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All I ever wanted was no vampires in my YA

December 12, 2011

…and by jove, I got it! 

In my world, it’s always a joy to discover a YA novel that doesn’t have anything to do with vampires, werewolves, or bleak dystopian futures. Call me boring, but I much prefer my teenage angst to unfold against the familiar backdrop of The Real World. 

So I was delighted to lift Australian author Vicki Wakefield’s All I Ever Wanted from a box of new release deliveries at work earlier this year. Wakefield’s debut is an impressive coming-of-age tale that does everything good YA should, exploring the complexities of late adolescence and its attendant confusion with grit, grace, and hope.

The plot is simple, and since the blurb doesn’t give too much away, I won’t either. Sixteen-year-old Mim lives with her drug-dealing mother in ‘a lost street in a forgotten suburb’ somewhere in Australia. With two older brothers in jail, Mim’s determined to escape a similar fate, and her family’s tough criminal reputation—‘I want to find the furthest point from you,’ she tells her mother angrily. But over the course of a few days at the end of a baking hot summer, Mim’s life is set to change forever in ways she could never have predicted.

It may sound like a familiar narrative arc, and the concept is certainly nothing new, particularly in the context of teenage experience—who, at sixteen, hasn’t had the burning urge to leave home and experience real life for themselves? But Mim isn’t a typical teenager—her frustration isn’t borne of middle-class angst, but a need to create for herself the chance her class status seems to have denied her. ‘In fourteen days I’ll be back at school to have a crack at Year Twelve,’ she confides, and ‘the teachers will be surprised that I’m there and they’ll look around the class with that pinched expression and note that at least half have dropped out.’

But Mim doesn’t let this stop her, and neither does Wakefield let her character’s tough background get in the way of a good story. Wakefield doesn’t glamourise or overplay Mim’s situation—her protagonist might live next door to a prostitute in the dodgiest street in town, but All I Ever Wanted isn’t dry social commentary or moral lesson masquerading as fiction. Instead, it’s a well-paced narrative with sharp characterisation and a sense of optimism that never feels forced or saccharine.

Mim is a complex character, and despite her determination to flee the poverty and crime that defines her family, she isn’t a saint; that’s why the book works. While Mim isn’t necessarily easy to like, I appreciated this—she’s bolshy, prickly, and stubborn, but it’s these flaws, along with the strength of her personality and convictions, which make her such an engaging narrator. Waiting to see her brothers in the remand centre, Mim notes sourly that ‘there are only two types of people here. Criminals and their kin, and starched people with qualifications. I look at my purple toes and Mum’s eighties half-perm and I know exactly which type we are.’

What’s most effective is how Wakefield balances Mim’s convictions that her background and family are worthless with her eventual realisation that nothing is what is seems. Like many teenagers, Mim believes she’s always right; but as the novel progresses, her mistakes—honest and human though they are—make her realise what’s truly worth fighting for.

Mim’s story is supported by a vivid cast of secondary characters: Mim’s mother, a formidable tank of a woman who strikes fear into her enemies, also has ‘a radar for sadness, maybe because she carries so much of it herself’; Tahnee, Mim’s best friend, is ‘in-your-face, like a pop up book, all colour and texture and gloss,’ but there are ‘beats of silence and a great gap between us, as if she’s been away for a year and come back different.’

Wakefield’s prose is simple but evocative, and she creates a uniquely Australian sense of place: Mim walks home along run-down Tudor Crescent on an unforgiving summer’s day, where ‘corrugated iron rooves peel and flap in the wind’ and ‘the hot spell has bleached the street. Everything’s toast.’

Ultimately, All I Ever Wanted tells a familiar coming-of-age tale in a different guise. While it doesn’t have a wildly original narrative arc, Wakefield’s memorable characters and eloquent writing make this a fine piece of YA fiction, and a particularly impressive debut novel. There’s something timeless and compelling about stories of late adolescence—that brief interlude between the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood, when innocence and experience collide. As Mim realises when her summer draws to a close, ‘seventeen is just a number,’ and ‘maybe things don’t happen unless you make them.’ 

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 13, 2011 12:27 am

    Interesting post. I admit, I still like to read YA books. 🙂 I think ALL fiction should have SOME reality to them, even paranormal fiction. Vicki Wakefield’s story doesn’t sound pretty, but it does sound REALY intriguing. I love a story where the characters don’t let their circumstances dictate their outcome.

  2. misswhisk permalink*
    December 18, 2011 11:35 am

    Me too, Juli! I’m a total sucker for YA–and I do like some of the more supernatural ones (Em Bailey’s “Shift” was a really good one I read earlier this year), but there just seem to be so many of them out at the moment. Maybe I’m in the minority with my preference for boring-real-world YA ;).

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