Book review: Clancy of the Undertow - yearning through a teen girl’s eyes
Australian writer Christopher Currie’s “young adult” novel about an adolescent in a dead-end town coming to terms with her feelings about other girls will appeal to readers of all ages
Australian writer Christopher Currie , whose first novel The Ottoman Motel was nominated for several awards, notes in the acknowledgements to his new novel, Clancy of the Undertow, that his publisher acted “not at all surprised when I brought her a YA [young adult] book instead of the two other serious adult books I had promised her”.
Implicit in his comment are all the issues the YA debate has raised over the past few years, particularly: what defines a book as “young adult” and what defines the readers of such titles?
Clancy, 16, lives in the dead-end Queensland town of Barwen with her two brothers and parents. To Clancy’s mind, she and her family are the town’s misfits, weirdos and freaks. Clancy loves Nature Club where the local nerds congregate on the weekends. She’s desperate to learn to drive and struggles to define her yearnings for Sasha, the girlfriend of Barwen’s chief bogan (or boorish unsophisticate).
When Clancy’s father is involved in a traffic incident in which two local teenagers die, the family is further ostracised. The summer holiday before her final year of high school becomes the proving ground for understanding the nature of true friendship, the importance of family and the value in being different.
It’s tempting to praise Currie for his “bravery” in writing a novel from a teenage girl’s perspective, especially one who is struggling to come to terms with her homosexuality. He could easily have chosen a male protagonist. But Currie engages with Clancy with such warmth and empathy, it’s clear he has not forgotten what it is to be a teenager.
The dialogue is natural and quick-paced, peppered with Clancy’s inner thoughts, from her painful interactions with her parents (is there any other kind?) to her excitement when Sasha finally notices she exists. There is also a lot of humour in Clancy’s dry assessment of her mother’s parenting skills, which involve hitting her up with “greeting-card racks worth of motivational quotes”.
Then there’s Clancy’s awkward conversation with her heart-throb over caramel milkshakes at the roadhouse. When Sasha asks if it’s true she is part-Aboriginal, Clancy responds: “Uh, like, an eighth or a sixteenth or something. I guess. Mum’s dad’s dad was or something.” Her skin is all wrong compared to the luminous Sasha, she laments. “Yellowy-brown ... Me and Angus and Titch have all got it, and it just looks like we’re dirty or sick.” It’s the only reference to race in the novel.
The arrival of a new girl in town, Nancy, allows Currie to touch sensitively on the issue of bullying. It’s with Nancy that Clancy is able to build her first proper “adult” friendship and confide in her feelings for Sasha.
Teenage protagonists represent a stage in life when our personality is in greatest flux. Our sense of self and of belonging are never so shakeable as they are in these formative years. If JD Salinger had written The Catcher in the Rye today, it would have been classified as young adult. So too Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
The brouhaha around what constitutes a YA novel versus a novel for adults is surely semantic. Publishers label books YA when marketing to a teenage audience but various surveys, notably the Bowker survey of 2012, suggest that 55 per cent of purchasers of YA novels are over 18, with the biggest group aged 30 to 44.
It’s a mistake to assume these novels are dumbed down for children. Whatever the case, Currie has a talent for keeping his writing real. From the dialogue to narration, Clancy of the Undertow blends the excruciation, confusion and hope of being a teenager into a novel that will pull in readers of any age. It is a book to pass on, or as Currie says in the acknowledgements: “By reading this final sentence you are now legally obliged to buy the book for five of your friends.” Lucky for him it’s Christmas, the perfect time to share a book you love.