I didn’t think Allayne Webster could top her last book, A Cardboard Palace, for middle grade readers, but then I read her latest. The Centre of My Everything is for older young adults, and it initially left me at a loss for words, and I had to sit with it for a few days before I could write anything..
She has captured the voices of these teenagers with such authenticity that it is at times confronting, for me particularly from the boys, but always genuine. Teenaged Corey, Hamish and Cammo often made me cringe – ‘Everyone knows you can screw around when you’re tanked, but you’ve gotta know when to stop. There are limits. There’s the stuff you do that makes you a legend and the stuff you do that makes you a dickhead’; ‘’I’m getting laid!’ He points at two girls sitting by the bonfire. ‘One of them. Both of them’;’ ‘He’s got zero chance of getting with a chick like this, sober or not. I might play the field, but at least my girls are conscious and consenting when I have a crack’.
Justin, a recovering drug-addict, is trying to get his life back on track, and not end up like his father ‘sitting under the TAB sign, racehorses galloping past on an overhead flat screen, a near- empty pint glass in one hand, stacking and restacking a pile of coins with his other. That’s how I’d seen my old man every day of my childhood: barely upright, surrounded by printed dreams in the form of white race- bet cards’.
Margo, an Aboriginal girl, who is not in with in-crowd, is expected to be dux of the school when she finishes year twelve, challenging stereotypes of indigenous people.
Margo thinks Tara, who is at school with her, ‘could turn her nose up any higher, she’d be doing a backflip’. Tara and her friend Amy bully Margo. Tara is a complicated young woman who flirts with men and boys, exposing herself to her neighbour and offering herself to anyone who is asking, getting herself into compromising situations. ‘I wipe my mouth, annoyed that my never- fail sexy- girl act hasn’t worked on him’. Her vulnerability comes through though – ‘I look sad. Maybe I am. But if I drink enough, I won’t be’.
The descriptions of teenage behaviour are so vivid – ‘Behind me, music booms. The street is crammed, cars parked bumper to bumper. Frosted mag wheels glint in the moonlight, moths swarm under street lamps and a stereo thuds as a bouncing car pulls up and births five people from the back seat. Clutching bottles, they stumble into the gutter, shouting slurred words I can’t understand’.
They take risks thinking, like young people do, that it will never happen to them, and have to deal with the ramifications, ‘all for a night on the piss’. The tension builds beautifully. You know something is going to happen but you don’t know what, to whom, and how bad it will be, but when it does it is handled so well.
Webster doesn’t preach to young people, but there are plenty of valuable lessons surreptitiously layered into this book. It is rich enough to be read by young adults and adults, who will recognise someone they know in one or more characters in the story.
I predicted her last book will win awards and it has already been given an honour award by the Children’s Book Council of Australia. This one will surely win her more.