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Monday, January 9, 2012

'Halfway to Good' by Kirsten Murphy

From the BLURB:

It's the first day of Term One, and Luke and Anna are on opposite sides of the student-teacher divide. School is the last thing Luke feels like - how can he feel halfway to good when his father is sick, his mother is sad and his older brother is painfully present?

Anna's life still revolves around love, friendship and homework, but she's a graduate teacher now. Can she cope with a bullying co-worker, a persistent ex-boyfriend and a class of unforgiving Year Elevens, and still find time to help Luke?

Luke’s dad is dying and Luke isn’t coping well. He can’t tear apart his old hatred from his current fears, and so he winds up having panic attacks. They come and squeeze his heart, constrict his throat and leave Luke shaken.

Anna finds herself in a toilet cubicle on her first day at her new job. It’s not the idea of facing a grade of glaze-eyed year eleven’s, or even the fact that this is her first teaching job fresh out of Uni. It’s that Tom is back. Tom, who broke her heart (twice) and left for London is now back in town, living in his parent’s house just down the street from Anna and her brother, Ben.

Luke’s girlfriend and best friend are suspicious of his odd behaviour, and are trying to figure out how they can help him. His new English teacher has found out about the panic attacks, and is encouraging him to seek help. Luke’s brother, Oliver, is trying to be a supportive and constant presence in Luke’s life during this hard time. He has even invited him round to have dinner with him and his girlfriend, Georgie, and her family.

Anna has survived the first week of her new teaching job. She has a mentor she envisions could be a great friend, but she’s also unknowingly made an enemy of a seasoned teacher. Now she has to get through dinner with her perpetually-flaky sister, Georgie, and her new boyfriend. Not to mention the fact that her darling brother, Ben, has invited his best friend, Tom, around too. Could this night get any worse?

And then Oliver and his brother, Luke, walk through the door. . . Oliver is Georgie’s new boyfriend, and Luke is Anna’s brilliant but struggling pupil.

‘Halfway to Good’ was the 2009 contemporary YA novel from Australian author, Kirsten Murphy.

I read Murphy’s debut ‘Raincheck on Timbuktu’ way back in 2001, when I was fourteen. I completely related to perpetual couch-potato, and anti-social climber Lucy. The book remains a particular Aussie YA favourite, and so I decided it was high-time I revisited the wonderful works of Ms Murphy.

‘Halfway to Good’ is split between two omniscient narratives – Luke and Anna’s. At first they are ships passing in the night, Anna is the cool, young, new English teacher at Luke’s school. But Luke isn’t going to school – he has decided to ditch until he feels absolutely certain he can get through the day without doubling-over in a panic attack. They have their own issues to deal with – for Anna it’s starting a new job and trying to be nonchalant about the reappearance of her ex. For Luke, it’s coping with his father’s cancer and imminent death. But eventually the Gods of fate cross Luke and Anna’s paths, in the form of Luke’s brother and Anna’s sister.

On the surface, this book has all the elements to make a wonderful YA. But there was just a niggling disconnect that I couldn’t quite shake throughout my reading. I really liked the dual perspectives of Anna and Luke – I thought it was particularly ingenious to have Anna as his teacher. Anna is twenty-two and fresh out of Uni, and utterly none the wiser about love or life in general. Luke is in year eleven, coping for the first time with death and finding himself completely unable to deal.

I liked that Murphy was ‘humanizing’ teachers in this book. Quite a few of my friends and family have entered into the teaching profession recently, and it boggles the mind to think of them running a classroom – but what really niggles is the thought that many of my primary/secondary school teachers were just as young as my friends are now when they taught me. You definitely have a warped view of teachers when you’re sitting in front of them – so I quite liked getting some additional perspective on the student/teacher dynamic through Anna and Luke.

The disconnect and issues, for me, stemmed from Anna and Luke’s personal lives. Well, more Anna’s thank Luke’s. Early on in the book we are given the low-down on Tom. That he was a family friend whose sister was Anna’s best friend, and they lived in the house down the street from Anna and her family. Tom is best friends with Anna’s brother. A few years ago (unbeknownst to either of their families) and while Anna was still in Uni, Tom ended his relationship with his long-term girlfriend and started seeing Anna. Then he went running back to the long-term girlfriend. Anna was crushed. Tom once again ended his relationship, and rekindled things with Anna . . . only to flee the scene once again, claiming he wasn’t right for her. He left for London, and left Anna a shell of herself.

Years later Anna was on track to mending her broken heart . . . and then Tom comes home, and wants Anna back in his life. Ready for round three?

I really liked the messiness of Anna’s love life, and thought there was plenty of juicy tension between her and Tom. Even better is Anna’s confession that she hasn’t spoken to Tom’s sister, and her best friend, since Tom left for London. But Murphy only offers us a pittance handful of scenes between Anna and Tom. And Tom’s sister (Anna’s supposed ex-bestie) never even appears in the book! Most of the drama in Anna’s life stems from her teaching shenanigans and coping with a bullying co-worker.

Yes, the teaching aspect is somewhat amusing. But as Anna dissects the various nasty, cold-shoulders of her co-worker, my eyes glazed. Office politics is boring, especially when Murphy dangled the far juicier Tom story before readers’ eyes. I wish that Anna’s teaching life didn’t so completely and detrimentally eclipse her far more interesting personal life.

By comparison, Luke’s home life had me feeling for him. His panic attacks are nerve-racking and always lingering;

'Not now,' he sighed. 'Please not now.' He put the toilet lid down and sat, resting his head in his hands, concentrating on his breathing. This had happened a couple of times now, but he had been all right. He reminded himself of this as he closed his eyes, trying to clear his mind of everything, thinking only of getting enough air into his lungs and making the stars he was seeing disappear. But hearing the inconsistent rhythm of his breathing only made him more anxious. His short, sharp intakes of oxygen were somehow not registering, and much as he tried, he couldn't make them longer or deeper. He wondered whether it was possible to drown on land. Or maybe he was having a heart attack at the age of seventeen. That must have happened to someone somewhere before. He unzipped his hoodie and took off his long-sleeved T-shirt, leaving only his singlet. But it was still too warm, suffocating. He hugged his knees to his chest and waited, hoping that the awful feeling would pass as quickly as it had come.

On the one hand, I loved that Kirsten Murphy offered up a young adult novel with a high school teacher as one of the protagonists, alongside one of her students. On the other hand, I wish the teaching-aspect had been watered down a bit in favour of Anna’s messier (and more interesting) love life. I think this book was bursting with potential, and it was met with Luke’s internal struggles with his dying father and concerned friends. But Anna’s concurrent story brings this book down a notch, if only because there was so much emphasis placed on her being a ‘teacher’, that she lost interest as a character.


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