My first book review as part of the Women Writers Reading Group! I first read Melina Marchetta’s Looking for Alibrandi (1992) as a teenager in high school when it was one of the set texts in my English class. I totally loved it and recognised myself in the book’s main character, seventeen-year-old Josephine Alibrandi. I recently re-read it as I was thinking about it nostalgically after writing this list. And I love it even more now in the context of the young adult novels that are aimed at teens (particularly teen girls) today. I know it’s a cliché by now to cite Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight saga as an example, but she really did initiate a whole type of young adult book trend. There are many things I dislike about the Twilight books, not least of which is the god-awful gender politics and the bizarre domination-and-stalking-is-romance theme. But one thing really annoys me even more about these books. Bella has her entire life decided for her all while she’s a teenager. By the time she finishes high school, she has a husband and a baby, and her future is planned out. There is no real self-discovery, no growth. When I think back to my teenage self, I had absolutely nothing figured out. I still don’t. It was only the beginning, not the end. But the Twilight books seem to suggest a simplified world for teenage girls in which their entire sense of self and fulfilment in life is found early through (impossibly perfect) romance. It’s a very limited world-view.
Looking for Alibrandi presents an opposite world and an opposite characterisation. Josie, like most of us mere humans, has no idea who she is, how to get what she wants and what she’s searching for. Looking for Alibrandi is an inconclusive novel of self-discovery and self-awareness in a very realistic context of day-to-day life in Australia in the 90s. It does not suggest romance and babies as the answer to all of Josie’s problems, and it does not present the reader with a simple model of growing up. And to both teenage and adult readers, it sympathetically suggests that we are always in the making, never fully ‘arriving’ anywhere, but continually searching and sometimes finding answers, sometimes not, sometimes finding somewhere to belong, and sometimes not. We need more books like this for young girls; we need more books like this for everyone.
The second thing that really stood out for me as I was re-reading Looking for Alibrandi is the context of racism and multiculturalism in Australia. When I was in high school, we studied these topics. I remember my history teacher making us sit down to analyse Midnight Oil protest songs (Blue Sky Mine, Beds are Burning, etc.) and Pauline Hanson’s racist maiden speech to the House of Representatives (1996), as we were studying Australia’s immigration history and indigenous Australian history. My high school was diverse and large; there were students from many places around the world. The things we studied were not theory to most of us, we understood the reality of racism, we understood the implications of multiculturalism, because many of us lived it daily. Looking for Alibrandi was a book we could all relate to because Josie, like us, lived with the reality of a multicultural Australia. Another reason we need more books like this one is that I feel, to a certain extent, we’ve stopped talking about racism and multiculturalism in this honest, sympathetic and realistic manner. It’s mainly talked about as political rhetoric and posturing, or distanced cultural theory. Josie represents something altogether more real, more authentic – she represents the opposite of bullshit to me. As a teenager, I knew exactly what Josie was talking about when she tells the reader: “Like all tomato days we had spaghetti that night. Made by our own hands. A tradition that I probably will never let go of either, simply because like religion, culture is nailed into you so deep you can’t escape it. No matter how far you run.” And most of my English class in high school knew exactly what she meant when she got angry for being called a ‘wog’:
I’m an Italian. I’m of European descent. When an Italian or another person of European descent calls me a wog it’s done in good warm humour. When the word “wog” comes out of the mouth of an Australian it’s not done in good humour unless they’re a good friend. It makes me feel pathetic and it makes me remember that I live in a small-minded world and that makes me so furious.
I’m sure there are plenty of us who can relate to this fury. So you know, I can’t give a crap about vampire books with idealised notions of belonging through a ‘perfect’ love story. I much prefer Josie’s imperfect personality and her imperfect world. And I deeply admire a writer like Marchetta who can get inside a teenager’s mind so well and navigate a story of first love, family dramas and ordinary life through the voice of a smart girl trying to find a space where she belongs.
Image credit: Film still from the film adaptation of Looking for Alibrandi.