Hachette, Australia, 2023
Cover design Alissa Dinallo
Cover illustration Karin Locke
This is a book about growing up. Allee Richards captures perfectly that teenage girl angst which many of us will remember despite, in some cases, being decades past this time of life.
We meet our heroine Iris when she is a young child, one with a great love of all things performing arts. When she wins a scholarship to a wealthy and privileged private high school, her world opens up, but she is also subject to the nastiness and bullying which can be a difficult part of adolescent and high school life.
The saving graces are the theatre program at the school and her friendship with Molly. The school is blessed with excellent drama facilities and a musical theatre program run by charismatic a young male teacher.
Everyone wants to be in his shows, and everyone can be with a pass-through audition program. But, not everyone can win a lead role, something Iris for which deeply yearns.
Her friend Molly provides the balm of not being into the theatre scene and not caring two hoots about the bitchy behaviour of Queen Bee student Gemma and ‘The Blondes’. For the most part,
Iris and Molly shelter one another from these abuses, which incidentally allow the reader glimpses of that class divide between public and private education, between the wealthy kids and those from working class backgrounds. Getting access to this privileged environment is a double-edged sword.
Into the mix comes Nina, a self-styled tragic figure who nevertheless manages to get what Iris can’t, a lead in the musical. Iris feels a mix of pity, shame about her attitude and treatment of Nina and ongoing raging jealousy, which she can’t altogether understand.
This character however carries her own plot line in a different sort of abuse story – but we must avoid this and other details to avoid spoiling things for the reader.
As we follow the life of the gradually maturing Iris, we see her slip into grief, alcoholism and estrangement from friends and family. Stage stardom continues to elude her, but she finds salvation in the company of a small experimental theatre group where everyone is accepted as they are.
She also finds the ultimate salvation of the stage lighting team and reconnection with her pal Molly.
This is an astute work, to which Allee Richards brings aspects of her own life, including vignettes like the misunderstanding about what sort of painter Iris’s dad is, another sharp little humorous dig at social divides.
It’s a highly readable work with which millennials and younger readers will immediately identify. Older readers, as I have said, will not have forgotten this time of turbulence, of self-doubt butted against over-confidence, of misery butted against wild joy.
The author has got this right and tells a story from which we can all draw hope. There is indeed a light at the end of the tunnel as bright as the follow spot on the stage.
Thank you to Hachette for my review copy and to Allee for such an interesting chat about the magic of theatre, the job of the lighting crew and this book.