Untidy Towns reviewed by Annie

Adelaide has won a scholarship to a private school in Melbourne, but in year twelve she feels she is ‘coming apart at the seams. One more emotion and I would split open and no one would be able to put me back together again, no matter how many horses or men the king had. And no matter how skilled they were in patching up girls who don’t have any real reason to have come apart’.

Having diagnosed herself with panic attacks due to ‘the ever-pressing pressure to do my school proud’ and ‘the feeling of having no control’ she gets on a train and heads back to the country town where her mother and younger sister, Clover, live.

Her grandfather gets her to work at the local museum with ‘a bit of old thresher or other ancient farm machinery, mildewy black-and-white photographs of crumbling houses and weatherworn folk in colonial garb, the old bones of some explorer who, let’s face it, probably contributed to the massacre of local Indigenous people’. She also continues year twelve by correspondence, neither with much enthusiasm.

She reconnects with old friends, hangs out in town and finds that ‘taking life as it comes was easier than I thought it would be. I wasn’t being too serious or getting panicky because of crazy pressures. Just letting it happen. For example, it was delightful to lie in a hot bubble bath on a chilly morning and let ideas paddle around. It was about living in the moment and being thoughtful’.

Kate O’Donnell has a way of capturing the characters – ‘Grandad was out the front, clearly waiting for me, though under the sneaky guise of picking up some stray sticks on the lawn. I would put money on him bringing the mower from home, to mow around here in neat circles, before raking it all up and composting it properly’ and ‘Mrs Dobbs. Her cashmere voice matched her jumper’.

The book is referenced with books and music and addresses different ways families are made up, working out what you want to be when you grow up, the small town versus city perspectives, expectations, opportunities and privilege. It is perfect for young adults going into year twelve and anyone who’s been there and can remember all those feelings.

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