Thursday, 5 April 2012

Western Australian Writing Review: Bye, Beautiful by Julia Lawrinson

Sisters.  The relationship between them can be so... complicated.  I've often tried and failed to describe that mixture of love, hurt, jealousy and idolatry that accompanies having a sister.  But Julia Lawrinson has not failed.  Her book, Bye, Beautiful does this as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

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Sandy Lansing is the middle child.  Her older sister Marianne is the golden child- beautiful, trendy, popular and desirable.  Her younger brother Laurence can do no wrong.  Wedged between them, Sandy feels invisible.  When her police officer father moves to a small country town to be the new Sargeant, Sandy must start over.  But compared to her siblings Sandy does a rotten job of fitting in.  And then there is Billy- Sandy's first crush.  Of course, Billy is immediately attracted to Marianne, whose engagement to a boy in Perth seems to be of little consequence, much the same way that Billy's mixed blood doesn't bother Marianne the way it bothers everyone else...

The book is set in 1966, in a small country town.  Immediately to me this made me think of my favourite book ever, Craig Silvey's Jasper Jones.  There were other similarities.  A relationship between a white girl with a powerful father and a mixed race boy.  Small town bigotry.  A horrifying crime at the beginning of the novel (read it and see, because I'll never tell.)  But tonally, the two books are extremely different.  Jasper Jones is a novel which looks at the world with a bleak sense of humour, largely due to the cynical yet intelligent voice of the narrator Charlie.  But Bye, Beautiful is written in the third person.  It is usually focussed on Sandy, occasionally shifting to another character when it seems cogent to view Sandy from the outside.  At first this perspective is isolating.  Then I realised that this was the point.  Sandy's awkwardness and her despair are so potent that she is even excluded from the reader.  She seems to exist in a soundless bubble.  And I know I've certainly felt that way.

Plot-wise, this book could be said to be wise beyond its years.  Themes of sexuality, race and religion blend beautifully without being too explicit and the reader is allowed to make up their own mind nine times out of ten. Lawrinson creates a world where the sexuality which surrounds Marianne is palpable.  When Bill Read or Constable Bates look at Marianne, their eyes wandering, your skin crawls.  You read with open mouthed horror as the truth about Frank Lansing's violent control of his family is revealed layer by layer.

Minor characters like Peter, the fiance in Perth leave something to be desired.  He is as absent on the page as he is off, and his role in the plot has about the emotional impact of characters eating breakfast.

Read this book if you loved Jasper Jones or Lawrinson's earlier work.  (My favourite was Skating the Edge.)

I give this book four out of five mini skirts.

3 comments:

  1. My sister has been reading Jasper Jones for a school project. She got top marks for an essay based on it. A lot of people I know have been praising it so I may steal it off her and give it a read. Ahh so many books on my mantle shelf I should be reading..!!

    Sisters are possibly the most complicated sibling rivalry situation. It changes as situations change with each sister. Eventually things start to get too silly and jealousies look rather ridiculous after a while. So you end up sitting together one day and go "So...want to get some ice cream?" and you just do it. Or you find common ground on something and immediately, all grudges seem to fall at the sides. They don't matter.

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  2. What a fantastic review, now that I know this is about sisters I really have to buy a copy

    Mands xox

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  3. @WrenGirl Ahhh lucky. Wish I'd studied Jasper Jones!

    @VeganYANerds- Why thank you, Mands, that's very kind of you to say. It's well worth buying, I couldn't put it down. And I have great taste if I do say so myself.

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