Kirsten Krauth is a freelance writer and editor, a mother, and a debut novelist. Her first book, just_a_girl was published in June 2013 by UWA publishing to critical acclaim. She is also an active blogger, and has recently started a tandem blog series where she and another author review each other’s book, focussing on similarities between the work. She began with Walter Mason’s Destination Cambodia (you can read Walter’s post about just_a_girl here). Kirsten asked me to be part of this “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” project and I was really pleased to be asked as just_a_girl had been on my virtual to-read pile for a while.
I was initially interested in reading just_a_girl because I’d heard that it was a confronting look at the life of a young adolescent girl. As I’ve worked with many teenagers in my role as a child psychiatrist, I know that lots of adolescents have lives that they keep secret from their parents. I’ve also seen the pervasive nature of the internet on adolescents’ lives: the pull of social media, ‘cyberbullying’, and the shifting of social interactions from face-to-face to virtual. Online interactions are different to those in the real world: there is a sense of anonymity, a façade of re-invention, a disinhibition. There was a time when I would have been shocked to hear what some young girls experience, but not any more. Layla, the protagonist in just_a_girl is caught up in all the risky behaviours that we hope our own daughters will avoid: precocious sexual activity, drug and alcohol abuse, cyber bullying and emotional turmoil.
Just_a_girl has three interwoven story strands: Layla, her mother Margot, and one of a man whom Layla encounters on the train, Tadashi.
The story of Margot was the one that had most relevance to my own writing. In Fractured, I wrote about a new mother – Anna – descending into mental illness, and while Margot is not as acutely unwell as my character, there were some sections where her struggles with a newborn reflected the same issues. However, there’s an element of passivity in Margot that had the potential to make her difficult to empathise with. The reader knows that Layla is engaging in very risky behaviour while Margot seems to do very little to stop the slide, and even contributes to the risk. But my own sympathies were aroused by knowing that she herself had poor parenting from her own mother, and is trying the best she can with the little she has. Descriptions of her early months of motherhood show us that Margot has tried her best to be a good mother to Layla, and in the beginning was not that different to many of us. As a mother myself, I could certainly relate to some of her emotions:
“And I felt like giving up, putting her in the cot and lying down on my bed and hopefully going to sleep forever, because I never got the chance to catch up, never had a moment to think about anything, and it was a continual grind grind grind when Geoff was home late and up early and after Layla went to bed at seven I would stagger to the kitchen with barely enough energy to put two bits of bread in the toaster and spread them with Vegemite…and sometimes it was just easier to pour a glass of wine instead and lie on the couch.”
The relationship between Layla and Margot is at the heart of just_a_girl, and this parent-child relationship is what interests me professionally in both psychiatry and writing. In the novel, we don’t see much direct interaction between the two, but by allowing us access to the internal worlds of both Layla and Margot, Krauth captures so well the words they both wish they could express to each other. Some of the more moving passages in the book refer to the missed communication between them. An example of this is when Margot says:
“…I still wonder whether Layla’s been punishing me ever since because she looks at me in the same way with those dark unblinking eyes, and I feel like I’m being judged, for letting her fall, for letting her father go, for giving her the bottle too early, and I want to undress her and put her in the bath like I used to and wash her tummy and hold a face washer to stop the soap from getting in her eyes and say I’m sorry.”
And Layla, when she had the realisation that Margot is more than just her mother, says:
“And it hits me for the first time. She’s not just my mother. She’s a woman living alone. She’s uncertain of the future. She’s waiting for something to happen. She doesn’t have any friends. She’s shy. She’s beyond lonely.”
At the start of the novel, I wondered if Layla was too mature. Young adolescents may behave in a sexually precocious way, but usually lack the emotional maturity to cope with the intense emotions. I felt at times that Layla was a bit too powerful, too tough emotionally, but as the novel progressed, we saw small hints of vulnerability from her that reminded us that, after all, she was just a child, just a girl: the way she tried to hide her face, swollen from crying, after an episode of abuse; and the way she questions why an older man, a stranger she met on the internet, abandons her in a hotel room:
“Was I too tall, too fat, too thin, too smart, too hairy, too sweet, too knowing, too sexy, too talkative, too self-conscious, too angry? Too fucking alive?”
There is a third thread in just_a_girl, of a really interesting (and very original) character called Tadashi. His was the story that engaged me the least, not because of any flaw in the writing – his character is extremely well written – but perhaps because he is an odd man that I personally couldn’t identify with. He, like Layla, uses the internet for sexual fulfilment, though in a very different way – a cold, impersonal way. There were questions raised in my mind as to his sanity, and I found him quite creepy and without warmth, unlike Layla and her mother, who felt like real characters that I might know.
All the characters long for a meaningful connection: Margot tries to find it in an evangelical church, but unwittingly puts her daughter at even higher risk; Layla tries to find validation of herself through sex – with peers and strangers – but remains empty; Tadashi represents the extreme of emptiness, being unable to form any sort of relationship at all, and social connections exist only in his mind. However, all three characters emphasise issues that were close to my heart when I wrote Fractured: the sense that families hold secrets close because of shame, guilt, or mistrust, fear of abandonment.
Overall, just_a_girl is deceptive. It’s a book that I found compelling, brilliantly written, and on the surface, easy and quick to read. But it was afterwards that the themes still resonated with me: power, relationships, of love and failure, of vulnerability and abuse.
Have you read just_a_girl? Do you think it has similar themes to Fractured? You can read Kirsten’s thoughts on Fractured here.