Abbey Lay – Lead Us Not

Viking Books an imprint of Penguin Books Australia, 2024
Cover design Alex Ross @ Penguin Random House Australia P/L
Cover image Source/Getty Images

While the two leads in this story are girls in their final year of high school, it is a book that will strike a chord with readers, no matter their age or gender. It’s far more than a coming of age tale and however far from the last years of school we are, we do all recall that particular agony of growing up.

Abbey Lay spoke to Barbie about Lead us Not

We follow lead character Millie through the agonising and self-absorption that is part of the transition from school to the ‘real world’, whether this be the workforce or another educational institution. She’s a bright if listless student.

Into her life comes new neighbour Olive O’Reilly, an alluring and mysterious figure first glimpsed through their respective bedroom windows. Here is a hint for the reader to watch for the literary allusions and devices the author will cleverly use in this tale, the classic literary motif of the window – not quite Freudian, but sexual nonetheless.

The voyeurism of this encounter develops into a strange kind of interdependence and plays out in the conversations and sexual explorations of the girls. There’s a measure of clumsy innocence about Millie and of calculated sophistication and control about Olive. But then, we only see things as Millie see them. She’s our deliberately created sole point of view. Olive’s insecurities and co-dependence do become clearer as the story moves on.

The Catholic education setting of the story is significant, more even than just for its single sex school model. The whiff of control and repression is ever present with the boys from the neighbouring school brought in for special occasions and for status bestowing boyfriendhood. Leon, who becomes Millie’s boyfriend and first sexual encounter and Hunter who is Olive’s beau are significant for plot but less so in the lives of the girls.

The female relationships are far more significant. Besides Olive, Millie has friendships with Jess, a girl whose mother has died, and with Chloe and Erin, possibly stereotypes of adolescent girlhood circles. Jess is an organiser and her attempts to snap Millie out of her stasis are mostly greeted with passive resistance. One does feel sorry for Jess who is a loyal friend to the end and her managing tendencies are entirely forgiveable and understandable (for me).

Family models and relationships are also very important in this book. Olive describes her parents as uninteresting people, good people bent on good works. Her position is that of a fish out of water as she leans towards the theatrical both personally and as a likely career.

In particular, the bond between Millie and her Dad is touching. Dad comes with his own stories of loss, his typical dad of the time behaviours and limitations but also with a shining goodness.

He is reliable and caring and always ready to listen if Millie should ever find it in herself to initiative closeness. The garden occasionally enables this, providing a neutral ground where Millie can bow to her dad’s superior knowledge without feeling a sense of obligation.

Humour is liberally sprinkled through this writing, in particular in the school context. Whether it be the unfortunate sex scenes in the class video session or the shenanigans of the girls on retreat camp, one can but sympathise with the staff as they cope with their charges and try to fit in with the demands of the system.

Any judgments of the system itself can be set aside to some extent as we acknowledge that the mores of the times and the religious school setting are not entirely a thing of the past nor seen by the fictional cast with the critical eye of the outsider.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable book, rich with knowledge and insight into the minds and hearts of its teenage leads. The subtle charm of the narrative lies in its gradual revelation of the process of growing up, its pains and sudden bursts of delight, that uncontrollable rocking between childhood and adulthood.

We see this clearly in the reading list that Millie shares with us, her choices of books so well reflecting her coming of age – more clever under-stated stuff from this talented writer.

I look forward to whatever comes next from Abbey Lay’s pen.

Thank you to Penguin Random House for my review copy and to Abbey for such an interesting conversation about education, family, the church and growing up.