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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

'Holier Than Thou' by Laura Buzo

 Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:
    'What do you want, Hol?' Abby looks into my eyes.
    'I ... I want to know that I'm using my powers for good and -' 
'You want to make a dead man proud.' 
'You want to put bandages over severed arteries that really need to be sewn shut. You want the moral high ground.'

Holly Yarkov has a boyfriend who is a gift from the universe. She has a job that fulfils her even as it wears her down. She has a core group of friends from high school. And she has a layer of steel around her heart that is beginning to tarnish. Just as she is reaching for a future she can't quite see, Holly is borne back into the past by memories of her beloved father, and of the boy-who-might-have-been...

Grief and longing run like veins of quicksilver through this beautiful novel, at once gloriously funny and achingly sad.

All roads lead back to Jindarra Street . . .  or at least, they do for Holly Yarkov.

Holly is a social worker in the toughest town of Sydney, Elizabethtown (affectionately called ‘Befftown’). She works closely with registered nurse, Nick (affectionately called ‘Nicholarse’), and together they work the town’s toughest hood, Jindarra Street.

After Holly and Nick make a gruesome discovery at the home of one of their clients, Holly starts backtracking through her life leading up to a potential crossroads that lies before her. . .

Holly’s story is sliced between ‘now’ and ‘then’, and focuses on four important men who continue to exert their influence in her life, even though some of them are dead and gone.

There’s her beloved boyfriend Tim (‘Timbo’), who Holly has just moved into an apartment with. Nick is her co-worker; a bong-addicted nurse who is 26 to Holly’s 24, he attends circus school in his days off and Holly is becoming increasingly wary of their relationship, while also enamoured of their effortless friendship. Liam was Holly’s bus-friend at school, a year above her and apart of the ‘cool’ crowd; Holly harboured a secret crush on him for years before he became an official member of her uni gang . . .  but the story of Liam’s absence in Holly’s life now is a slow and painful explanation, and needs time to be told. And then there’s Holly’s dead father – an out-spoken Left-winger who used to crop up in the newspapers all the time (and incited the Liberal fury of a few of Holly’s classmates’ parents). Her father died when Holly was in Year Ten, and she never quite recovered from the loss.

Events in Holly’s life, from job dissatisfaction to inconvenient thoughts about her dreadlocked co-worker, have Holly questioning her life and the path she is on (and how she got here in the first place). As Holly backtracks through the relationships and death that helped define her, she battles losing touch with the very people in the present who once defined her past.

‘Holier Than Thou’ is the new Australian young adult novel from Laura Buzo.

Last year I read Laura Buzo’s ‘Good Oil’, and found a new favourite Australian author. In ‘Good Oil’, Buzo told a deceptively simple story of first-time-love and heartbreak, which was so brutally honest that it was simply sublime. However, I was somewhat disheartened by the wide-open ending of ‘Good Oil’, and asked Ms Buzo in a Q&A if she had plans for a sequel. At the time she replied with an infuriating ‘possibly’ – and mentioned that her next novel seemed to be taking up a ‘bigger canvas’, and was unrelated to ‘Good Oil’. Now having read ‘Holier Than Thou’ I feel I should say that ‘bigger canvas’ was an understatement. I should also say that, as someone who had my fingers crossed for a ‘Good Oil’ sequel, I feel that ‘Holier Than Thou’ is a logical sort-of extension of Buzo’s first book, and I am actually glad that I read this book before any sort of sequel to Amelia and Chris’s story.

‘Holier Than Thou’ is a prime example of why I love Aussie YA so darn much. Buzo’s book is exactly what I was talking about back in November 2011 when I tried to explain my affinity for the YA literature of my homeland; ‘It's about holding a mirror up, finding a spark and a connection, recognizing a little of yourself in the stories and setting. It's that 'aha!' moment, when you're sure the author is writing about you and yours, the possibility that this story could be set in your hometown and you recognize a character from your own friendship group.’ ‘Holier Than Thou’ is that spark, connection and ‘aha’ moment – it is, simply, an incredible book.

The plot of ‘Holier Than Thou’ sounds complex – so much so that after reading the blurb, I really didn’t have a clue what kind of book I was getting into. The nuts and bolts of the plot are tangled and complicated. We begin in the present, and then backtrack to one year earlier and follow Holly’s life leading up to the explosive opening chapter. But as Holly begins re-examining her life, and friendships, she starts reminiscing about the past – and her core group of high school/uni friends who are slowly starting to drift away (and in one case, vanish to Canberra) in the present. Complicated? Yes. But this is a book about that strange age of mid-20’s, when everything is changing and the ties that bind start loosening. This is a book that explores the very tangled webs of friendships and buried hurts – it is meant to be complicated (such is life). The tangles make this a tantalizing read – and even though the back and forth time-shifts sound confusing, Buzo executes them beautifully. She writes Holly’s recounting of the past like trains of thought that she is following in the present – she leaves bread-crumbs in her real-time narrative about her father’s death and ‘the one that got away’, and as readers we happily (and hungrily) follow the trail. Tangled? Definitely? Worth the journey? Absolutely.

We meet Holly when she’s 24 and past the point of ‘newbie’ in her social worker job. She is now at the part when she knows her job is to put bandaids on bullet wounds – to work long hours for crappy pay and still be expected to meet Government targets and sit performance reviews. She is starting to wonder what got her to this point, and if she’s strong enough to stay in a job that seems determined to slowly suck the life out of her. Holly’s job is a real focal point of the book, and particularly fascinating. Laura Buzo actually is a social worker, and she writes her true-to-life struggles through Holly beautifully. From the healthcare system that doesn’t care about the ‘crazies’, to people’s misconceptions about what social workers do and the patients they treat. 

Meanwhile, Holly has just moved out of home and into an apartment with her scrumptious boyfriend, Tim. For a little while there, Holly had the trifecta – her home life, love life and career in some sort of sync. But then it all starts going pear-shaped. Holly becomes more and more enamoured of her co-worker, Nick. She becomes despondent in her thankless job, and her home life degenerates into nights spent on the couch with Tim, watching telly and spying on her neighbours in the building across the way.

Holly becomes increasingly despairing of the way her life is changing, and the myriad of ways that her past is disconnecting from her present. Holly tries to organize catch-ups with her old high school/uni friends, with little success. Lara, Abigail and Daniel were her rocks in high school, particularly when her father died. But their jobs and commitments are pulling them all further and further apart. Abigail is training to be a doctor. Dan works for a corporation that deals in lay-offs, and Lara works for a law firm with dubious big-business clientele. Holly especially doesn’t want to lose these friends, since they are already one man down. Liam started as Holly’s bus-buddy in high school. Eventually, Liam slowly and thrillingly progressed into their social group – and pretty soon they were an inseparable fivesome; Dan, Lara, Abigail, Holly and Liam. But then it all went horribly wrong when Holly started to act on her long-standing crush on Liam.

Memories of Liam start creeping back into Holly’s thoughts when her casual work friendship with Nick takes on a new rhythm and connection. In Nick, Holly has an intellectual and visceral bond – much like she once did with Liam. Nick and Holly do have an enviously syncing connection – they motivate one another with ‘Gallipoli’ quotes (“What are your legs?” / “Steel springs!”) and their banter is enviably witty and warm. He affectionately calls Holly ‘Holier-Than-Thou’, for her seeming unbending moral core. But Nick is proving to be a potentially dangerous temptation;
‘A nurse and a social worker took fifteen minutes out of their shitty thankless job in the roughest corner of town, sat on a couple of milk crates drinking coffee, flopped their real selves out on the cement and both liked what they saw.’
‘Nicholarse. That’s beautiful.’ I didn’t know where to look.
‘You get me through the days, Hollier-than-thou.’
‘Likewise.’ I drained my coffee cup and our moment was shattered by the shouting of one of Nick’s clients who had spied us in the alcove.

Dissatisfaction at work has Holly thinking about what led her to becoming a social worker. One of the old-timer social workers comments that it’s past hurt which equips social workers with more capacity for caring, and that’s true of Holly. Losing her father to cancer in Year Ten left a wound that Holly is only just starting to reopen and re-examine.

‘Holier Than Thou’ is definitely going to be a 2012 favourite. It feels like I read this book at the right time – like Holly, I am 24 going on 25 and relatively settled in my first ‘real’ job. I too am dealing with drifting friendships and changing relationships. I could even relate to Holly’s touchstones and young influences; 
Finishing Year Twelve had been a blessed relief. Although, having read ‘Looking for Alibrandi’ several times since Year Eight, I was disappointed that Year Twelve did not bring me a handsome, salt-of-the-earth boyfriend and ultimate emancipation from all that ailed my teenage soul.

Funny that Buzo references Melina Marchetta, because ‘Holier Than Thou’ did remind me of ‘The Piper’s Son’. Like Marchetta’s ‘Saving Francesca’ follow-up, ‘Holier Than Thou’ is about that odd time in your life when you start growing and changing, leaving friends behind and trying to hold on tight to others. Buzo reminded me of Marchetta – they both favour gritty ‘real’ stories and they don’t shy away from teaching tough life lessons. Likewise, Buzo’s characters are like Marchetta’s in that they’re enviably quick-witted individuals who banter beautifully and make the reader wish they were real people that we could be friends with. These characters are also entirely fallible, and relatable for their imperfections. Holly makes mistakes in her friendship/relationship with Nick, not because she’s a mean person or doesn’t love Tim, but because her instant connection with Nick surprises her in its intensity, totally catching her off guard. Holly has very high ideals of how she’s supposed to be (partly to live up to her dead father’s standards). Holly reminded me of that Missy Higgin’s song, ‘The Special Two’; ‘And you make boundaries you'd never dream to cross’. Over the course of the book Holly also comes to slowly accept that she might have made mistakes in her friendship with Liam. Likewise, she is starting to realize that her friends, those people she relied on so much in her youth, are not necessarily the people she needs around her in the future. That’s a hard lesson to learn, when to cut ties and accept that the past is in the past.

‘Holier Than Thou’ is a story of tangled webs and grey areas. Protagonist Holly Yarkov is not perfect, but she is brilliant. You will wish Holly was a real person, so you could count her amongst your friends. She is caring, funny, equipped with ‘steel springs’ and an enviable backbone. Holly is an entirely relatable protagonist; she’s at that mid-way point in her 20’s when relationships start dropping off and life events begin changing us for better or worse. . . What was really incredible in this book was the beautiful melding of Holly’s past and present. We follow her memories as events in the present trigger thoughts of her dead father and Liam, her ‘one that got away’. And although we know the outcome of those memories, Buzo’s writing is so seamless and addictive that even Holly’s unfolding past-heartbreak with Liam keeps you on the edge of your seat, futilely rooting for a happy outcome, even though you know it cannot be.

Buzo has written another beautiful young adult novel that doesn’t pull punches, but tells a beautifully relatable tale of lost love, missed chances, growing up and growing apart. As good as ‘Good Oil’ and further proof (not that I needed it) that Buzo is fast becoming a powerful new voice in Australian YA.



  1. Okay I must read this! Love your review, it sounds amazing. Will be looking for a copy next time I'm out. I'm a little older than the characters in the book (30) but I remember going through that stage where you're all drifting apart after Uni, moving to different cities for work etc and struggling to hold the threads of friendship together. Looking forward to this one now.

    1. @ 1girl2manybooks - Definitely add this one to your TBR pile, and when you get around to reading it let me know what you think!

  2. I'm intrigued by your review. I am not a huge reader of YA (Kirsty Eagar an exception) since I have a 15 year old daughter who supplies enough teenage drama, but I am drawn to this type of gritty contemporary story. I'll be sure to keep an eye out for it.


  3. Shelleyrae, if you're not big on YA then 'Holier Than Thou' is the book for you! It straddles the line between adult/young adult (just as the character Holly reminisces about being a teenager while struggling with adult life). Great book, can't recommend it enough :)

  4. I'm reading this now. You can bet that when I do finish this I'll write my review and then look up fellow reviewers' reviews, and then I'll be right back here to actually read yours. And I'll comment again haha. I have gathered that you loved this though. ;)

    Right from chapter one I could distinctly tell the difference in tone and voice from Good Oil, which was written from the perspective of a 15 year old girl. I'm hoping I fall in love with the characters (hasn't happened just yet, but I'm only like 20% in)...


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