Girl Defective by Simmone Howell
Pan Macmillan, 2013
From the blurb:
In the tradition of High Fidelity and Empire Records, this is the literary soundtrack to Skylark Martin’s strange, mysterious, and extraordinary summer.
This is the story of a wild girl and a ghost girl; a boy who knew nothing and a boy who thought he knew everything.’
These are the words that came to mind while I was reading this book:
Vibrant, alive, quirky, nostalgic, curious, beautiful, sad, lonely, real.
Skylark (Sky) is a fifteen-year-old girl living above her family’s record shop with her melancholy dad who’s stuck in the past (‘Nothing after 1995’) and her ten-year-old brother Gully who has social difficulties and refuses to take off his pig-snout mask.
It’s mostly about Sky finding a sense of belonging in her ‘defective’ life.
One of my favourite aspects of the book was Sky’s relationship with her older, wilder friend Nancy.
She was nineteen and sharp as knives. I was fifteen and fumbling.
Kid, that was what she called me. Or little sister, or girlfriend, or dollbaby, or monkeyface. Sometimes she even used my name – Skylark, Sky – all in that drawl that felt like fingernails on my back lightly scratching itches I didn’t even know I had.
I had a shock of yearning, of wishing I was Nancy. The feeling was sharp and it carried a shadow. I was always on the edge of something that was never going to happen.
‘Is it a date or an assignation?’ I couldn’t remember the difference.
‘It’s a date.’
I tried to act jaded. I stole her stance, her slang, her style. ‘So go, lam, am-scray.’ My smile was unshakeable even as I was being ditched.
‘Yeah, we’re big dykes. We’re so dykey it’s not funny’. Nancy threw her arm around me and went ‘Mwah’ into my neck. I felt a tiny bomb explode inside.
What if I never saw her again? I felt a lump in my throat. Maybe our friendship had always been hollow. I’d needed someone to admire and Nancy needed to be admired. And now that the framework had changed we were all at sea.
The whole book takes place in St Kilda. The suburb is Sky’s world. The place is an intrinsic part, and character, of the book.
Once upon a time in old St Kilda, Victorian ladies would promenade and no one made disparaging remarks about their arses from the open window of an unregistered Ford Falcon. Then came wars and sailors and tramlines and the riff-raff bleeding in: working class, immigrants, refugees. Then it was all punks and junkies and prostitutes and then Money moved in. These days the red light still glowed but only faintly. I could live without the tourists but there were things I loved – like the palm trees and poppy seed kugelhopf; like the monster goldfish at the botanical gardens and the sad song of the marina boats. The wind played their masts like a bow on strings and the sound was eerie and lovely and more lonesome than anything I could imagine.
The Scenic Railway would have qualified as an old St Kildan. It had been around since 1911. Its white wood lattice lassoed Luna Park and made all the other rides with their Day-Glo and bad murals look crass and eighties. From the highest point I could see St Kilda’s up-down streets, her patches of green, her apartment blocks like computer monitors stacked on top of each other.
Sky is sweet and innocent but wanting more. I liked her quiet rebellions. I liked her anger at her dad for not telling the truth, and her frustration at her brother, and her snarky comments that she posts on her famous mother’s website (who had abandoned the family to follow her art).
Do you ever miss your children?
How does it feel to be such a fake?
How do you sleep?
I think Howell nails the teenage ‘call to wildness’ without sounding like a grown-up trying to be ‘cool’.
I felt there were issues with the plot. Spoilers below.
Mainly, the storylines didn’t resolve satisfactorily for me. The dramatic peak of the narrative (the mess, Christmas Eve) didn’t work for me. Something more needed to happen. More than Luke punching Otis and Nancy falling off a ledge. Gully needed to do something more after sneaking in – something that only he could do. Luke needed to get answers from Otis (either here or in the police station after). Sky needed to get her answers from Nancy. The whole set-ups for the mystery about Mia, and the backstories about Ray and Steve Sharp needed resolving. I didn’t buy Sky’s ‘sense of finality’ after this event, because nothing had been resolved except the Bricker and the finding of the snout. For me, it all needed to come together better.
Had Otis told him anything? Did it make a difference? I felt different. When I looked at the picture of Mia I felt sadness but also a sense of finality. I felt lighter. Even when I thought about the shop and the future. Even when I thought about Mum.
Nope. Didn’t accept this. For a whole story based around a mystery of a missing girl, I needed more answers than what was given. And after hating on her mum for so long, what happened to change this?
The music references mainly went over my head too, but I’m sure they’d be an added layer for those that recognise them. But I liked the Almost Famous vibe it gave off – the sense of ‘it’s all happening …’
Here’s a playlist of some of the songs referred to throughout the novel. Excuse me while I go and YouTube them.
Wishing Well by The Millionaires
Spooky by Dusty Springfield
Urge for Going by Tom Rush
Cortez the Killer by Neil Young
She’s Leaving Home by The Beatles
Orange Skies by Love
Gloria by Them
Pocketful of Rainbows by Jan & Dean
The Boxer by Simon and Garfunkel