Head Of The River
University of Queensland Press
Read from my local library
Leni and Cristian Popescu are twins. Both are scholarship students to a prestigious Melbourne school for their ability in rowing. Offspring of Olympic champions, Leni and Cristian look certain to guide their school to victory in the Head of the River race on the Barwon River.
It’s six months until the Head of the River. Cristian is overweight, having indulged a little too much in the food he loves and less of the training he needs. He finds himself dropped from the firsts, down to the seconds because of his lack of fitness. However, if he can get himself back to peak, he’ll earn his way back to the firsts. Cristian tries, he does but he cannot resist the lure of kebabs and other fatty foods. When his friend, who was dropped down to the seconds for being too small comes to him with a way they can both get back to the firsts, Cristian is tempted. Anabolic steroids and diet pills will help him lose the weight and build the muscle. And they don’t test in school, right? It’s just until he gets back to where he needs to be. Then he’ll stop.
Leni suffers from a lack of confidence, in herself and in her team. She’s always been so focused, so set on her goals. She wants it badly but with study, a failing relationship, an intriguing new boy and the struggles of teenage life, Leni can see her dream slipping away. Both of the twins are under enormous pressure and it’s all starting to come apart.
I loved Pip Harry’s first book, I’ll Tell You Mine and I’ve been meaning to read this one since it came out last year. It begins two days after the Head of the River race and someone is fighting for their life but you don’t know who or what happened. Then it goes back six months, to when preparation begins for the famous race. I have to admit, I didn’t grow up here so I’d never heard of the race but my husband looked at me like I was an idiot when I asked him if he knew what it was, so obviously it’s pretty big. He grew up in Colac and apparently there was a regatta on the lake down there every year, something the whole town went to. I don’t know much about rowing, other than the Olympics and the Cambridge/Oxford rivalry but it seems as though it’s pretty well established in Melbourne.
Leni and Cristian aren’t from a wealthy background like a lot of their fellow students. They were accepted into the school on their grit and talent, both having been taught to row by their Olympian parents. Their father Vasile is Romanian born who emigrated to Australia to marry their mother after the fall of communism and then rowed for his new country. Vasile is brilliant and knows what he’s doing but his tenuous grasp on the English language has held him back. He’s the boat caretaker for Harley Grammar, their exclusive private school but is probably deserving of coaching at least the seconds, maybe even the firsts. Their mother Jodie is a medal winner for Australia and now works long shifts as a nurse. Money is always tight and they live in Fitzroy as opposed to the big mansions in Toorak that other families from the school reside in, but they get by. They’re a tight-knit family, although there are some cracks beginning to show as Leni and Cristian begin their preparations.
Leni and Cristian are amazing characters. They both give voice to the narrative here and it switches between them seamlessly. Pip Harry has done a fantastic job at capturing them separately and together as a sibling unit. Leni is so focused, so driven that it’s almost like she barely has any time for anything else. She’s always training or studying to keep up her perfect grades. She has few friends and although she has a boyfriend, she’s conflicted about the relationship. He’s a perfectly nice guy, very popular but he doesn’t give her the flutters. There’s a new guy, someone who has made the firsts incredibly quickly, much to the resentment of some of the other students. He gives Leni the flutters but he’s also complicated and she cannot work him out. Leni is pretty solitary and it seems that in the end, it’s where she falls down. Their rowing is a team sport and she needs to learn to develop that trust in her teammates, to believe in them that they will all be a part of getting her where she wants to go. You really see Leni change and evolve over the course of the book as she makes tentative steps towards friendship with her team, opening up and allowing them to see a different part of her, the part of her that isn’t just Rowing Leni.
Cristian is far more sociable and popular than Leni – he loves hanging with his friends, the camaraderie of being on the team. When he’s dropped to the seconds, he’s devastated. He’s swayed to try using something to help get him back into shape and although he’s conflicted over what he’s doing, feeling a terrible guilt he is ecstatic at the immediate results. He’s dropping weight and building muscle, his times are amazing and he’s assured to get back into the firsts. But taking this way out will come at a price for Cristian and a far greater price for someone else. Throughout the book, the incident that is alluded to in the beginning was hanging over me as I occasionally wondered who it might be and why. When it happened, I felt that it still managed to take me by surprise, especially the way in which it played out.
Head of the River is an engrossing story but it’s the characters that make it shine, especially all of the Popescu family. They showcase what it might be like for children to grow up in the shadow of famous parents and try and make their own way in a sport that their name is already famous in. Vasile is a brilliant character, he’s a bit arms-waving wildly overexcited eastern European sporting father at times but then he’ll show a remarkable sensitivity and ability to engage with his children on a much deeper level. I was a bit surprised he never questioned the change in Cristian, but that is perhaps the biggest example of how he was a father first to him, coach and cheer squad second. He simply could never have imagined that his own child would do that, even when it’s revealed late in the book that there are clearly people who have their suspicions, whether it’s borne out of jealousy or out of a true curiosity and hunch.
This book further cements Pip Harry as a must-read author for me! Australian YA has always been fabulous, so many amazing books being published and this is a brilliant example of what is on offer.
Book #15 of 2015
Head Of The River is book #4 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015