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Friday, July 27, 2012

'I'll Tell You Mine' by Pip Harry

Received from the author

From the BLURB:

Kate Elliot isn’t trying to fit in – that’s the whole point of being a goth, isn’t it?

Everything about her – from her hair to her clothes – screams different and the girls at her school give her a wide berth. How can Kate be herself, really herself, when she's hiding her big secret? The one that landed her in boarding school in the first place. She's buried it down deep but it always seems to surface. 

But then sometimes your soul mates sneak up on you in the most unlikely of places. Like Norris Grammar Boarding School for Girls, where's she's serving a life sentence, no parole, because her parents kicked her out.

So, how do you take that first step and reveal your secrets when you’re not sure that people want to see the real you?

Kate Elliot has done something so bad; her parents are kicking her out of home and into boarding school. What’s worse is that everyone at school knows there’s something odd about Kate switching from day-girl to prison boarder. She lives in Melbourne, for crying out loud! There’s no reason for her to commute to the boarding house, unless everyone’s suspicions about her freakdom are true . . .

This is just another in a long line of incidences that make Kate stand out like a sore thumb. She also dresses ‘Goth’ (not to be confused with emo – ever!) thanks in part to her two best friends, Nate and Annie, whom she met while waiting in line at a music festival. The Elliot name may be quite a prestigious one these days, what with her mum being a big-wig politician in Canberra – but Kate can’t live up to her ideals lately. If they’re not fighting about her room, aka: ‘the pit’, then they’re waging warfare about Kate’s clothes/hair/friends/curfew . . . it seems that Kate has ongoing battles at school against the blonde brigade and at home with her perpetually-disappointed mother. Kate can’t win.

But kicking her out of home isn’t going to fix things. At least, Kate doesn’t think so. She’s rooming with Harriet and Jess – two of the perfect posse at her school. And then there’s her third roommate, Maddy Minogue; a girl with an easy reputation and a hot brother called Lachy. This is going to be a disaster.

‘I’ll Tell You Mine’ is the debut young adult novel from Australian author, Pip Harry.

Let me start this review by confessing something. THIS WAS MY LIFE! . . . Speaking as an ex-private all girls schoolgirl, I can safely say that Pip Harry has nailed the Norris collegiate setting of ‘I’ll Tell You Mine’. I too had to adhere to wacky school rules like not eating hot food on the street in our school uniforms, always wearing our straw-hats when outside the school gates in summer and that the cloth belts on our ‘ginghams’ had to be tight and riding securely on our hips – and that’s just to name a very few. We also had Year 12 prefects who manned the school gates, inspecting uniforms and handing out detention slips (I later became one of those detention-giving prefects; I was Magazine Captain, of course! And I've got to say, it was an enjoyable power-trip).  My high school also had a boarding house attached – and the same way that Kate Elliot views the boarding house as something akin to mandatory detention, that was also the general consensus when I was at school. The ‘day girls’ really didn’t mix with the boarders – we thought it was weird that when we went home after school, they remained forever imprisoned. They were a very cliquey bunch, and the entire boarding house seemed to be an extended family who was as disinterested in us as we were in them. It wasn’t until Year 12, when a shared common room and the impending sense of doom that was final exams, actually gave us all a chance to bond and get to know one another. And us day girls discovered that those boarders could PAR-TAY! Turns out, they didn’t hide away in their cell-like rooms after the 3:30 bell. They snuck out. They each had a boyfriend-backup system to break out of school at night and live their teenage lives in heady abandon. They were actually kinda great.

I admit, the boarding school setting intrigued me (especially with ‘On the Jellicoe Road’ being one of my favourite books of all time!). But it was the opening paragraph that hooked me;

I've been grounded for sixty-two days this year. That’s 1488 hours of imprisonment. Of sitting in my room thinking about how much I hate my mother. I know I’m not supposed to hate someone who cracked her pink bits in half giving birth to me. But if you knew her, you’d understand.

Fantastic! Straight away I got an idea of Kate’s voice (pink bits – brilliant!) and in that first chapter we also learn that Kate did something so horrible to her mum, that she couldn’t bear to live with her for another second – kicking her out, and into boarding school.

So begins ‘I’ll Tell You Mine’, told from Kate’s perspective as she lives a term out of home, forced to fend for herself and reflect on how she, and her family, got to this drastic stage.

Kate was a really intriguing character. Arguably the most outwardly interesting (freaky?) thing about her is her appearance – full Goth, complete with black tulle, painted white face and drastic eyes. And while Kate adopted the Goth persona in part because of her love for the music scene, she also admits that attending school at Norris turned her invisible. She didn’t fit in with the Duke-of-Ed, white-jumper-wearing, blonde prefects, and so began to feel utterly invisible in a sea of over-achievers. Becoming Goth was a way for her to be noticed, to matter to someone, anyone.

Someone else who doesn’t fit in at Norris is Maddy Minogue – the girl whose mother died last year, and who has been busy building her reputation as the school ‘slut’ ever since. Arguably the two biggest out-casts of Norris, let alone the boarding house, I really loved when Kate and Maddy joined forces. They’re both wearing masks and almost playing a part, to an extent, and I really loved reading about how they picked each other’s layers away throughout the course of the book. 

As much as I enjoyed reading the building-up of Maddy and Kate’s relationship, I also think Harry nailed the mother-daughter conflict that’s really at the heart of the novel. Kate’s mother is a politician, away to Canberra for most of the week, and seeming only to return home to yell at Kate’s dad and express for the umpteenth time her distress at Kate’s new Goth look. Harry beautifully gets to the heart of mother-daughter conflict with these two, as they butt heads over who Kate is and who her mum wants her to be.

I did feel like ‘I’ll Tell You Mine’ was just a little too loose in some parts. There were moments when I wanted the story to be tighter, or the characters to stay on the page for just a little while longer, to really be strung out and examined. Kate’s parents, for example; very early on it becomes obvious that Kate’s home life isn’t great. Her parents have a complex back-story, which involves them both being free-spirits once (her mum even sported a nose ring for a little while!) until Kate came along and her young, 20-something parents had to settle down and get married. Over the course of their marriage they’ve drifted further and further apart – her mum into politics and a high-stakes career, and her easy-going father into a part-time graphic designer who still chases waves on occasion. There was a moment in the book when Kate reveals that she knows how bad her parents’ marriage has got – but it’s a small reflection on a botched family vacation, and isn’t really revisited again. I thought Harry did a wonderful job of writing Kate’s claustrophobic home-life – that even if I thought Kate was quite unreasonable (and a bit of a terror sometimes) I thought any outbursts she had were also a product of her parents’ high-strung, walking-on-egg-shells marriage that forever seemed on the verge of cracking wide open. I was looking forward to that boiling-over moment in their marriage – if only for release (something I think Kate feels too). But it doesn’t come. Harry shied away from the tougher stuff and ended up writing a bit of a bandaid fix for what seemed like a far more complex relationship between two very different people.

I also felt like a few secondary characters fell by the wayside towards the end of the book. Kate’s fellow-Goth friends, Annie and Nate, were interesting. I wanted to figure out if they were the bad influences Kate’s mum seemed to think, or genuine friends deserving of Kate’s time and energy. There’s even an interesting crush set-up, when Kate reveals she has unreciprocated feelings for Nate . . . this storyline, in particular, could have been a bigger bombshell towards the end of the book, but Nate and Annie actually got very little page-time considering how important they supposedly were to Kate.

A few of the secondary characters did pique my interest though, as they drifted around Kate’s periphery – like her roommates, Harriet and Jess. Harriet cries at night, even though she’s a perfect-A pupil with her sights set on a school captaincy. Swimmer, Jess, is unsuccessfully hiding a secret from the world, and while everyone can see she’ll be a lot happier when the cat’s out of the bag, she’s holding on tight to the lie. And then there’s outcast Lou, a sweet-natured fellow boarder who practices sycophancy, but who should embrace her own voice and do her own thing . . .  all of these girls, along with Kate and Maddy, really helped bring the story together. And each of them, with their secrets held close to their chests, certainly had a case of ‘I’ll Tell You Mine’ if you tell me yours.

I feel like the last few chapters really started to pick up steam, and I especially felt more connected to the story and Kate’s plight when she travels to Maddy’s farm out Wagga Wagga way. I really liked this turn in the story, because Kate gets to see the fall-out felt by the Minogue’s, since the death of their mother to cancer the year before. I also really liked this country turn, because we get to meet Maddy’s intriguing farmer brother, Lachy. And it was in these final chapters that Harry wrote some of my favourite, heart-swelling scenes;

Lachy nods and he looks out at the road and the thick scrub.
‘You know what I really hate?’ he says, just when I’m starting to think he’s stopped speaking for the night.
‘When people say my mum has gone to a better place.’ He looks up at the sky, which is starting to darken. ‘No better place for her than right here, I reckon,’ he says, and it’s all I can do not to lean over and hug him. He sounds so broken. ‘Here is where her family, her friends are. Y’know?’
‘Yeah,’ I say. But I don’t really know what it’s like to lose someone I love. And I guess that makes me lucky.

Reading Pip Harry’s debut novel had me reminiscing about my own private school days, spent in chequered gingham and straw-hats, braving the ferocious wars of all-girl school terrain. Harry excels at setting – from the vivid recreation of dorm-life, to Kate’s claustrophobic home life with parents who are worlds apart. There were times when I wished we’d spent more time with certain characters or that Harry had chosen a rougher route for their development, instead of shying away on occasion . . . but, all in all, this was a lovely introduction to a new Aussie YA author who I will certainly be keeping my eye on.

4/5 

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