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The dark waters of adulthood.

September 16, 2010

Darkwater by Georgia Blain, Random House, $18.95

In 1973, teenagers had no Facebook, no Twitter, and no iPhones; amazingly, they survived. Growing up almost forty years later may involve a lot more gadgetry, but its emotional map is no different: adolescence is still a time of dueling hormones and diluted innocence. Georgia Blain captures this beautifully in Darkwater, her first YA novel, set in the Australian suburbs at a time when bellbottoms were the height of cool.

It’s summer 1973, and Amanda Clarke, the most popular girl in her year, has been found dead, her body floating in the local river. Fifteen-year-old Winter, whose older brother Joe is in Amanda’s grade at school, can’t stop wondering about the truth behind this death that reaches so close to home; she speculates in her diary as the police investigation proceeds and suspicion falls on local tough boy Lyndon, one of Amanda’s group at school. Despite her misgivings about Lyndon–‘there was something hard and tense in him, a cruelty that made others do as he said for fear of reprisal’–Winter can’t shake the conviction that he isn’t a murderer: ‘I couldn’t articulate the doubt I had.’ Her diary entries, which form the entire narrative, recount the unfolding mystery and her own theories and curiosities about what really happened to Amanda.

What I love about this novel is how subtly it balances classic YA themes of growing up and losing your innocence with a compelling whodunnit plot. Blain doesn’t sensationalise Amanda’s sad end or turn her protagonist into an improbably capable amateur teen sleuth; instead, Winter’s thoughtful and observant first-person narrative explores the confusing path towards adulthood, which, as she discovers, is dappled with shades of grey. She begins many of her diary entries with a statement of fact, but, as the questions surrounding Amanda’s death begin to multiply, Winter qualifies her use of the term, admitting that some of ‘facts’ are no more than theories, since ‘there was so little that could be held up as the complete and irrefutable truth.’ Ironically, Amanda’s death neatly demonstrates an irony of life: rarely is anything certain. When Lyndon falls under suspicion, Winter believes, in the absence of facts that could prove his guilt or innocence, that he didn’t kill Amanda; it’s the strength of her conviction that may eventually uncover what really occurred.

Blain uses the mystery of Amanda’s death to illuminate the familiar truths and pains of growing up, and all that you leave behind when you shed the skin of childhood. Of course, it isn’t just dramatic events like murder that push you abruptly into adulthood: small changes are just as significant. Winter realises that she may be drifting apart from Sonia and Cassie, girls who have ‘been my best friends for so long that I couldn’t imagine hanging out without them.’ But they’ve become ‘more interested in appearance, and working out what was in and what wasn’t. I hadn’t changed in the same way.’ As the girls bike through the suburban streets together one afternoon, Winter realises that ‘times like this, when we simply rode, barely talking, were now rare. More often we bickered, irritating each other with our endless differences.’

There’s a strong, distinctive sense of time and place in Darkwater that lends it a powerful atmosphere. It’s unusual to find a YA novel that’s set in recent history; 1973 was barely forty years ago, but, in some ways, it’s a world away from how we live now: a time when families left their homes unlocked and teenagers played David Bowie records at ear-splitting volumes. Blain deftly conveys the social shifts of the 70s through her characters: Winter’s neighbour, Mrs. Scott, lends Winter a copy of The Female Eunuch, telling her that it ‘puts the fire in your belly.’ Winter returns it half-read, admitting that ‘“I didn’t really read it all…I mean, I agree with her, but, like I said, I’m more into stories.”’ But she isn’t oblivious to feminism, crossly observing that her father doesn’t pull his weight around the house. ‘“Things are changing,”” her mother, Dee, reassures her, ‘“more than you realise.”’

Things do change, and it isn’t only Amanda’s death that teaches Winter this, but her shifting friendships, tested loyalties, and sudden interest in Nicky Blackwell, a skateboarder and surfer in the year above her at school. Equally, of course, some things are stuck in an everlasting groove: Dee, who is heavily involved in local environmental activism, tries to instill the same sense of righteous energy in her daughter, telling Winter that ‘I’m doing this because I don’t want your children to live in a world where greed and business rule.’ But forty years later, not much has changed—not for society, and not for its teenagers, as they carve their course towards adulthood.

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