Looking For Alibrandi
Penguin Books Aus
2014 (originally 1992), 331p
Copy included in my #NBBF swag bag won via giveaway
Josephine (Josie) Alibrandi is the 17 year old daughter of a young single mother and in her final year at an inner-city Sydney Catholic high school. An English scholarship student, Josie has never really fit in at the school, not being from a wealthy background. Her Italian heritage and lack of even knowing who her father is places her in a position of isolation. Josie spends most afternoons thinking of ways to avoid going to her maternal grandmother’s house, knowing it’s just going to result in plenty of lectures about her lack of respect.
For Josie, this is the year that will change everything. After seventeen years of secrecy, her father will enter her life when he returns to Sydney from Adelaide and the two will attempt to forge some sort of relationship. There are also boys – John Barton, whom Josie has known for years and had a crush on as the two often debate together in inter-school tournaments as well as the rebellish Jacob Coote from a nearby public school with a notorious reputation. She will fall in love, she will experience heartbreak more than once and true grief. She will learn the secrets of her family that have been hidden for over a generation and find a new common ground with her strict grandmother.
Like a lot of people, I first read this book in high school. I would’ve probably been in year 10 or 11, so 1997 or 1998. I had little in common with Josie – I went to the public school with the notorious reputation. My family were incredibly boring: parents, me, my younger brother with little in the way of external cultural influence. I had a very strong core group of friends that were all very much like me, from similar backgrounds. And yet there was something about this book that I truly loved – perhaps the raw honesty in which it is told. The struggle of a teenage girl to truly find her identity and what she desires in the world. I didn’t read another Melina Marchetta book until after I began blogging but since then I’ve read almost everything she’s ever published. And so when I saw this beautiful Penguin Children’s Classics version of this book I thought it was time to revisit the beginning of Marchetta’s career, the book that started it all. The book that awarded her so much acclaim that she didn’t publish her next novel until 11 years later.
I’ve been lucky enough to listen to Melina Marchetta speak and even briefly converse with her myself. It’s interesting that now, as a 32 year old mother of two boys, I find I relate more to Josie even more than when I was her age. And the simple reason is that I married into a Sicilian family and so much of this book is now a part and parcel of every day life with my in-laws. In this book Josie describes an event known as “Wog Day” where her relatives make pasta sauce. My father-in-law grows Roma tomatoes and every year they hold their own version of “Wog Day” where they make and bottle some 300 longnecks of pasta sauce that they distribute to various family members and community friends and store the leftovers in their garage. At last count, I believe there was close to 1000 bottles stored. Enough for my father-in-law to have a few years off growing a bajillion kilos of Romas and the sauce day. But nope. Every year he plants new tidy rows of Romas (and a million other things) and every year they hold the sauce making day. My mother-in-law is also incredibly religious and visits there bring not-so-subtle suggestions to baptise our sons into the Catholic faith and put them into a Good Catholic School. It’s utterly irrelevant that I’m not Catholic myself (I’m a baptised Anglican but have been to church only twice in my life, for my christening and my younger brother’s) and that my husband lapsed decades ago. I think deep down it bothers her greatly that we don’t adhere to these traditions (our children together are the only grandchildren who have not been baptised). There’s a large family group there and get togethers are rowdy and crowded. I haven’t even met every family member and I’ve been with my husband for eight years. People gossip and shout and I find it at times, overly confronting. Everyone seems to know everyone else’s business and have an opinion on it – that they don’t mind telling you. Some of it is fascinating, watching the food procession and the structure of the families. And some of it is so very foreign to me. My children are half Sicilian but they won’t be treated the same way my husband was, growing up, with the “wog” ridicule. My husband and his brothers didn’t even learn their parent’s dialect because that just brought more derision, although they do understand it when their parents speak. I spend a lot of time nudging my husband and whispering “what did they say?” when one or both of them are going off in Italian. I’d absolutely love for my children to learn the language but given that it’s skipped a generation and my in-laws are getting on a bit, it’s unlikely.
Back to the book! Josie’s struggles leap off the page, the writing is so engaging. I love her interactions with her father when she meets him, trying to make him see that she doesn’t need him. It turns out that not long after that, she kind of does need him and the two of them engage in a wary battle of wits and wills to try and establish some sort of civility and rapport. It’s been so long since I read this that I had only a vague recollection of what happened to John Barton, so the impact on me was almost as great as it would have been the first time. It’s not uncommon for most teens and young adults now to have some sort of personal experience with this issue and it’s very delicately handled. Josie’s disbelief is palpable as she fights to understand why this has happened and opportunities that might have been missed. It’s so easy to believe that you have it all, as a teenager, that tragedy is something that only happens to other people. There are so many things that can give you the most brutal of reminders that it isn’t true.
I don’t know where Melina Marchetta finds the motivation for her male characters, but I want to! Jacob Coote, Will Trombal, Jonah Griggs! Each of them are so perfect and yet they are not, because they all have their flaws. But the interactions between her main characters honestly, cannot be rivaled by other authors. Melina Marchetta has written some of my favourite scenes ever. And I’ve read a lot of books. For me, her books are to be held up to refute the idea that adults shouldn’t read YA. These books are perfect examples of how an adult can identify and relate to the characters in a YA novel and enjoy their journeys. There’s something very endearing about Josie, even when she’s behaving in quite a brattish way.
It’s interesting, reading this book again after I’ve read 6 other more recent works of Marchetta’s. You can tell she has come a long way as a writer and considering she was starting from an excellent base in this book, that’s saying something. I think few people write a debut as beautiful as this one. I’d recommend anyone who hasn’t read her immediately do so – and probably in the order her books were published. It’s a journey for any reader.
Book #109 of 2014
Looking For Alibrandi is book #39 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2014