Search This Blog

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

'just_a_girl' by Kirsten Krauth

Received from the author

From the BLURB:

just_a_girl tears into the fabric of contemporary culture. A Puberty Blues for the digital age, a Lolita with a webcam, it’s what happens when young girls are forced to grow up too fast. Or never get the chance to grow up at all.

Layla is only 14. She cruises online. She catches trains to meet strangers. Her mother, Margot, never suspects. Even when Layla brings a man into their home. Margot’s caught in her own web: an evangelical church and a charismatic pastor. Meanwhile, downtown, a man opens a suitcase and tenderly places his young lover inside.
 just_a_girl is a novel about being isolated and searching for a sense of connection, faith, friendship and healing, and explores what it’s like to grow up negotiating the digital world of facebook, webcams, internet porn, mobile phones and cyberbullying – a world where the line between public and private is increasingly being eroded. 
Layla is just_a_girl. 

She goes to school, goes to work. Gets groped by her boss, pawed in the train toilets by her boyfriend. She uploads videos of herself writhing in bed for Mr. C. She cuts out articles about her gay celebrity-chef dad who buggered off to Queensland. And she meets older online men in hotel rooms.

Margot is Layla’s mother, coming off meds and discovering God. She has a crush on the local pastor and reluctantly wears tiaras with his perfect wife. It all went wrong somewhere; maybe when her husband told her he never loved her. Maybe after watching ‘Brokeback Mountain’. Layla scares her sometimes, with her wisdom.

Tadashi is lonely. He rides the train and looks at Layla, and her apple mouth, out the corner of his eye. He carries a briefcase and reads ‘The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’. He and his mother both felt a connection to nature, but he’s lonely since her death and wants love – so he’ll manufacture and buy synthetic human hair for it.

just_a_girl’ is the debut novel from Australian author, Kirsten Krauth.

The author sent me this book after I read Simmone Howell’s glowingly disturbing review. Krauth pitched the book to me as “adult, with young adult themes” and I loved that (it could be me! An adult with young adult themes). I was prepared, after reading Howell’s review, to be mad and a little scared when reading this book. What I wasn’t prepared for was the climbing dread that pervades the page, and to be so sucked into Krauth’s masterfully warped coming-of-age tale. This is a book of our times. It’s about sexualisation, pornification and the justification of both. It’s a coming-of-age for all the characters involved; from fourteen-year-old Layla to her God-fearing mother and the lonely stranger she looks for on the train. The disconnect-connection of these three characters is itself a commentary on the way modernity has found us more ways to stay in touch, by being farther away than ever before. 

Layla is the just_a_girl screen-name of the book’s title, and we are first introduced to her as she’s meeting up with an (older) man she speaks to on the Internet. Right out the gate, Krauth welcomes us with a worst-fear of parents and women, and then she pulls back and rewinds, leads us up to this point and beyond. She introduces us to Layla, who must be the “Lolita with a webcam” of the blurb. Layla is so young (fourteen) but disturbingly sexually ‘mature’. She gets a kick out of sitting opposite businessmen on the train, and sucking Chupa Chups in front of them. Men have been looking at her since before she was a teen, and she’s currently kicking around with eighteen-year-old Davo, from school. But what Layla considers romantic is an absence of the digital, where she lays her body and soul; 

What I've always wanted from a guy is a love letter. Not an email but actual words on paper. A romantic sentence that’s just about him and me. 

Layla is a product of our times. She is a girl who has grown up being told that sexy is beautiful, less is more and boys rule. But she’s a conundrum; at once aware of the violence and degradation women are told to suck up (epitomized in her sleazy, groping boss) and questioning of the status-quo; 

But if a guy comes up behind you in the dark. And he’s got a loaded gun. Or a taxi driver tries to grope you. In the front seat when you’re still a bit drunk. It’s hard to know what I'd do. In porn films the women always say no. Then moan and writhe and say yes. And end up loving it. Or I've heard it’s best to go along with it. So you don’t get killed in the end. 

You get the impression, from Layla's raw and biting narration, that she's on the cusp of anger and knowledge. She knows how men think and tick, she's smarter than Davo and puts on a performance for Mr. C. I think that once the gloss wears off and she starts acting on her instincts about the wrongness of it all; she'll get angry and be bloody glorious. 

But, for now, she watches porn videos with Davo (for whom the watching is as mechanical as eating). And this in itself is an interesting everyday aspect of modern life that Krauth dissects; especially from a young, female persepctive. When you think that boys as young as 11 start watching porn, it’s no wonder this leaks over and forms the way they think of women forevermore. They think women like to be slapped, ejaculated on and “no” means “yes”. Layla watches porn to please Davo, and she also starts thinking about what her sexual instinct and impulses are, in contrast to what’s on screen. 

Krauth also explores everyday misogyny amongst teens. What’s really frightening is how common and accepted it is, how inherently violent. And it’s also frightening how right Krauth gets it (I can attest to hearing similar conversations amongst schoolkids on the train); 

Davo says you can never trust anything that bleeds once a month but doesn’t die. He tells this to his mates and they honk like donkeys. All the girls in the outer circle shift position slightly as if to combat a stiff breeze. 

Layla is surrounded by sex and violence, and she wades into it of her own accord. She posts YouTube videos of herself masturbating and meets up with men from online Internet forums. Throughout the book I wanted to wrap Layla up in a blanket and tuck her away somewhere safe; I literally wanted to reach into the book and equip her with armour and shield, because it feels like everything is leading to something ghastly and inevitable … Layla’s actions are destining her to be headline news one day, a Facebook photo in a sad newspaper article.

But Krauth also offers us two other perspectives; that of Layla’s mother Margot, and a stranger on her train called Tadashi. 

Margot’s narrative is not here to cast blame as Layla’s disinterested or powerless mother, far from it. She’s another example of a woman at the bottom of the heap; single mother who doesn’t get child support from her now famous ex-husband. She’s coming off a medication dependency and searching for a place where she doesn’t feel like a pariah for being divorced and single, where she isn’t looked down on because she doesn’t wear a full face of make-up and can’t find the energy to exercise regularly. She turns to God, but even the church has a hierarchy and women are expected to look/act/be a certain way – most of it leading to pleasing the men in their lives. 

Tadashi is the outsider. The man on a train, forever reading Haruki Murakami. He’s been so beaten down by schoolyard racism and the death of his beloved mother that when he wants love and a connection, he looks for it online – purchasing a Life Sized Doll named Mika who looks faintly like Layla. This, by the way, is not a new phenomenon; watch the incredible and incredibly disturbing doco ‘Guys and Dolls’ for more. I’ve read some reviews that say Tadashi’s story was a real disconnect for them (maybe that hits the point of him home), but I was questioning his purchasing of a woman online (that’s what Mika is to him) – that he can manufacture a woman (working parts and all) and call it ‘love’. Maybe it could have hit home more if Tadashi regularly purchased prostitutes – but, honestly, what’s the difference? It’s men buying women for sexual gratification. In an article about the recent and brutal murder of St. Kilda prostitute Tracy Connelly, a fellow sex worker interviewed from the area said this about how the men think of, and treat these prostituted women; ''They think they buy you like an apple. Like they can do whatever they want … And they can't.” 

This is a tough book. It’s a necessary book, and one I want to pass on to quite a few people. It’s a book that will make you question our digitized everyday, and yearn for more human connections. It’s a gut-wrenching book, taking readers to dark places and introducing characters on the precipice. It’s about porn/love, isolation/connection, sexualisation/justification, misogyny/mentality, Facebook and the face-to-face. It’s about our world, right now, and it’s a little bit brilliant. Krauth wraps big questions up in an intriguing story about three dis-connected people riding trains and living under the same roof, who are so far from one another they can’t even see what’s right in front of them. Definitely adult with young adult themes. 



  1. Great review Dani!

    Shelleyrae @ Book 'd Out

  2. Oh my gosh, Danielle. I was so tense reading your review, because everything this book is about worries me so much about kids growing up in our digital age. This sounds like it touches on themes/might be a much more intense and in depth version of a book I read earlier this summer, A Thousand Words.

    Thanks so much for posting this review. I need to get ahold of this book sometime to read--although argh, of course it's an Aussie book.

    Wendy @ The Midnight Garden

    1. I went into this book with a sinking stomach because I have those fears too. And, yeah, throughout the book wanted to wrap Layla in bubblewrap pretty much to keep her safe.

      I wonder if you reached out to the author on Twitter, she could be very nice and send you a copy (or IM me your address and I'll send it). This is a book I want to pass on to as many people as possible!

  3. Glad you liked this too, Danielle. I too had such a sinking feeling as I read but it was such an intriguing story and so unique and relevant.

  4. This reminds me of what AS King said on a panel I went to. She was talking about the influence of porn, especially on young boys, and how it does have an effect on them. This book sounds so uncomfortable and wrenching and... necessary. Great review, Danielle.

    1. A.S. King?! I *love* and *adore* her, would love to hear her speak. Yes, I think she touches on this in her new book 'Reality Boy' (which I'm dying for)!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

| More