Rosie Rowell adds an Author’s Note to her novel, telling us that some of the experiences of her central character, Grace, reflect episodes in her own life. Like Grace, she attended a programme in her native South Africa ‘for emotionally disturbed adolescents’. In the closing chapter, 18-year-old Grace has entered a centre to address anxieties manifested through an eating disorder. Rowell might well have left things there, but she then spells out what Grace has come to understand through the events and encounters of the book. Grace now knows herself as ‘a searcher’, and ‘this characteristic will always propel her forward, sometimes into situations she finds uncomfortable. But knowing and accepting who she is means Grace no longer needs to express her insecurities by punishing her body’.
When we meet Grace and her friends, Brett and Louisa, they have completed their school leaving exams in Cape Town and are heading up the West Coast for the rite-of-passage celebration week. Their parents have steered them away from fashionable Plettenberg Bay, with its binge-and-surf scene (British teenagers might think Newquay). The mothers especially conform to the controlling stereotypes of many teenlit novels. So the week in a rented house at Baboon Point, selected by Louisa’s mother, with several of their classmates in nearby rentals, is celebrating both leaving home and school and the freedoms of the next step; uni for Louisa and globetrotting for Brett, while for Grace the future is less certain.
Now resident in the UK, the author evidently returns regularly to South Africa. The detail of the setting may intrigue or distance readers, according to their readiness to engage with a cultural context whose unfamiliarity is reinforced by the occasional use of Afrikaans words (footnotes provided). Her insights into middle-class South African society, a long way on from the abolition of apartheid, are rarely seen in YA fiction. Brett is white, while his girlfriend Louisa comes from a comfortable black background; she is by far the more ambitious and socially concerned of the two.
The Point may not be ‘Plett’, but there’s plenty of booze and drugs around. At the first party of the week, Grace meets Spook, who’s 35 and, it seems, a free-as-air surfer with Life sorted and a repertoire of one-liner Truths, borrowed from Rousseau downwards. His bottle of tequila offers Grace an easy escape from prying questions about her future. She wakes up with no memory of the night before, but with Spook encamped in the house, with no intention of leaving soon. Readers may feel the plot needs this meeting between Grace and Spook rather too obviously if she is to learn the necessary lessons to move from Almost Grace to a more complete self. For her, Spook is a kind of Life Course in himself, but it is difficult to see what might attract the beach-wise nomad to Grace. Later, after we learn of Spook’s criminal means of funding his free-floating lifestyle, it is not easy to be convinced when, as they part, he tells Grace, ‘Meeting you has been … important for me.’ As if to ensure we haven’t missed the significance of the moment, Grace writes, ‘Meeting him has been important.’
The plot has gathered energy, in fact, from the moment the friends find a stash of money and a gun in Spook’s bag at the rented house. To that point, it’s been an uneventful but entertaining chronicle of teenage chat ranging from the witty to the spiteful. Suddenly, as if changing gear and genre, we enter an edgy underworld of threats and townships. There’s compelling danger here, so it seems unfortunate that, at times, there is also a sense that charting Grace’s learning about herself, underlined by that Author’s Note, has explicitly shaped the book, rather than her development being embedded in the narrative.