“ Print Length: 226 pages / Publisher: Sandstone Press / Published: 19 July 2012 „
~"Why don't you have any friends your own age?" asked my father. "Why don't you have any friends?" I asked.~
Small town Australia is a hard place to be when you're 16 and waiting for life to start happening. It's just a matter of time before Martha will fly the family nest and head off to a life of adventure and experience, but until school's finished she's home with mum, Jessica. When Martha's parents split up it gives her the perfect excuse for behaving badly; there's nothing like a parental marital breakdown to give you emotional scars and make you interesting. Whilst others might say Martha's father, Victor, has mental health issues, Martha herself doesn't mince her words; Victor is mad, plain and simple. Martha's mum has been a doormat all her married life and even with the separation, it's hard to shake off her husband. She's suddenly throwing parties, trying to meet lots of new people and make up for years of being pushed around by her ex. When mum's friend brings an English couple, Mr and Mrs Booker, to one of her parties, they soon become regular visitors, turning up to hang out with Martha and her mum.
~"Nothing's worth doing" said my mother, "if it doesn't run the risk of f***ing up your entire life"~
At 16 years old, Martha's a sassy, confident, down-right rude teen waiting for her adult life to begin. She's realised that older men, friends of her parents particularly, are looking at her in a funny way that she doesn't entirely understand but seems to quite enjoy. Mr and Mrs Booker take a shine to her. Soon the Bookers are adopting her as their pet, taking her out to buy clothes and getting a hairdresser to give her a new look. At around twice her age, they're somewhere between surrogate parents and big brother and sister. They drink, they smoke, they swear and they're fun to be with. It's all going wonderfully right up to the point where Mr Booker kisses Martha and they're both in serious trouble.
What starts with a kiss quickly moves to furtive assignations, meetings in cheap motels, shagging in the woods, and sneaking around behind Mrs Booker's back. Her father Victor is not impressed and keeps threatening his daughter and Mr Booker, but nobody's going to believe the rantings of a mad estranged father. It's hard to believe that Mrs Booker suspects nothing and that they keep getting away with it as long as they do but inevitably they can't keep it secret for ever.
~He wanted to know about me, he said, but I told him there was nothing to know, that I had no secrets, that deep down I was superficial.~
When I realised that I'd downloaded a Kindle book about a 16 year old having an affair with a 34 year old, I felt slightly sick. By making Martha 16, Cory Taylor has managed to narrowly avoid an illegal relationship but in this case where he's a married friend of the family, it's still just plain wrong and exploitative. That's not to say that age-gap relationships can't work but in this case, it's not a healthy example. To add insult to injury, Mr Booker is a university lecturer, someone who works with young women and for whom the phrase 'ought to know better' has to apply. It's hard to blame Martha, falling in love, getting into something toxic but loving the attention, relishing the sex, but there are absolutely no excuses. It's not like she doesn't know he's married when she's hanging out with his wife almost as much as with him.
Why is it hard to blame Martha and to dislike her? She's just so incredibly funny that I could have forgiven her almost any behaviour because she made me laugh so hard. As I was reading on the Kindle, I was repeatedly bookmarking my favourite bits - almost all of which were Martha's cutting responses and witticisms. However you can't get away with the fact that this is a highly dysfunctional relationship that has no potential to end any way other than badly. This is a car crash relationship from start to finish.
~That was how he liked to talk, without really saying anything, as if everything was a game because he decided to make it one.~
Martha never refers to her lover as anything other than 'Mr Booker' and his wife as 'Mrs Booker' and this seems to represent the distance between them. Mr Booker is a nasty piece of work which we, as readers, can see clearly. He thinks he's funny, sophisticated, urbane but anyone over 16 will soon work out that the guy's an arse. He's all front, all bluster and he's very easy to dislike; this guy has hidden shallows. Mrs Booker drinks and parties too hard but is easy to pity. Is there a word for a female equivalent of a 'cuckold'? I'm not sure but it's painful to watch her continuing to be friends with a girl half her age who's shagging her husband.
~"It's not rocket surgery" he said, looking very pleased with himself.~
There's nothing erotic or titillating about Martha and Mr Booker's relationship, no attempt to dress it up as something loving or deep. Their coupling is functional, mechanical and he's constantly making excuses to push the blame onto his young lover. He talks a lot about stopping things if she wants to, pushing the responsibility to her, avoiding making it his own choice to continue. I was disturbed by such details as him neatly hanging his clothes on a tree before getting down to business in the woods on Christmas day whilst he and Martha are supposed to be out looking for a Christmas tree. There's something so cold about attending so precisely to your clothes prior to a moment of passion.
I don't read so-called 'young adult' fiction but I couldn't help but wonder if this is supposed to be for readers of the same age as Martha. The style is simple, easy to read (even when the content is uncomfortable), easy to skip through in just a few hours but the subject matter seemed to me to need to be viewed from a distance of more years. Would a 16 year old reader see the inevitability of this car-crash relationship when Martha herself seems to see nothing wrong in what's happening? Do you need to be a bit older to look at it and cringe in all the right places? I'm still not sure. The writing style was 'young' but the themes were more complex.
It's hard to decide what rating to give a book like this. I can't say I 'enjoyed' it because the characters, with the exception of Martha, are so unlikeable. She herself is doing something that we shouldn't love her for but she's so sharp, so witty, and so fresh that it's hard not to rather like her despite the casual way she gets herself into such a toxic situation. The dialogue is always sharp, short and incisive but when you look at the book in its entirety, it's not adding too much to the sum of written literature. This is no 'Lolita' and Cory Taylor is no Nabakov. There's no guessing, no tension, no 'will they won't they' suspense as the couple just skip all the preamble and get down to it. It's not a literary great, but it passed a few hours in an airport and I didn't hate it.