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Friday, November 4, 2011

'Saltwater Moons' by Julie Gittus

From the BLURB:

In the beginning it seems so simple. A poem in the mail. A weekend invitation to the coast. But when Sun says yes to a midnight walk, her life becomes suddenly complicated. Saltwater Moons tells the story of Sun Langley during her final months of Year Twelve. There's the intensity of her first relationship, complicated by the fact she continues to exchange poems with her boyfriend's best mate. It's a story about love and betrayal, about constantly longing for the things we can't have.

A poem in the mail, and Sunday ‘Sun’ Langley suddenly finds herself falling for a boy named Tycho.

But Tycho has an ex-girlfriend who he might not be over. And Tycho’s best mate, Mark, has taken an interest in Sun. But Mark just so happens to be the boy who recently broke Sun’s best friend’s heart, and Nicky isn’t over him yet.

A poem in the mail. A mermaid on her arm and always thinking of the wrong boy … this is Sun Langley’s final days of year twelve, and the minor emotional disasters that come tumbling her way when she ends up with the boy she didn’t really want.

‘Saltwater Moons’ was the 2008 Australian debut Young Adult novel from Julie Gittus.

I had to read ‘Saltwater Moons’ if only to satiate curiosity about my stomping ground being represented in Aussie YA. Gittus’s story takes place primarily in the Southeast suburbs of Melbourne (aka: my home territory). Sun lives in Wattle Glen and she catches the Frankston train into Melbourne, she hangs around Red Hill and Mark and Tycho surf along the Mornington Peninsula. I got a little bit giddy reading all these familiar places (especially when Sun was waiting at Frankston train station, the very same train line I catch every day into work!). Melbourne suburbia is beautifully represented and located, as Gittus gives us Victorian diversity. Thick bushland and hilly sights surround Sun’s homestead house, while Tycho and Mark bob on their surfboards in Port Phillip Bay and all characters venture into the city for school and work. I loved the setting, mostly because it’s my own home, but also because Gittus captured it pitch-perfectly.

‘Saltwater Moons’ is a beautiful, if un-explosive, slice of YA literature. The book starts at a fairly odd spot (which initially threw me for a few pages). Tycho and Sun meet and immediately start exchanging poetry in the mail. Gittus offers no backstory to these two; and the plot starts from the first poem in the mail. This is Gittus’s minimalist technique – letting readers come up with their own backstory for Tycho and Sun and fill in their gaps ourselves. On the one hand, it works, and as a reader you lose nothing from this simple, holed approach. On the other hand, and because I am used to reading lengthy explanations of character connections and fluttering teenage hearts, I had to get used to reading Gittus’s sparse backstory.

Sun Langley is in the final days of year twelve, and about to experience a not unusual romantic occurrence … ending up with the wrong guy. When Tycho invites Sun to his parents house for a weekend that leads nowhere (except perhaps Tycho back to his ex) Sun turns her attentions to Mark, who clearly wants her. Sun knows Mark has a messy history with her best friend, Nicky, who he recently dumped. But an alcohol-fuelled romp leads Sun down a path she unwittingly chose, and can’t seem to veer away from.

As soon as I'd finished I knew we had crossed a line that had previously separated us, an important line I hadn't meant to cross. We lay there together not speaking. Leaf shadows danced through the afternoon sun on the opposite wall. Beside us the heater ticked, regular as a heartbeat.

I did like ‘Saltwater Moons’, but the book’s scarcity is at once Gittus’s biggest draw-card, and drawback.

Sun’s mistake is not explosive – it’s a small implosion, the ramifications of which are a slow tremor barely felt, but that can’t be ignored. Sun’s story is so relatable and true – about a girl who wants to be with someone, even if it’s the wrong someone. Sun doesn’t exactly have great romantic role models in her life, as she observes the small frictions in her parent’s icy marriage and observes Nicky’s carefree romantic antics. Mark wants her – their couplings are intense and the cruelty of their relationship in the wake of Nicky’s heartbreak adds some level of delicious drama (even if Sun won’t admit it).

I did love that ‘Saltwater Moons’ was mired in truth. But that same frankness was also a little bit dull. I thought the real tension in the story would come from Sun’s continued infatuation with Tycho – but these are, once again, small tremors and afforded little page time as Sun’s relationship with Mark intensifies and Tycho is nearly forgotten for a lot of the book.

I thought the pace really started to pick up when Sun met Mark’s parents, and is offered a glimpse into his wrecked home life and depressed father. This was, by no means, an excuse for Mark’s behaviour in the book. But I found these insights into his family really fascinating, and thought that the book cut off right when I wanted Mark to move more into the grey areas and become a focus.

I will concede though, that that’s life. We don’t get the whole story about people. We get the silences and the ‘what could have been’s’. The missed opportunities and the misunderstandings. It’s clearly not in Gittus’s style to write explosive confrontations and moments of pure clarity. And that’s fine, but also a little frustrating.

Overall I did enjoy ‘Saltwater Moons’ as a thoroughly Aussie and toned-down YA. Gittus prefers truth over flash, and realistic characters over daydreams. Hers is a very sedately paced YA, and while it wasn’t always my cup of tea, I did enjoy the novel’s individuality immensely.


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