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The mean boys of Willow High

The mean boys of Willow High

Plus, an Australian novelist with an uncanny sense of timing

Plus, an Australian novelist with an uncanny sense of timing

December/January 2019

Mean boys
“Kens”, a young-adult novel by Raziel Reid (above), a Canadian author, is high-school fiction with a difference: the cliquey popular kids are gay. At Willows High, teen socialites Ken Hilton, Ken Carson and Ken Roberts – so named because they have all had plastic surgery to resemble Ken, the fashion doll – sit atop the social hierarchy; heterosexuals hoping to curry favour with them pretend to be gay. Reid’s previous novel, “When Everything Feels Like the Movies”, about the struggles of a bullied queer teen, won the Governor General’s Award for Children, Canada’s top literary award, in 2014. That book’s acclaim prompted a backlash from anti-gay groups who petitioned to have Reid stripped of his prize. “Kens” is a more complex work, satirising the experience of gay teenagers as well as portraying it sympathetically.

Hard times
Thirty years ago, Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga published an acclaimed debut novel, “Nervous Conditions”. The story of a girl who is determined to get an education, it won a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Her latest book, “This Mournable Body”, revisits the protagonist, Tambu, who is now heading towards middle age and struggling to find a job in a country where women routinely face violence and abuse. For Tambu, as for post-colonial Zimbabwe, hope has turned into a bitter scramble for survival. Dangarembga’s new novel is being talked about in Zimbabwe, but so far it is only being read by a fortunate few. Times are so tough that most Zimbabweans do not have enough money to buy books.

In hot water
Rosalie Ham has an uncanny sense of timing. Just weeks before the bestselling Australian novelist published her latest tale, about a farming community in Australia afflicted by severe water shortages, a drought was declared across the entire state of New South Wales. “The Year of the Farmer” captures something of what daily life for the many farmers living in the “Big Dry” might be like. As sheep become thinner and crops fry, the head of the local water board grows rich at the expense of the rain-starved farmers. A daughter of a farmer herself, Ham has written a sharp satire of small-town life in rural Australia.