Friday, 26 April 2013

Review: Steal My Sunshine, Emily Gale

Steal My Sunshine

Emily Gale

Random House Australia, 2013

[New release: May 1st, 2013]

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. 

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.


  1. I really had little idea of what this book was about, all I needed to know was that it was Aussie! I really want to get to this now, I like the sound of both stories, especially her nan's!

  2. OH, I am so jealous you got the chance to read this! I'm not an Australian, so I unfortunately couldn't get a copy of this book, but it sounds amazing. I love these types of books where dual stories are narrated and Australian authors are always so phenomenal. Plus, the cover is just yelling for me to buy it. Lovely review, kit! :)


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