My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book broke me. I was crying halfway through and continued to do so, sporadically, as I read the rest. Vikki Wakefield has built a well-deserved and highly envied reputation as a searing realist fiction author. Her books always have a raw, immediate quality about them and this story, centred around Nate and his family, has an underlying sense of dread and urgency about it not found in the work of many other Australian authors. Living in a cramped, noisy and basic home with his Dad, Dec, his step mum, Nance, and his younger twin brothers, Otis and Jake; Nate is intelligent, and sensitive, but tries his utmost to hide it from everyone, even his best mate, Merrick. His English teacher, the long-suffering Mr Reid, tries to coax some interest out of Nate, but he consistently resists. Nate, Merrick, and many of the other outliers in his town hang out at the Youth, a drop-in centre staffed by the stoic and supportive Macy. When Macy is badly assaulted one night, there is talk of the Youth being closed down; something that adds to the feeling of isolation and despair that pervades Nate’s life. Nate’s mother, who left him with his father when she was an addict, has re-entered Nate’s life, but he can’t tell his Dad for fear of what might happen at home.
This novel traverses Nate’s slow rise from his downtrodden existence through his realisation that options to improve his circumstances might not be as elusive as he first thought. A great range of supporting characters such as Nance, the gentle stepmother (a nice role flip); Benjamin Peros, the world weary student who’s not a student; the cagey, artistic Tash; and the stalwart Mr Reid all show us the good in Nate – and instill hope for his future.
Nate asks Mr Reid why he left a rich school to come and teach in his town:
‘So I could make a difference,’ he says, flatly.
It’s my cue to tell him he did make a diference, but the words get stuck. It’s like hugging Jake – I know it’s what he needs and deserves, but it’s just so hard.
He supposedly has all the answers, so I give him the next best thing.
‘What it, in an alternate reality, my fatal flaw is actually a superpower? Do I ditch the flaw, or find a new reality?’
He closes his eyes. ‘Thank you, McKee.’
The truth is, I kind of, possibly, maybe, might be starting to give a shit.
There is so much to love in this student/teacher relationship. It hurt my heart to think about it, as someone working in education, when I see kids like this everyday trying to wrestle with their lives. It felt honest, and real.
I want so badly to quote the last dialogue between Nance and Nate from the book’s final pages, but because I don’t believe in spoilers I will end this review here.
Just read this, as soon as you can get your hands on a copy. It’s brilliant.
For ages 14 and up.