Head of the River by Pip Harry

Friday, August 29, 2014

Tall, gifted and the offspring of Olympians, superstar siblings Leni and Cristian Popescu are set to row Harley Grammar to victory in the Head of the River.

With six months until the big race, the twins can't lose. Or can they?

When Cristian is seduced by the easy route of performance-enhancing drugs, and Leni is suffocated with self-doubt, their bright futures start to fade. Juggling family, high expectations, study, break-ups, new relationships and wild parties, the pressure starts to build.

As the final moments tick down to the big race, who’ll make it to the start line? And who'll plummet from grace?

I would like to preface this review by saying that I ordinarily actively avoid books-about-sports because I don't really understand sports. The only sport I follow is AFL because my family would not tolerate it if I paid no attention whatsoever to who's going to make the eight. The extent of my involvement in actual sports involving me was playing Aussie Rules in primary school, and only making the team because my school needed to make up the numbers. I took a chest mark and kicked it out of bounds on the full and that was the extent of it (I still got a medal). I swam a bit as a kid but I didn't like swimming competitively. I'm not known for my coordination. I'm a thinking, brainy, sitting-at-home-and-pondering-the-universe person. I'm not a person who can judge distance or move at speed with grace while simultaneously not dropping the ball or participate effectively in a team without getting distracted by an interesting looking tree.

That said, Head of the River is a novel about rowing, so it's a sportsy novel, and despite my non-sportsy nature, I loved it. I really enjoyed Pip Harry's debut novel I'll Tell You Mine, but I felt her sophomore novel even more authentic, engaging and compelling. The technical detail added to the realism, a strong sense of what it's really like to row competitively and have such a ridiculous amount of expectation placed on you.

Doping in sports is very relevant, and the motivations of the characters well-drawn - despite both Leni and Cristian making some less-than-stellar choices, they remained characters with whom I could empathise and I wanted things to work out well for them. I can't relate to the performance-enhancing drugs bit because there aren't any performance-enhancing drugs you can take to make you a better writer (I think there's a movie about this? I wouldn't take them even if they did exist. I'm a bit funny about taking panadol), but I could relate to their ambition and, to some degree, the pressure they experienced.

I probably have an unconscious bias towards thinking Australian contemporary YA is awesome (it's probably not unconscious if I'm conscious of it), but I think this is really fabulous. I think this is a novel relevant enough to be taught in schools, covering a whole lot of themes very well - drugs in sports, self-esteem and body-image, leadership and team dynamics, expectations and pressure. A novel well worth reading even if you're not sportsy - it's well-characterised and honest and engrossing.

Head of the River on the publisher's website.
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