I know this to be true: there is a special corner of hell that’s called being a fourteen-year-old girl.
Kirra’s not wrong there; life’s dealt her a tough hand. It’s the late 1990s, and in the small town where she lives, everyone knows everyone else’s secrets and no one looks to the world beyond the breakers. At school, her so-called friends act like anything but, while at home her mum, Judy, drinks down the days trying to escape something awful and long ago and her dad, Lark, cares only for surfing and keeping the peace with his new girlfriend.
Kirra feels utterly alone until she meets Boogie, a ghost boy who’s been stuck on the beach for twenty years. He promises to make her popular, get her parents back together and not haunt her, on one condition: she helps him catch his killer.
But who is Boogie really? Can he be trusted? And will the pact Kirra makes with him give either of them what they truly want?
Yellow is a gutsy coming-of-age story that proves that people and things are not always who and what they seem on the surface and that the truth is complicated.
Ironically, it was Yellow‘s surface that drew me in. I saw some of my fellow #loveOzYA book bloggers flashing the cover about on Instagram and was like: ‘Ohmigod so pretty. GET ON MY BOOKSHELF!!!’. For those interested, Marina Messiha is the genius responsible for the design. And Jacobson’s story is rather colourful too.
Kirra lives in a small coastal town, and Jacobson evokes a strong sense of place:
My town is the melanoma capital of the world. we go to get them cut out like other people get haircuts. Main beach is all protected and curved inwards like a lap, with the sun warm and soothing and painting things golden. South Beach is different. It flings itself outwards towards the raging swell. It doesn’t pretend.
Through Jacobson’s descriptions, the sultry Australian summer almost becomes a character in its own right. And more than that, her descriptions of the unnamed town add to Kirra’s sense of claustrophobia and reflect the conflict she faces between who the town expects her to be and who she feels she is.
The world Jacobson creates feels real and naturalistic—not at all the kind of place where you’d expect a ghost to call the protagonist from a seaside pay phone. Which is what happens. Before I got to that scene, I wasn’t convinced the supernatural element was going to work. But it does. Mostly. Boogie adds both an element of mystery and a link between Kirra’s present and her mother’s past. More than that, the fantastical element lifts the narrative to a state of heightened possibility and gives the story an eerie edge. That said, I had mixed feelings about Boogie himself. I don’t want to give too much away, but in his early scenes, I found his dialogue somewhat wooden and for me, it didn’t ring true that Kirra was so willing to trust him and risk her life to catch his killer after a just few brief conversations. Nor does she seem particularly surprised to discover that a) ghosts are real and b) one needs her help to solve a murder. But maybe that speaks more to my skepticism than the story.
Overall, I loved the characters in Yellow. The school bullies, A.K.A. the Circle are so wonderfully bitchy and horrible, while Kirra’s fellow outcast, Willow, is smart and sassy—the kind of sophisticated rebel-with-a-heart-of-gold I would have given anything to be friends with at Kirra’s age. But the real standouts for me were Kirra’s parents, especially her mum, Judy. While in the early chapters both she and Lark appear as variations on the ‘negligent parent’ stereotype (so often employed in YA to give the protagonist the freedom to get themselves into a world of trouble), as the story progresses Kirra comes to see them more complexly. Through Boogie, Kirra discovers what Judy was like as a teenager. This helps her learn from her mother’s mistakes, but also allows Jacobson to explore and develop their relationship, and the scenes with Judy and Kirra are some of the most heartfelt in the book.
Kirra also makes for a strong protagonist. She’s at that exciting/terrifying juncture where she has to decide whether it’s going to be other people’s expectations or her own that define her. It’s not an easy choice to make, and, like most of us, Kirra struggles with it. But the girl’s got moxie. That said, while I liked her overall, she’s annoyingly self-deprecating: the pretty, clever girl who doesn’t know how pretty and clever and special she is. She’s complains a lot about her unremarkableness:
The grain of sand.
Meanwhile, she’s compassionate and wise beyond her years—way more mature than either of her parents and, while she’s no longer part of the Circle and bemoans being an outcast, she has the coolest rebel BFF ever. Noah, the hottest boy in her grade (whom she has a major crush on), follows her around like a love-sick puppy for the entire book, despite her conviction that no boy would ever fall for a freak like her. And when her English teacher forces her to give a speech on behalf of the school she surprises herself by being an absolute gun at public speaking. But, no. Nobody notices her. She’s nothing. I get that this encourages readers to think about their own unacknowledged strengths, but I would have liked Kirra more if she showed some self-awareness or wasn’t quite so perfect.
Jacobson’s prose is lyrical and evocative, if a little uneven. In particular, I found the dialogue affected in places—for example, fourteen-year-old Willow’s habit of referring to Kirra as ‘sweet pea’ and ‘cupcake’. It doesn’t quite ring true. That said, Jacobson’s writing as a whole is highly polished, so occasional inconsistencies stand out more than they perhaps would in the hands of another writer.
Overall, Yellow is an impressive debut that offers an innovative and intriguing twist on the coming-of-age story and heralds Jacobson as an exciting new voice in the Australian YA landscape.
Thank you to Penguin Teen Australia for providing a copy of Yellow in exchange for an honest review.
Are you interested in writing YA? I’ve teamed up with Kill Your Darlings to produce ‘Introduction to Writing Young Adult Fiction’, an online writing workshop designed to equip aspiring YA writers with the skills and support to hone their craft and get to work.
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