Edwina Shaw, Thrill Seekers (Ransom 2011)
This is a Cutting Edge title – part of a ‘gritty’ Young Adult series from Ransom Publishing UK. A gang of Brisbane children progress from mucking around in Oxley Creek to more risky adolescent thrills. In what might seem a standard children’s or YA literature trope, the father of the main characters dies in the first chapter, and their mother is pretty much lost in grief and alcohol. In what follows the young people go more and more out of control. There’s an awful lot of flagon wine (‘goon’) and marijuana, a range of other drugs, quite a bit of violence, some awful sex and a lot of wretchedness. The most vulnerable character goes horrifyingly, dangerously mad*. At the end there is a glimmer of hope.
That might make it sound like one of those ‘problem’ books for young readers that periodically stirs up the moral panic merchants. And maybe it is, but it’s a book with a lot of integrity. It treats its difficult subject matter without romanticising it, and without moralising. It resonated strongly with elements of three excellent books I’ve read recently: the dangerous play of Watch Out for Me, the heartbreak of After Romulus, the drugs and risk taking of The Life (blog entry to come when the Book Group meets), and the madness/psychosis/mental illness of all three.
Really, though, I can’t even pretend to write a sensible review, because the author is my eldest niece. It’s not that I worry I’ll seem nepotistic, and it’s absolutely not a matter of being tactful – as in, ‘I’m sure the target audience will love it.’ I can say up front that it’s a terrific book. But you know, even though Edwina is a mature woman, mother of two, teacher of yoga, blogger, disciplined writer, wise and warm lender of support to other writers including myself, she is still inseparable in my mind from the person whose exultant joy at being able to crawl I had the privilege of sharing more than forty years ago, and even though I know this book is fiction my avuncular heart recoils from following that cheerful little girl into these dark places.
Versions of some of the chapters have been published as short stories. You can read some of them online here and here. That last one didn’t make it into the book, and confirms my sense that, if anything, the world of the book has grown less harsh on its transition from book for general readership to a YA title.
* I’m deliberately saying ‘mad’ rather than ‘mentally ill’ or whatever . Raimond Gaita writes with characteristic acuteness about this kind of language in After Romulus (pages 71 to 74). Referring to the lines from King Lear, ‘Oh, let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heaven! Keep me in temper; I would not be mad!’ his discussion ends:
Lear’s cry is not heartrending because he suffers ‘social stigma’. And it would not move us as it does had he said, ‘Oh, let me not fall into bipolar disorder.’
Edwina’s story of Douggie includes the social stigma, but it also takes us into, using Gaita’s words again, ‘the unique terror that the word madness conveys’.