This article originally appeared on Hoyden About Town.
This is part of Tansy Rayner Roberts’s Blog Book Week challenge, about favourite childhood reading, how we read these books, and why we remember them.
I haven’t forgotten that I promised to do Ruth Park’s My Sister Sif and I still intend to, but while I’m tracking it down for a re-read, I’ve another Sydney novel in the interim: Melina Marchetta’s Looking For Alibrandi.
Spoilers for Looking For Alibrandi abound!
Warning: self-harm is a plot element in this novel, and it’s discussed in this entry.
Background/plot summary: Looking For Alibrandi is a 1992 young adult book by Australian author Melina Marchetta. Seventeen year old Josephine Alibrandi is in her final year of a expensive private Catholic high school, preparing for the HSC (the Higher School Certificate, which is the statewide final school exams in NSW). She is a scholarship student, the daughter of Christina Alibrandi, a single mother who had a child at sixteen and was exiled from her Italian-Australian family until her father died, in the recent past from the novel’s point of view.
Christina insists that Josie has a relationship with Christina’s mother, Josie’s Nonna Katia, but Christina’s own relationship with Katia is strained due to their long estrangement and Katia’s coolness to her throughout her childhood. At the beginning of the novel Josie is more concerned with school problems in any case: her quartet of outsider friends fight for recognition in their upper class Anglo-dominated school. Josie is school vice-captain to her mortal enemy, perfect blond Ivy, daughter of a wealthy surgeon, as captain.
But Josie’s home life suddenly undergoes another change. Josie’s father, Michael Andretti — son of Christina’s childhood next door neighbours, now a barrister — moves back to Sydney for a year to be welcomed briefly into unknowing Katia’s home as one of the family. Josie confronts him and they agree to have no contact, only to ring him from school frantically to extricate herself from a legal threat by a classmate’s father. After this they have an initially uneasy but gradually warmer relationship. In the meantime, Katia begins telling Josie stories of her immigration to Australia and her married life in rural Queensland in total social isolation, until the arrival of her sister from Sicily. Josie begins to see Katia as more of a person and less of an oppressively tradition-bound stereotypical grandmother.
Events at school also demonstrate to Josie that she’s not as much of a complete outsider as she thought, including a revelation by the principal after some irresponsibility towards younger students on Josie’s part that she was in fact voted school captain at the beginning of the year but that it was awarded to Ivy, who the principal felt was more responsible. While at the beginning of the novel Josie wants nothing more than a relationship with John Barton, her solidly upper-class debating friend, she ends up with Jacob Coote, captain of a nearby public school, as a boyfriend, and has to navigate being middle class to his working class.
It eventually becomes clear to Josie as Katia’s stories of her past continue that Katia’s Anglo-Australian friend Marcus Sandford was in love with her, and eventually Katia slips up and Josie works out her grandmother’s secret: Marcus and Katia were lovers and Marcus was in fact Christina’s biological father, which accounted both for Christina’s father’s loathing of her and of his swift condemnation of her when she became pregnant as a teenager.
Josie very briefly reaches a feeling of peace with herself and her story before her tranquillity is suddenly destroyed again: her friend John Barton commits suicide the night before the HSC exams begin, and she is told this by Ivy, who was even closer to John, crying out the front of the school. In the aftermath of this Jacob Coote breaks up with Josie, not sure what he wants from his future himself in the wake of knowing Josie’s relative class privilege and John’s death in spite of his class privilege. The novel ends with Josie about to find out her university entrance ranking, still relatively at peace with herself, but less sure of her place in the world and her ambitions.
I think I read Looking For Alibrandi a couple of years after it was published: definitely when I was in high school. I recall it being a book that you had to wait some time for at the school library. (It gets assigned as an English text now, but I never read it in that context.) It has crushes and alcohol and uneasy relationships with friends and a pretty intent focus on high school academic achievement, all of which were pretty familiar to me, even if the rich competitive Sydney folk weren’t so much. (At some point John Barton despairs over his poor ranking in a mathematics competition compared to Sydney Grammar, a reference I understood better when I knew former Maths Olympians from Grammar while at uni!)
Again, it’s very evocative of Sydney: I in fact live now pretty close to where Christina and Josie lived in Sydney. There’s a speech day in Martin Place, truanting at the Sebel and a few other landmarks although it’s not quite as firmly inner west as Saving Francesca and The Piper’s Son (the latter of which is about twentysomethings, and with which I identify even more closely as someone who went to Sydney Uni).
To be honest, as a result of this book I even have a sneaking fascination with Stanmore Maccas, where Josie gets a part-time job briefly, and I felt rather betrayed when the movie version changed it to Oporto!
John Barton’s death was “that bit” in the book, as in “have you got to that bit yet? Oh, you’ll know what I mean when you get to it.” It was my main frame of reference in the aftermath of the actual suicide of someone I knew at school, while of course not fitting exactly.
Again with the fanon style questions: this is the twentieth anniversary of Looking For Alibrandi‘s publication. If we took 1992 as the year Josie was seventeen, she is now thirty-seven. Did she end up doing a law degree like her father, but which she had begun to doubt she was as interested in as she’d thought? Did Christina and Michael reunite, as the novel implies they are considering? Did Josie and Ivy end up with an unexpected friendship, as they are stumbling towards? Did Josie, who would have won Least Likely To Leave Well Enough Alone if Australian schools did yearbooks, attempt to track down Marcus Sandford?
I don’t have as strong a fanon in my head for this as for Playing Beatie Bow but if I had to guess, Josie did Arts/Law and dropped out after the Arts component (quite a lot of people in combined law degrees do this). I have no idea what she’d do instead though. I think there’s too much hurt between Christina and Michael to reunite, although probably Josie and Katia both pushed strongly for it. I don’t know what to make of Josie and Ivy! And I would put money on Josie telling herself that she doesn’t mean anything by nosing around in the S section of the phonebook and so on, and of course meaning something by it, finding out that, as always, people’s lives aren’t as simple as she thought.