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Growing pains, nineties style.

April 10, 2012

I’m just going to come out and say it: I love the nineties. I loved being in them, and now that they’re gone, I love them even more, albeit through the nostalgia-soaked fog of someone who wants to relive their teenage years. Doc martens, grunge music, The X-Files, mobile phones the size of house bricks, and dial-up internet connections—I believe the phrase ‘golden age’ just about covers it. 

But popular culture isn’t all that makes the nineties the best decade of all time. I recently read an interview with Jessica Au, talented young novelist of 2011’s Cargo, and discovered that her debut is set in 1992; clearly, I had to fast-track it straight to the top of my reading pile.

Cargo is a nostalgic and contemplative coming-of-age tale that explores one summer in the lives of three teenagers in an Australian seaside town. Gillian has survived a tragic accident, and is determined to fulfil her open-water swimming dreams; Frankie, who feels increasingly distant from her family and friends, falls for the deckhand on her father’s boat; Jacob, who longs to be more like his surfie older brother, watches Gillian from afar. Their lives are set to intertwine over a summer of heartbreak and new beginnings. 

Au chose to set Cargo in the early nineties not just because it’s when she grew up, but also because it’s a period without the Internet or mobile phones, without Facebook and Twitter and all the other various electronic communicative accoutrements we’ve kitted ourselves out with over the past decade or so. Gillian, Frankie, and Jacob are emotionally as well as geographically isolated; they struggle to negotiate the confusing no-man’s-land between adolescence and adulthood, guided only by their internal—often unvoiced—thoughts and desires.

This sense of aloneness, of attempting to figure the world out for yourself and not feeling able to share your deepest fears and aspirations with those around you, that Au portrays so well. Her prose is spare but richly evocative, and she has a way of letting the simple details of her characters’ senses and surroundings carry profound narrative weight. Examining her injured body in the mirror after her morning ocean swim, Gillian notes the small swell of her bicep, and thinks, ‘This is what the water has made of her, then—ligament and bone, muscle and ruin.’ Sitting with the older man she longs for, Frankie ‘leans back and closes her eyes…the music is soft and aching. She is conscious of the cool glass of the beer bottle in her lap, his deep breathing, the soft folds of the couch behind her.’

No one in Cargo seems capable of communicating effectively—emotions often go unexpressed, although this doesn’t diminish how deeply they’re felt. But Au manages to convey the complex internal agonies and joys of her teenage characters with eloquence and subtlety: enduring her first sexual experience in the back seat of a car, Gillian stares at the ‘dead eye’ of a nearby lighthouse and imagines the ocean, and how ‘everything is lost in that deep basin of water, long belts of kelp, black mussel, the skeleton curl of a nautilus shell.’

But while all three of Au’s protagonists tend towards melancholy, Cargo is far from a depressing read. It’s simply an honest exploration of growing up, a time when pain and euphoria often follow each other with dizzying closeness. By the summer’s end, Gillian, Frankie, and Jacob have all all experienced just a little bit of what adulthood has to offer, and they’ve all made different choices for themselves; their imagined futures are one step closer, one shade clearer.

Cargo is an impressive debut that’s likely to be as resonant for teenagers as it is for adults. It’s nostalgic, hopeful, and reflective portrayal of a particular time in life—a time that some of us wish we could live all over again, and that some of us wouldn’t care to repeat for all the money in the world. 

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