Beyond Domesticity

Reviewed by Suzanne James

Traditionally, the heroines of “girl’s books” are firmly ensconced in the domestic realm, but in these contemporary YA novels, home is presented as a place of discord and betrayal which the teenage protagonists must transcend.

The premise of Norah McClintock’s She Said/She Saw is that Tegan, a senior high school student, has witnessed a double murder. Yet she refuses to provide the details, which everyone, including her sister Kelly, believes she is deliberately withholding. The novel is fast-paced and dramatic as chapters of first-person narrative are juxtaposed with a movie-script portrayal of events. The underlying question—what did Tegan really see?—provides forward momentum, and characters and dialogue are generally convincing. However, the conclusion—Tegan’s successful, yet risky, ploy to discover the murderer’s identity—seems rather facile, and references to the dangers of drug dealing seem imposed rather than integral.

Michelle Mulder’s Out of the Box is a more subtle work, blending an exploration of mental instability and a dysfunctional family relationship with a subplot involving an Argentinian immigrant and the parents he lost in the “disappearances” of the 1970s and 80s. Refreshingly, the unhealthy dynamics of the protagonist’s family (in which her overly dependent mother insists on treating Ellie as a confidante and partner rather than as a child) are contrasted with her aunt’s completely normalized long-term lesbian relationship. Although plot details such as the mystery of the bandoneón (a traditional Argentinian accordion) are perhaps too readily resolved, Mulder’s novel avoids easy solutions to the more serious problems of Ellie’s family and her mother’s (admittedly vague) mental-health issues.

The protagonist of Trilby Kent’s Stones for My Father is also abused by her mother, though her situation is both clearer and more brutal. Living on a rural Transvaal farm during the Anglo-Boer War with a hardened mother who favours her younger brothers, Corlie Roux is tough and capable. But nothing can prepare her for the loss of a childhood friend, suffering at a British internment camp, her brother’s death, or the realization that she is the child of a British father who deserted her pregnant mother.

In a clear and poetic style, Kent traces Corlie’s growing awareness of the complexities of her family situation, of the war, and—to a lesser extent—the inequities of Black/White relationships in South Africa at the turn of the twentieth century. Eventually, having been completely rejected by a mother who can neither love nor forgive her for “who . . . [she] was,” Corlie is adopted by a soldier from a distant land with cities called “Lacombe and Medicine Hat.”

All three works share a desire to convey social and historical realities: drug-related violence in She Said/She Saw; mental illness and the plight of Argentina’s desaparacidos in Out of the Box; and the horrors of the Anglo-Boer war and racism in colonial South Africa in Stones for My Father. As well as presenting realistic problems without fairy-tale solutions, these novels bring to life feisty, flawed female protagonists who thrive outside of the domestic realm.

This review “Beyond Domesticity” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 214 (Autumn 2012): 176-77.

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