Things have got too much at home in Melbourne for 16-year-old Julie. After yet another ‘endless argument’ with her Women’s-Libber mum (it’s 1974), she takes off for a summer in the remote mountains of Papua New Guinea where her dad, Tony, flies small planes for Highland Air Charters. It’s been 13 years since she last saw him. Her transfer in Port Moresby for the onward flight to Mount Hagen is fraught with embarrassing confusions, but through them she meets Simon, back from uni in Australia to spend the vacation working on his family’s coffee plantation.
Once in Mount Hagen, she has time on her hands while Dad is away flying each day. The round of barbeques, a ‘pool party’ with its ‘canvas-sided tub of lukewarm water’, and just hanging out with neighbours is, to say the least, low-key. The ex-pats themselves are not that exciting either and the conversations might struggle to interest the reader as well as Julie. She meets Ryan, son of the owner of HAC, and her first-ever romance drifts into life; though if Ryan has a single alluring quality, from ‘his long, slightly greasy hair’ to his ‘perpetual scowl’, it escaped me. We recognise straight away, as does Julie many pages later, she would be better off with the older, more interesting, more caring Simon. However – and this is a considerable issue in this context – Simon’s skin, we were told on first meeting him, is ‘the colour of milky tea’, since his mother is New Guinean. Racial difference – albeit in distant times and places – simmers throughout the novel. Kate Constable finds frequent opportunity to emphasise the racist attitudes of the ex-pats, apprehensive about the very different future which Independence, scheduled for the following year, will bring them.
Suddenly, the leisurely, even tedious rhythm of Julie’s Mount Hagen summer is shattered by the death of her dad in an air-crash. As if that were not enough, Julie discovers among his effects evidence of his child with a New Guinean woman. She is determined to find this new half-sister to do what she can to continue Tony’s provision for her education. The plot gathers energy from the tragedy – if she is to cope, Julie must grow up fast. To that point, the insistent references to race and regular asides about the exotic setting may sometimes have deflected interest from Julie’s story. When the Authorial Note tells us, ‘Kate Constable is a Melbourne writer who grew up in Papua New Guinea, where her father worked as a charter pilot,’ you might wonder whether the writer has been tempted to crowd the novel with too many details drawn from such unusual memories.
Eclectic early-teenage readers in the UK, mostly coming fresh to the country, its politics, history, geography, and its Australian version of ex-pat life, will need to enjoy exploring such unfamiliar elements for their own sakes, alongside the more conventional teen lit coming-of-age journey.