Steal My Sunshine by Emily Gale

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

During a Melbourne heatwave, Hannah's family life begins to distort beyond her deepest fears. It's going to take more than a cool change to fix it, but how can a girl who lives in the shadows take on the task alone? 

Feeling powerless and invisible, Hannah seeks refuge in the two anarchists of her life: her wild best friend, Chloe, and her eccentric grandmother, Essie, who look like they know how life really works. 

But Hannah's loyalty to both is tested, first by her attraction to Chloe's older brother, and then by Essie's devastating secret that sheds new light on how the family has lost its way. 

Even if Hannah doesn't know what to believe in, she'd better start believing in herself.

I can't stop this amazing one-hit wonder from playing in my head while I'm working on this review (1999... what a year for music). Trouble is, that song isn't right for the tone of this novel. And now I'm trying to work out what song is right I've discovered that's an impossible task and I can't possibly find the perfect song.

You can't tell but I've just spent half an hour trying to find the perfect song to match this novel and it's just not happening. The best I can do is suggest a combo of One Crowded Hour by Augie March and Songbird by Bernard Fanning and hope that conveys it. Musically, rather than lyrically. It's got all this aching sadness, fairly heartbreaking in parts, but then that hope at the end. I guess I should write the review now.

Hannah is lovely: shy, uncertain and yearning, a character whom I think a lot of young readers will be able to relate to. Difficult family dynamics are explored with realism and subtlety, as Hannah's family crumbles around her. The characterisation is excellent - every character is unique and flawed, from Hannah's sweet and tortured dad, to her (understandably) rage-filled mum, to her out-there best friend Chloe. (I was furiously angry with her mother and brother, and their totally uncalled for meanness towards Hannah. Why would you be so awful? Hannah's a sweetheart, gosh.)

The unraveling of the mystery in Hannah's family, allowing Hannah to understand why things are so difficult between Essie and her daughter (Hannah's mum), kept me reading into the early hours of the morning. Essie is a wonderful character, and I could so clearly picture her and her house. Her story is the most compelling part of the novel, and reads as very authentic. It's incredibly tricky but important subject matter - single mothers being forced to give up their babies, something that occurred for decades in Australia's not-so-distant history - and is dealt with so well. Essie's narrative is at times harrowing, often heartbreaking, with a distinct and engrossing voice. It never feels like it's being educational, but I think it would be a great novel to study in school, and not just because of the historical content.

While there is romance (Hannah has a crush on her best friend's older brother, Evan), the romance isn't even really about the romance - it's about Hannah working out who she is and what she wants, instead of being a passive observer in her own life. I think it's a much more true-to-life depiction of teenage romance than a lot of YA. Similarly, her friendship with Chloe - and the subsequent breakdown of it - reflects the difficulties of real-life teenage friendships; where, sometimes, friends simply outgrow each other.

If you expect things to be perfectly resolved, you'll be disappointed; Steal My Sunshine is realistic in that it depicts the true messiness of life. Steal My Sunshine blends the historical and the contemporary perfectly. It's a novel with huge sadness and a lot of heartbreak, but it's ultimately hopeful. Immensely readable.

Steal My Sunshine on the publisher's website
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