Random House Australia, 2013
[New release: May 1st, 2013]
If I can liken Steal My Sunshine to any particular holiday-related chocolate product, then it'll have to be the good old Easter egg. What appears to be one story actually turns out to be two, one nestled inside the other and revealing a whole extra layer of history, family and reconciliation. On the surface, this novel is about Hannah - a typical, if somewhat shy, teenage girl living in Melbourne. She lives at home with her mum and dad and her older brother, Sam, who is at uni but still manages to infect the house with his stinky trainers and capacious appetite, a la every brother ever. Hannah also has a bubbly, popular best friend, Chloe, who works in her dad's bar and manages to seem cooler and more grown up that Hannah can ever hope to be. Hannah's home life isn't particularly brilliant - her brother is always sniping at her, her mum is perpetually angry and quite brittle with Hannah, and her dad is just in it for the quiet life. I really felt for Hannah in the first couple of chapters as she struggles to understand why she and her mum seem to be on the opposite sides of everything, while at the same time dealing with a best friend who is a little bit disdainful and dismissive of her.
So far, so ordinary - but then the second layer of the story begins to unfold, focusing on Hannah's grandmother Essie, who is agoraphobic and increasingly needs help with day-to-day things. She's a sparky old woman, always full of gin, and Hannah is always worried that Essie thinks she's somehow too boring and too safe, not like Essie herself. Hannah discovers that her grandmother has a secret, and over the rest of the book it is Essie's story that begins to unfold. Here Gale brings in a particular issue of Australian history, that of the use of laundries (quite often known as Magdalene Laundries, at least in the UK and Ireland) run by nuns, which were used to house teenage girls who got pregnant, or "fallen women", as they were known. (There's a Sydney Morning Herald article entitled "Bad Girls Do the Best Sheets" that I found on the same subject.) Girls would give birth and have their babies taken away and adopted by "respectable" couples, and while they were pregnant (and it wasn't quite clear, but I think afterwards as well, for some of them) they were required to work for free in these laundries, overseen by the nuns.
Through Essie, Hannah discovers a part of her family history that she didn't know about, and through this she begins to see the bigger picture and where she fits into it. Essie's story was really interesting, and I enjoyed the historical element, which prompted me to go away and look up these laundries after finishing the novel. In between all of this, Hannah struggles with more typical teenage problems - tentative dating, her parents, having to speak in the school play, whether or not she even likes her best friend anymore - and the balance was just about right between the past and the present storylines, as Hannah tries to find more confidence in herself. A solid young adult read made much more powerful by the historical details that Gale chooses to include.
Overall rating: 7/10
Book source: ebook ARC received via Netgalley.
This book counts towards my Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013.