Book Review: Girl Defective, Simmone Howell

Sky lives above a record store with her father and her brother Gus, making do by dribs and drabs – her father’s store pledges ‘nothing after 1995’ and the customer base is, shall we say, hardly expansive. Her mother left the family to become a performance artist who periodically posts bizarre things on her website and sends odd things to the kids, her father is slumped in alcoholism, and Gus is somewhere on the autism spectrum, struggling in a school where other students have made him an easy target and view bullying him as an enjoyable activity akin to heading to the movies for the afternoon.

In other words, a lot of her life is basically shit, including her back and forth relationship with Nancy, the woman who started out as the housekeeper and turned into her friend once it was evident that the whole housekeeping thing wasn’t going to work out. Nancy swirls in and out of Sky’s life like a hurricane, leaving Sky bobbing in her wake.

Welcome to Girl Defective, a book about life, missing women, sexuality, love, and what happens when everything collides in a hot, sticky Australian summer. It’s a brilliantly crafted and ephemeral book that reminds me in some ways of Sarah McCarry, Hilary T. Smith, and Brandy Colbert. The language falls into a similar school, though each author has a very distinctive voice, and the subject matter is achingly, sharply, intensely familiar and at times almost painful; this is not a book that is an easy read (though YA is often accused of being just that), but it is a book that demands your attention and pulls you all the way through, like thread through a needle. You can’t stop until you know how everything is going to resolve for the characters, and it doesn’t actually have a neat resolution.

I actually picked up Girl Defective for the disability angle, because I’d been meaning to read it for the depiction of Gus’ autism. He’s fascinated with detective work, writing up constant reports and commentaries on the goings on around him – in some ways he reminds me of Harriet the Spy, and I like that in much of the book this is framed as a Kid Thing, not an Autism Thing – and he’s also a huge fan of routine and order. (Something I can certainly find commonality with.) He likes having a familiar and ordinary and routine schedule, he likes it when the family is functional, he gets frustrated when things don’t fit – which is one reason he makes such a dogged and talented detective. He won’t give up until he resolves mysteries, because he needs to restore order.

It’s a bit of a stereotypical depiction of autism, but it’s not quite as over the top as some I have seen. It also feels more true to the lived experience of some autistics, less forced and stilted. More troublingly, there’s the ongoing theme in the book of his snout; their peculiar mother once sent him a pig snout as a weird gift, or joke, or something between, and he took to wearing it every day, something that becomes a frustrating and sore point in the book.

However, the snout straddles a strange divide. At times, it seems to be described and confronted in a very othering way, as something that Gus does because he’s autistic. On the other hand, though, some of his attachment to it seems to come not so much from his desire to hide from the world and control interactions, but from his desire to cling to the mother he barely knows. He was quite young when their flighty mother, er, flew the coop, and there’s a part of him that seems to really struggle with that and be frustrated by it.

He’s certainly not sure if he’s ready for or wants a replacement for their mother, but he definitely feels something missing. I always have mixed feelings about texts that depict an absent or missing parent as some kind of tragedy, like someone can’t raise a kid alone, but in this case, it seems textually appropriate, and relevant. This is a story about people who are struggling with lots of things; and for Sky and Gus, their father is, in many ways, absent as well, drowning himself in alcohol and an unwillingness to engage with the world, seemingly frozen in the time their mother left, unable to move forward.

Much of this book is about resolutions, moving forward, learning harsh things about the world and rolling them over in your brain, deciding how you feel about them. Sky characterises herself as a ‘girl defective,’ failing at many things, defined by the people and world around her instead of herself, but as the story progresses, she becomes her own person. It’s a testimony to the ways we grow up, to the turning points that make us grow up, to the moment we discover how to define ourselves and open up our wings to become our own people.

Sky – Skylark – finds her wings not through others, but through strengthening herself, and deciding what kind of person she wants to be. Along the way, she becomes distinct from her family and friends, which, as it often does, actually pulls her closer together to them. By finding herself she could be herself, and by being herself, she could show herself to the people in her life, forcing them to engage on her terms and building an identity that wasn’t forged on who they were.