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Thursday, February 11, 2016

'Summer Skin' by Kirsty Eagar

Received from the Publisher

From the BLURB:

Jess Gordon is out for revenge. Last year the jocks from Knights College tried to shame her best friend. This year she and a hand-picked college girl gang are going to get even.

The lesson: don't mess with Unity girls.

The target: Blondie, a typical Knights stud, arrogant, cold . . . and smart enough to keep up with Jess.

A neo-riot grrl with a penchant for fanning the flames meets a rugby-playing sexist pig - sworn enemies or two people who happen to find each other when they're at their most vulnerable?

It's all Girl meets Boy, Girl steals from Boy, seduces Boy, ties Boy to a chair and burns Boy's stuff. Just your typical love story.

‘Summer Skin’ is the new young adult novel from Australian author, Kirsty Eagar.

Fair warning: when I love something I like to talk about it and examine it from all angles. I really loved ‘Summer Skin’, so prepare for a long, loving review …

First I’m trying to think of how to describe this book and what happens, plot-wise, when I don’t actually want to give too much away. Also that there’s isn’t really much to give away that the blurb doesn’t already beautifully summarise, like with this pithy one-liner that I think is just pure fucking poetry: a neo-riot grrl with a penchant for fanning the flames meets a rugby-playing sexist pig. Or how about feminist commentator Clementine Ford’s endorsement, that explains ‘Summer Skin’ is: a keen look at modern day intimacy in a hook-up culture. You already know all you need to entice you to pick up this smart, sexy YA read.

So instead I want to tell you about ‘Summer Skin’ by going back to 1975 – the year Judy Blume’s ‘Forever’ was first published. I love this page about ‘Forever’ on Blume’s website, where she explains the kernel of an idea for what would become, without a doubt, one of the most important books in young adult history: My daughter Randy asked for a story about two nice kids who have sex without either of them having to die. She had read several novels about teenagers in love. If they had sex the girl was always punished—an unplanned pregnancy, a hasty trip to a relative in another state, a grisly abortion (illegal in the U.S. until the 1970's), sometimes even death. Lies. Secrets. At least one life ruined. Girls in these books had no sexual feelings and boys had no feelings other than sexual. Neither took responsibility for their actions. I wanted to present another kind of story—one in which two seniors in high school fall in love, decide together to have sex, and act responsibly.

Pretty radical notion, huh? Writing about two teenagers who have sex and don’t die. But that was radical back in 1975, when young adult literature (and especially American YA) had to have moralistic undertones – and when it came to sex that was meant to be abstinence is best.

Fast forward to 2016 and Kirsty Eagar’s ‘Summer Skin’ is adding new layers and nuances to a discussion Blume started 41 years ago. In this book, Eagar is talking about sex and sexuality, pleasure and politics in a way that’s taking Aussie YA literature into a new and daring stratosphere, and it’s absolutely worth celebrating.

‘Summer Skin’ runs quite the sexual gamut – exploring everything from young women who are sexually degraded by men, to sex being used as weapon or revenge, and the pressure women feel to have sex though it’s often divorced from feeling and pleasure … there’s even discussions in here about how pornography has impacted the way in which young people view sex today – as more performance than pleasure, and the impact of its dangerous unrealism;

If high school was all about whether or not you’d give it up, uni seemed to be about nothing but giving it up. Suddenly, inexplicably, the rules changed, and – bam – you were Adult-with-a-capital-A. There was no means to the end, there was just the end, just sex, and you pretended to keep up. Sometimes Jess had felt it, the flaring of her own appetite, but she’d rarely let herself go. Too busy performing.

This book is also built on discussions and dichotomies of sexism and feminism – not running just as an undercurrent, but an in-your-face refreshing statement not to be messed with or overlooked. Indeed, the book is about Unity Girls versus Knights Boys on college campus – and through them these discussions are made manifest. The Knights Boys in particular are beautifully portrayed in their truth and – it must be said – Neanderthal ways. And if you don’t believe me, know that ‘Summer Skin’ made me think all the way back to 2012 and a particularly disturbing story about a drinking scandal, near-death of a teenage girl and unearthed misogyny at St John's College at the University of Sydney. These boys Eagar is writing about, and the society they belong to, absolutely exist and she’s chilling in her scarily accurate depictions.

There’s also a perverse beauty to Eagar exploring these topics, because she is such a marvellous author for detail. I found myself marking so many pages in this book, just because her descriptions took my breath away for their vividness;  

… widening his stance as if experiencing a sudden and significant surge in ball size, speaking in the drawl used by guys who are fluent in Brah.
I also want to celebrate this book for its grey-areas and sexiness – because ‘Summer Skin’ is both sensuous and subversive, scathing and scintillating. And this, in itself, is making a statement in YA as big as Blume’s ‘Forever’ did – as Eagar’s protagonist Jess enters into something steamy with her antithesis, Knights Boy, rugby player, Blondie Brah – Mitch. And their relationship is hot – something which is still not as prevalent as it should be in YA. Honest depictions of sexual desire and pleasure (particularly emphasis on female pleasure and self-pleasure) – it’s still a radical thing to find in YA.

Blondie held the can there, just out from her breast, until she looked at him. And when she did, his eyes were so intense that she released his wrist. She gasped when he pressed the can to her nipples, first one and then the other, but then he replaced it with his mouth, sucking each nipple in turn, his hands supporting her, and Jess closed her eyes, her breath catching. She arched her back.
As someone who reads a lot of romance, I can tell you that ‘Summer Skin’ is up there with the best. But I do want to say that I still consider this book to be young adult – even for its college campus setting and abundant sex. I have no problems with people bandying the label ‘New Adult’ around – but I will say that I absolutely believe teenagers (boys and girls alike) should find their way to ‘Summer Skin’ and embrace its many messages, particularly around sex-positivity and politics.

Kirsty Eagar has long been one of Australia’s most daring and rebellious YA writers, dating back to her powerful debut ‘Raw Blue’. ‘Summer Skin’ is more brilliance and fearlessness from this Aussie favourite, and I absolutely applaud Eagar for elevating such conversations around modern romance in our young adult literature.  


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