Looking for Alibrandi by Melina Marchetta ~ 1992. This edition: Penguin Australia, 1993. Softcover. ISBN: 0-14-023613-9. 261 pages.
My rating: 6.5/10.
This jumped of the shelf at me while used-book browsing the other day – one of my quick-shelf-scan rules is that anything with an orange spine and a penguin gets the pull-and-look. What I found this time round was this appealing first novel by Australian writer Melina Marchetta.
The plot is fairly standard stuff; no surprises here. Yet another coming-of-age story, but one well written with a distinctive and believable voice.
17-year-old Josephine is in her last year as a scholarship student in an exclusive Catholic girl’s school in Sydney. Josie fiercely negotiates a difficult year touched by social and racial prejudice: “Australian” versus “ethnic” – no, not Aboriginal “ethnic”, but first and second generation European immigrant “ethnic”. Also academic challenges, difficult friendships, tragedy, first love, and family secrets revealed – most notably the unexpected discovery and entry into her life of her father, who had disappeared from her unwed pregnant 16-year-old mother’s life before Josie’s birth.
I appreciated the author’s matter-of-fact handling of Josie’s Catholic religion and the way that it played into her family dynamics, as well as that of the larger Australian-Italian community she has grown up in. The frank depiction of teenage (and adult) romantic and sexual yearnings, and how religion and social mores influenced behaviours in those areas was also well portrayed.
Josie is a sympathetic character, with all of her varied flaws, ambitions and ideals, and I enjoyed her relationships with her mother and grandmother – a realistic mix of impatience, resentment, and love. The setting is (naturally) dated (early 1990s urban Australia), and the pop culture references went right over my head for the most part, but those are not necessarily drawbacks – this is a very much a “slice of life” picture of a very specific time and place. It’s also a very Australian book; very matter-of-factly “this is where and how we live”.
I did some research on Marchetta, and was pleased to see that after a ten-year hiatus following the publication of Looking for Alibrandi she has strongly re-entered the YA scene with several more acclaimed “realistic” novels as well as a fantasy series. I will be keeping my eyes open for her other titles in my book browsing.
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