Wonder and apathy, rage and ambivalence: Girlhood on the page

On one hand, I could have counted the books about same-sex romances and suicide that were available to me as a young reader twenty-five years ago.

Not that the two themes necessarily coexist in the same work (as they do, for instance, in Skim and Monoceros), but each of the following works-in-translation takes on one of those themes.

God and I Broke Up

1995; 2004 Trans. Maria Lundin (Swedish) - Groundwood - House of Anansi

Linnea, in Katarina Mazetti’s God and I Broke Up, is dealing with the loss of her best friend, Pia.

“We thought the same way and knew each other so well. As if we were spiritual Siamese twins. (And when one of the twins is amputated, what are the odds of the remaining one’s survival?”) (96)

This sense of amputation, intense disruption, is what makes Linnea such a memorable character. Pia has been dead for some time now, but Linnea is still struggling in the wake of Pia’s suicide.

Still, for the most part, Linnea is a typical sixteen-year-old girl. Hankering after a boy who doesn’t take notice of her, fighting with her mom, struggling to fit in at school: a whole lot of attitude in one young girl.

“Anyways, I don’t like the word infatuated. It sounds like something bad, like ‘inflicted’ or ‘incurable’, not to speak of ‘inefficient’ or ‘indulgent’. As if you want to love someone but it goes wrong and you get infatuated instead.” (35)

What Katarina Mazetti captures so vividly is the twinned sense of wonder and apathy of ordinary adolescence.

“I worked at the supermarket every Friday evening during the Christmas holidays so in February I bought a pretty good guitar and I practiced almost every day when I got home from school. I got calluses on my fingertips from playing so much. I tried to show them to people, but strangely enough no one was interested.” (62)

Sometimes Linnea is thrilled by something, but takes great pains to appear bored by it. Other times she is furious that the people around her (particularly family and schoolmates) do not express the sense of wonder that she desires from them, in response to something she personally wants recognition for.

The contradictions and extremes inherent in adolescent life are portrayed believably in this short novel. Linnea is not a perfect character, but she is a sympathetic character; she often recognizes when she is behaving unreasonably, even when she does not change her behaviour accordingly.

With such a serious theme compounding the difficulties of adolescence, one might imagine a didactic note creeping into the prose, but this is minimal and comes so late in the novel, and through a minor character in a flashback scene, that it maintains a sense of subtlety.

“You will have to make choices in life, and it’s better to choose consciously than to let chance decide. You can’t ride a motorcycle and hear the birds sing, for example. And you can’t be a world traveler and a passionate gardener at the same time, either…”. (106)

It’s obvious from the beginning of the novel that Pia did make the choice to end her own life. This bit of advice, given by an adult who would never have knowingly advised Pia to consider suicide, adds a striking layer of complexity to the novel, for the emphasis is on the fact that Pia made this choice.

Girl from Mars

2003; 2008 Trans. Shelley Tanaka (German) Groundwood - House of Anansi

In Girl from Mars, Tamara Bach also captures the tribulations of adolescence credibly.

“Okay, imagine a girl. A stunning, talented girl that everyone admires. A girl people talk to and smile at. A girl who loves to smile herself.
Now imagine a girl that nobody likes, maybe because she smells funny or has a weird laugh.
I’m somewhere in between.” (13)

Adolescence: the quintessential in between.

“If I were only a little older. Fifteen is a funny age. Fifteen is so …nothing. So in the middle.” (21)

What is impressive about Tamara Bach’s depiction of adolescence is the realistic feelings of rage.

The extreme emotions that Pia must have been experiencing in God and I Broke Up are largely intuited; Linnea catches glimpses of them but, because the bulk of the story is devoted to Linnea’s reexamination of past events, her realization that there was a lot going on in Pia’s life of which Linnea was unaware, the reader does not directly experience Pia’s pain. In Girl from Mars, this is a tangible aspect of the characterization, so that reading these two novels as companions provides a fascinating and complementary understanding of these girls’ experiences.

“The farther we walk, the angrier I get. I’m mad at myself for running after them like a bloody dog. I’m mad at Laura for not telling me what we’re doing and why I have to go with them. And I’m mad at this Phillip guy, because he’s acting like an arrogant pig. Thinks he’s so cool.” (41)

Sometimes the anger is directed at specific individuals and situations but often it simply swells so dramatically that the entire world must be culpable. And, often times, the sense of isolation and loneliness, sadness and despair, is just as overwhelming.

“Sometimes I think I’m the only one here. The only one who’s not sleeping. The only one who’s wide awake.” (75)

What is remarkable about Girl From Mars, however, is the love story. It is suitably ambivalent, depicted in extremes which suit the characters involved.

“I couldn’t care less. What is it about [her]? Every time I look at her, it’s different. Sometimes it’s as if she’s always been here. (Of course she’s always been here. She has been in this class for a few months just like the rest of us.) And sometimes it’s like she’s here for the first time. For me. Like she’s just landed on my planet.” (78)

The romance is not other-worldly, however; it develops naturally and authentically, without a false note.

Neither God and I Broke Up nor Girl From Mars offers their readers ready-made solutions; their heroines are resourceful and intelligent and compassionate, capable of accepting imperfect solutions.

These are the kind of stories that I wish I had read when I was a girl, the kind of stories you want to press on girls growing up today.

Have you read either of these, or are they on your TBR list?

Project Reading Notes:
Day 9 of 45: The last of my Lives of Girls and Women posts will appear tomorrow, Rigoberta Menchú’s The Girls from Chimel, which was absolutely wonder+ful. It’s my first exposure to the art of Domi, and how amazing it is. Projects like this open so many doors, the breeze in here is almost overwhelming.

2012-11-24T17:23:30+00:00

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