Monday, July 23, 2007

How the light gets in

Not much light just now; about to go home in a few hours, 4 hours 37 minutes to be precise, and can't sleep. Just as well, because I found a message from my friend in Vilnius saying that the notary, who ****ed up the signing of a document in May, is at it again, and 36 hours before signing time comes up with new 'problems'. Having been sitting on the documents containing all relevant information since April. One step more, folks, and you'll become famous!

'How the light gets in' (I'm slowly beginning to 'get' the title) is a first book by M J Hyland, a 'highly charged study of the emotional intensity of adolescence', as the blurb tells us. Hyland, one of the few Aussie writers whose books I found in Aussie bookshops, apparently has herself undergone something of an emotionally intense adolescence.

The main protagonist, 16-year-old Lou Connor (did I mention that Hyland is of Irish descent?), an extremely talented girl, escapes from what sounds like a totally chaotic family at the end of Sydney, Australia, to a very nice, well-to-do middle class family living in a huge house somewhere in America, not far from Chicago. Lou is a bit 'strange', and finds it difficult to mix with people of her own age; she's rather bookish in a way that her host-siblings are not; she also does not like to be touched. (The world of international exchanges seems to be smitted with weird, rather cutesy, words, like 'hostmother', 'hostbrother' and so on. How do you address the lady of the house - 'Hostmum'? I know this because only last week I had a conversation about exchanges with a young Georgian woman who had been in the US in a similar programme).

The exchange comes with many rules regarding smoking, drinking, drugs etc, which is perhaps unsurprising. Young Lou, however, has had much experience of most of these things, due partly to her gormless sisters back in Sydney, and so manages to make her own arrangements. Apart from that she has a rather unfortunate way of constructing her own identity, which could easily trip her up, but for some reason she is not challenged. She looks down on everyone who tries to give her advice (she's 16, so she must know it all). All this leads to disaster, but still Lou continues in her own fantasy world and it's not clear what her future will look like. I'm not sure that the light really does get in.

Lou is a difficult character; every time she does something stupid, you think 'how could you, girl'? It's difficult to feel much empathy for her, even though, as part of her thinking world, the reader can sympathise more than outsiders. In some ways you also feel sorry for the people around her; while you might think they could have made more of an effort, you also appreciate that she, with her brainpower, will often run rings round anyone. As you keep reading it and keep turning the pages, you wish she would turn the corner, but every time she slips off in the wrong direction again. Reading this book must be like being a social worker for such teenagers.

I wouldn't say it's a particularly Australian book; partly because it's set exclusively in the US, and partly because it's all about teenage malaise. I was thinking that Lou would get on well with the teenagers in Andrew O'Hagan's book reviewed a couple of days ago, but actually she wouldn't, because she would find them trite. 'Her own worst enemy' is the phrase I'd choose.