Book review – Harmless and lovely and totally creepy

2014-05-21 08:00

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Sharp Edges by SA Partridge

Human & Rousseau

192 pages


Growing up as a middle class white girl in Cape Town’s southern suburbs in the mid-1990s, I didn’t fear much.

My friends and I walked between one another’s homes and caught trains to town to explore the city.

The boys even hitchhiked sometimes when recalcitrant parents refused to take them to parties.

I was as close to fearless as I’ll ever be, though I fretted, like most bookish teenage girls, about whether long breaktimes spent in the school library devouring Marmite sandwiches and as many books as possible would render me permanently celibate.

But strangely, SA Partridge’s Sharp Edges reminded me of something I must have buried in my subconscious: not fear, exactly, but a creeping unease that shadowed much of my adolescence. Early in the novel, a character walks to her therapist near Rondebosch Common.

It’s raining and she suddenly realises what she needs isn’t the kind of therapy dished out in a small room by a man with university degrees.

Instead, she seeks comfort with a friend’s father?–?an encounter that seamlessly walks the tightrope between harmless and lovely and totally creepy.

This is Partridge’s strength: she evokes the threads that unravel as children morph into teenagers, sometimes digging in their heels and refusing to grow up. Sometimes roaring heedlessly forward, wishing they were adults already.

In an email interview, Partridge seems rather chuffed that her fourth novel has left me so unsettled.

“I love writing about teenagers. They’re at the point in their lives where real-world factors like day jobs and debt and politics don’t matter,” the author says.

“They lead this all-or-none existence where the opposite sex is everything and the world is their playground.

“Sometimes kids can be dramatic, so their problems seem bigger, and most are fearless, which makes the dangers greater.

“They’re also just starting to develop an awareness of the world and to learn how complicated people can be. It’s an endless pool of possibilities for a writer,” says Partridge.

In Sharp Edges, six friends head off to a music festival for a weekend of partying and adventure. Only five return. That’s a rather dark premise for a piece of young adult fiction, I suggest to Partridge.

“I used to be a live-event journalist, so I’ve been to my fair share of music festivals. I remember being struck by the complete disregard for death that kids seem to have.

“It’s unsupervised chaos and that seemed the perfect setting for a murder. You’re in the middle of nowhere, your parents are hundreds of kilometres away. What if something happened? The story built on from that.”

It’s a taut, smart thriller, beautifully and cleanly written. Partridge gets into her young characters’ heads and makes them three dimensional?–?for me, they rose off the pages and reminded me of people I knew, loved, loathed and admired from afar when I was a teenager.

And by the way, it’s not just my pseudo-Goth neuroses that were brought to life by the novel.

Partridge explains: “I tend to focus on the darker side of adolescence for the exact reason that it’s a dark and scary time. Peer pressure and bullying seem insurmountable when you’re forced to face it every day.

“And then there are the after-school activities. Some kids go out drinking and partying, others huddle in their rooms speaking to strangers on the internet, while some quietly hate their lives and wish for something more.

“Adolescence can be wonderful but it can also be terrifying. Fiction should reflect the struggles of the average teenager. How else are they meant to get through it?”

Reading helps. Pick up a copy of Sharp Edges for the teenager or young adult in your life?–?they’ll thank you.

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