by John Larkin
Published by Random House, 2011
Rarely have I been so moved by a novel written for young adults. The Shadow Girl swept me up into a whirlwind of emotions from the first page – I fluctuated between laughing and weeping, but more than anything I developed a sense of awe and wonderment at the resilience of the human spirit.
The shadow girl is the unnamed protagonist of this story. She is a thirteen year old who is forced to run away from her abusive uncle, her parents having been killed in violent and mysterious circumstances some years earlier. What follows is the story of her life on the streets: sleeping on trains, in sand dunes and an abandoned house, the shadow girl survives through sheer determination and perceptive intelligence. Physically she is protected by various people along the way; emotionally she is nurtured by literature and her love of learning. Enrolling herself in a local school (her subterfuge clearing the red tape) she meets a visiting author upon whom she makes a distinct impression. This real-life experience was the impetus for John Larkin to embark upon the project which would become The Shadow Girl.
It was at a literary festival last year that I first heard Larkin speak about this girl and the book he was writing about her life. I remember thinking what a departure from his usual style such a book would be and wondered if the book would work. I needn’t have worried. Blurring the lines between fiction and reality, John Larkin has produced his best work by far. The Shadow Girl introduces us to the true genius of Larkin. He writes honestly and at times bluntly, never avoiding the stark realities encountered by the girl, yet painting her story with a beautiful veneer of respectful sensitivity. The character he creates is a rich mixture, combining plenty of grit and sass with wicked humour; she is brimming with intelligence and resourcefulness. Written with perception and clarity, this book pays tribute to the protagonist, portraying her as a flawed heroine, never as a victim. The narrative structure is perfect, with chapters alternating between the shadows girl’s recounts and the café interviews between her and the author who is documenting her story.
The Shadow Girl is an absorbing read which I found impossible to put down. It is one of those rare books that is engrossing and riveting from the start, and requires serious contemplation long after. It would be an excellent related text for the HSC area of study ‘Belonging’. Every parent who reads this book will be tempted to hug their children just that little bit tighter each day, and every teenager who thinks their life is tough should read this book – it is a humbling experience.
Recommended for ages 15+