This isn't Belinda Jeffrey's first book, but it is her first published novel. And it's wonderful. It's assured, it's gripping, and in Barry Mundy it's got a character I ached for.
A lot of characters in young adult fiction are misfits. It's a common place to start for the YA writer, and for very good reason. Adolescence is tough. Teenagers seem to enjoy feeling bereft and angsty. So that's what we do to them in our novels. It makes the characters relatable.
But so often protagonists in YA novels aren't satisfied with internalised angst. Oh no, they whine. They whine and they whinge. They complain about their parents, their siblings, their schools, their teachers, their towns, their lack of prospects, their goddamn friends. And it gets so freaking boring. How do I know this? I could hold up several of my own books as Evidence for the Crown.
Barry doesn't do this. His life isn't perfect – his childhood hasn't been by a very long shot – but I don't think I felt a single shudder of self pity in his story. He's got a lot of serious shit to get through, but he doesn't wallow. He gets angry, sure, and he feels confused and lost for words, but at no point does he ask the reader to feel sorry for him. It's very refreshing.
But more than that is the language in this book, both in terms of the dialogue – the Top End Strine is pitch-perfect – but also the narrative voice. One review of this book described this book as having a 'sureness of touch'. I think that's something of an understatement.
The other thing I really admired about this book is the way the author managed to resist the urge to make it another 'issues' book. There are so many issues she could have latched onto: race, environment, a myriad of other matters of social conscience. But she allows these to colour the story (sorry, no pun on the title intended) rather than dominate it. It's a very impressive bit of writing.
(Brown Skin Blue is published by UQP.)
(For Facebook Notes readers: this post is redirected from my 'head vs desk' blog at headvsdesk.blogspot.com)