It’s her first day of Grade Nine and Clementine Darcy is struggling. Her brother, Fergus, disappeared into his room a year ago, dropping his family, job, and life behind him. Her sister, Sophie, is always angry, and her friends at school seem to moving in a different direction and leaving her behind.
The one hope she has of understanding how her previously charmed life has fallen apart so entirely is to take the philosophy class that had helped her sister so much when she was in school. Perhaps, the great thinkers of their age can make more sense of Clementine’s life than she can. However, Ms Hiller is not an average teacher. Rather than expounding upon the complexities of Foucault or discussing the ideas of Alain de Botton, she asks her class to write.
Kate Gordon’s novel starts with quite a beautiful premise. Clementine is lost. She knows herself better than most girls her age do, and better than some people ever will. Who she doesn’t know are the people around her. Sophie seemingly has it all, but she’s nowhere near as happy as Clementine. Fergus, her wonderfully irrepressible brother, doesn’t talk anymore – or do much else for that matter. Her friends are suddenly all about the boys. With Ms Hiller’s philosophy class, Clementine is hoping to change all of that. While she wants someone to explain everything to her; however, the class teaches her that she needs to reach out and search for answers herself.
For a novel made up entirely of letters to a teacher, Ms Hiller is a curiously absent character. She steps in twice at pivotal points in Clementine’s life, but doesn’t change anything on either of those times. Despite the fact that Ms Hiller is the catalyst for Clementine to really examine her life, keeping her absent from the story emphasises that the only person who can affect change is Clementine herself.
Writing Clementine tackles that difficult teenage time when everything is changing so fast that it no longer makes sense. Anyone who has been through it will recognise some part of their younger selves in this inspirational novel; anyone who is going through it will probably relate to a lot of the emotions Clementine is feeling.
While this doesn’t read as an ‘issues’ novel, it does take a good, hard look at a lot of the problems affecting Australian teens. Ranging from trying to be yourself in this increasingly media-driven world, to sexual assault, and depression, Writing Clementine doesn’t baulk at the realities of life. It does tackle those truths with careful consideration, offering plenty of hope but never going with the easy way out.
Writing Clementine is a lovely, insightful coming-of-age novel that explores some difficult teen dilemmas but manages to stay light-hearted. With an array of lovely characters and a large dose of emotional truth, this is a sweet story that’s not too fluffy.
Writing Clementine – Kate Gordon
Allen & Unwin (July 2014)