This post is adapted from my speech for the Castlemaine launch of Kirsten Krauth’s just_a_girl.
As someone who had the internet at Layla’s age—14—I would also say her experience as rendered in the novel is incredibly accurate. She acts out, though she’s never completely sure what she is acting out against. And that’s because it’s a conglomerate of issues, including emptiness and silence, despite all the chatter. She senses that there’s something wrong with elements of the social world around her that aren’t addressed or talked about, though she plays with, and often rejects, certain ideas and categories, particularly in terms of sexuality. Her knowledge and discoveries around sex are part curiosity, partly to do with a cultural norm of performativity, and partly the enactment of a struggle for both power and control. She is a questioning, self-aware, desiring individual, who is grappling for something firm and good to hold onto in a pretty damn confusing world.
Meanwhile, her mother Margot exists in a kind of fog. We’re sympathetic to her because she obviously has suffered, and still suffers from depression. But she has turned to God. And her chapters in the novel are heartbreaking because we know that emptiness, and something frightening, lies waiting for her.
Tadashi is a counterpoint to Layla and Margot’s world. He is the commuter you see on the train, but what you don’t know is that in his large suitcase is a life-size doll. Tadashi can’t connect, or perhaps doesn’t even see it as an option, because buying a companion is easy enough to do. His story is layered in a stimulating way. On the one hand, he is portrayed as being warm and caring, such as when he saves a bogong moth in a train carriage. On the other hand, there’s a disturbing metaphor of objectification in his story, which echoes some of the actions of male characters in the story threads of Layla and Margot. He has literally replaced a flesh-and-blood woman with a doll who keeps quiet and is available whenever he needs her. She is pretty and poses the way he wants her to. There are parallels with the sex video that Layla makes for Mr C, an older man, and in her relations with her 18-year-old boyfriend, and also in the harassment she suffers—and never reports—from her boss. In the first instance Layla is performing for Mr C, literally, posed in a way she thinks he would like. Her 18-year-old boyfriend certainly treats her objectively, not respecting her own desire, and also practically ignoring her when they watch porn together. (As a side note: I have so much respect for the way Kirsten writes these scenes, it’s a fact that both teenage girls and boys are exposed to hardcore porn these days and there are so many possible effects, which Kirsten explores while always respecting a 14-year-old’s ability to know and feel true sexual desire.) And the harassment of Layla’s boss is most disturbing because with this act Layla’s agency is removed. The fact she doesn’t report it tells us that society has told her that this is how men behave, that she exists for them to look at and masturbate over. And this is something she tries to take ownership of, and incorporate into her grappling for power or control, at other times in the novel.
There’s also the theme of coldness and cruelty, and of being cruelly abandoned. All of the characters experience this realistically but also in an imagined or exaggerated way. It’s another thing that Layla tries to own or reclaim, unfortunately adding to this feeling of abandonment in Margot, her mother. But cruelty doesn’t suit Layla and you very much sense that it’s just part of her strategy for coping, for holding onto some semblance of control.
The writing itself is so intuitive, suitable for each character and the story.
just_a_girl is a complex and timely novel, the first book by a strong writer who is not afraid to go to honest, dark places. If you’ve read Kirsten’s blog, too, you’ll know she has so much to offer. What she writes always has such a depth of thought, and is executed with talent, thoughtfulness, and care.