“Don’t judge me, bitch. This is a high-stress situation.” - Frankie, p. 9.
Shivaun Plozza’s debut YA novel 'Frankie' (Penguin, April 2016) will slice you like an electric knife through kebab meat. The title character’s sassiness, cynicism, mistrust and anger hooked me immediately, and I seesawed between wanting to hug her and boot her up the backside throughout the book. The writing is smooth and immediate, and pinballed me around the full range of the emotional spectrum.
Frankie Vega’s 17 and lives with her aunt Vinnie in a flat above Vinnie’s kebab shop. Xavier contacts Frankie claiming to be her half-brother, and she’s suspended from school after breaking a boy’s nose. When Xavier disappears, Frankie reluctantly accepts help from his partner in crime (not a euphemism) Nate to help find him.
The story’s set in the lower socioeconomic realm of Collingwood – a Melbourne suburb that’s part-hipster heaven and part-homeless hangout – and the characters reflect day-to-day diversity and challenges, fears and failures. Buildings are run-down, the characters are believably and understandably flawed, and the police play a consistent role in the story – and not in a ‘we’re here to protect you’ way.
Frankie’s angry. Very angry. Her default response is anger. The mystery of what Steve Sparrow did to cop a whack in the face carries through the book, alongside the search for Xavier and Frankie’s own truth and identity. The reader’s drawn to Frankie straight away – we see her outward responses as we read her inner dialogue, and immediately understand her decisions and behaviour. She’s raging, intense, sometimes violent and persistently disobedient; but also smart, streetwise (most of the time) and hilarious. She views the world through a filter of cynicism created by her background and reinforced by a cheating ex in a way that’s insightful, laugh-out-loud funny and firmly in the voice of a smartarse teenager.
This story – and Frankie in particular – hit me in a way I didn’t expect. I’m the now parent of a primary school-aged child who spent his early years in foster care. The reason he was removed from his birth family is similar to Frankie’s background. He’s smart and funny, has massive trust issues, anger is his default response, and he struggles to believe he deserves praise. He thinks he’s a bad person, and refuses to believe anyone who tells him otherwise. He deliberately sabotages himself. We’re on a first-name basis with the school welfare officer. I completely get Vinnie and her frustration at her niece not taking the opportunities presented to her, while Frankie’s relationship with the world around her is spot on.
I will be telling anyone who informs me that kids who’ve had traumatic or difficult starts in life ‘get over it’ once they’re in a stable, loving home that they must read 'Frankie'. I’ll be doing this while resisting the urge to whack said person in the face with the book.
There’s a much-needed push for diverse books in YA, and 'Frankie' examines one diversity that’s often overshadowed by culture, gender and sexuality: social class and background. In this character-driven story, comparisons about how different societal groups are perceived and treated by authority figures and other groups are skilfully drawn without being intrusive.
'Frankie' is a cracker of a debut. It’s a strong, gutsy story with characters that’ll stick with you like the smell of garlic sauce on an overladen kebab.
Check out Shivaun’s website at www.shivaunplozza.com.