones are used in the way that landlines and letters were when I was reading John Marsden: that is, the book doesn't draw undue attention to modern technology; it simply includes it as the current medium of communication. A particularly effective technique is included an imaginary status update for Al at the end of each chapter. There's a message in that technique: Al isn't putting those updates on Facebook; they're too personal, too honest. It's a reminder (as with several more overt plot points) that we still have multiple means of communication, and the internet is not the place to share everything.

Relationships work strongly in this book, without doting on backstory. As Al's best friend, Maz serves an archetypal role as the voice of reason. It's a common device in YA fiction - the more-sensible best friend - but, again, it's important as a reminder of the power of true friendship, of the existence of multiple opinions at a time when self-centredness can seem the only sane way forward. Al and Maz are friends with boys, and while there are romantic sub-plots for both of them, male-female friendships are presented without undue examination. I also liked that the backgrounds of the minor characters weren't unnecessarily fleshed out: one is wealthy, one has no father figure mentioned, but these aspects didn't need to be emphasised. The characters are granted idiosyncrasies, however, such as stinky feet or a predilection for counting cats. In a novel so concerned with identity, these touches help remind its target audience that we are all unique.

Most significantly, the book explores teenage sexuality in an exceptionally mature and empathetic fashion. 'Woman-identifying woman' is the school counsellor's uber-PC term for lesbians, and it's a subtle jab at society's ongoing awkwardness around terminology and acceptance. The book looks at the experience of coming out from several perspectives: those of siblings, friends, bullies and, admirably, parents and other adult figures. Social media, sexuality and science collide for an effective examination of how a teenager not only figures out who they are, but how they are going to tell the world.

I'm so impressed with Said's use of language, and repeated terms that capture the essence of exploratory adolescence. In her earlier novel, Finding Freia Lockhart, the titular character regularly took time out for 'boogie breaks', dancing to her heart's content in her bedroom, often until interrupted by a 'death stare' from her cat. The death stare is replaced in Little Sister by the stinkeye. As in the first novel, swear words are kept to a minimum, with 'shiz' proving an effective replacement (although the one use of the f-word in Freia nails a cathartic moment!). She makes great use of strikethroughs and brackets to add asides to the reader, again paying respect to her audience in acknowledging that they understand what's going on at a deeper level.

I found Little Sister laugh-out-loud funny at times, but it doesn't trivialise adolescence. The problems of identity and peer pressure are genuine, and pressure on young adults is surely only increasing as the global village shrinks ever further and we increasingly express and share our emotions via pixels. This novel is both quietly cautionary and strongly affirming.

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