‘Bilgewater’ by Jane Gardam: Teen Novel Book Review. Literature Alert.
Have you checked out the children’s and teens’ sections and shelves in your local branch of Borders or Waterstones recently? Can you believe what you’re seeing? It’s packed with vampires, monsters and ghosties – well, that’s fair enough. I’m quite partial to blood-sucking monsters myself, and they’ve always been a feature of adolescent literature. These vamps, though, and their shapeshifting spooky monstery brethren… they’re… well, sissies. They fall in brooding, eternal love with human lassies. They moon about and agonise a lot. They don’t slaughter anything much.
The other books aren’t much preferable. Most of the ones for girls seem to have pink covers. I don’t mean gentle pastel pink covers. I mean hot pink, screaming pink, pink that can’t be missed covers. These books are damn feminine and girly and they want you to know all about it!
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Where are, I dunno, I don’t want to sound like a culture snob or something here. (Since I don’t have the credentials.) Where are the real books? You know: the ones that aren’t non-genre. (I love genre. I actively prefer genre. I hate novels about middle-class folk’s extramarital affairs, as if that was a subject that merited more than two pages of any novel.) But, genre or not, the ones that have a solid story, one you could lob a brick at and it’d bounce back.
Okay, I’m a snob. Or maybe just nostalgic, and longing to revisit some reads from me long-distant youth. Let’s do this thing!
Jane Gardam was pretty much my favourite writer as an adolescent. What was I thinking? I guess nothing is quite like you remember it when you come to revisit it. Not that she isn’t still pretty damn good: maybe it’s just that as a teen, what looks like universal wisdom may well turn out to be portentous extrapolation of particular circumstance. Hey, I know what I mean.
Plus her characters often wade and bathe in unnecessary misery, when they could be up and at ‘em and doing something about it. Fictional character or real-life bud, that always leaves me itching to slap somebody.
'Bilgewater' is set in a boys' private boarding school. Our eponymous heroine (no, it's not her real name) is aesthetically unpleasing, a loner, and a motherless brooder. A friend of her childhood returns from wherever she's been hiding and her life is turned upside down, mostly for the better. That's about it, but it's a lot more comic and sadder than it might sound. It is however ruined – utterly ruined – by the tweeness and 'cuteness' of the final couple of pages. Not their content but rather their execution. Some hardass editor should really have had strong words with Gardam over ruining a little gem of a book the way she did.
You may like it, it may not be your cup of tea. My recommendation: rip the last page or so out and shred before you even attempt 'Bilgewater'.