Fiction – Kindle edition; University of Western Australia Press; 265 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the author.
The media often warns us of the perils of the internet, but just how dangerous is it for young people? If Kirsten Krauth’s confident debut novel just_a_girl is anything to go by, it’s pretty hairy indeed.
A trio of messed-up characters
The book is set in modern-day Sydney and revolves around three characters: super-confident 14-year-old Layla, who is mature beyond her years; lone parent Margot, who has found Jesus and fallen in love with the married pastor at her church; and Tadashi, a young single man with a strange fetish.
Each character is dealing with complicated issues of their own, all told in distinct narrative threads — both Layla and Margaret tell their stories in the very immediate first person, while Tadashi’s tale is related using the more remote third person.
What is most striking is the voice that Krauth adopts for each character: Layla is upbeat, frank and “speaks” in a short, clipped style; Margot is anxious, often fearful and her thoughts tumble out of her head in rush of breathlessness; and Tadashi is detached and living in a world of his own.
The book’s main focus is on Layla, who spends a lot of time in internet chatrooms, where she uses the handle just_a_girl (hence the title). She knowingly gets involved with men online and then meets them in hotel rooms for all kinds of shenanigans.
This is in stark contrast to her mother, who is too busy fretting about failed relationships from the past and grappling with depression to know what her teenage daughter is getting up to when she goes to “visit” her grandmother. It’s both alarming and disturbing at the same time.
What’s even more alarming and disturbing is Tadashi’s behaviour: unable to form a sexual relationship with a real person, he invests in a doll, whom he treats like a living, breathing human being.
Modern teenage life
just_a_girl could very easily have fallen into clichéd territory about teenage girls being molested by internet stalkers, but Krauth keeps a tight rein on everything and has her characters behave in unexpected ways. It’s been a long time since I was a teenager, but Layla’s thoughts, dreams and fears are bang on, even if her exploits are quite a bit more daring than mine ever were at that age.
For that reason, this book feels very fresh and contemporary, and provides a glimpse of the complicated world teenagers face every day in which peer pressure is no longer restricted to the school yard during term times but the internet 24 hours a day every day of the year.
This is a super confident debut novel that explores all kinds of issues — online security, teenage sexuality, loneliness, alienation, violence and depression — but in an accessible, easy-to-read way. It should be required reading for parents, but also teenagers themselves — it’d make a terrific novel to discuss in the classroom or a book group.
For another take on this novel, please read Lisa Hill’s review on ANZ LitLovers LitBlog.