Plenty goes wrong for a young heroine in Laura Solomon's award-winning short novel, Instant Messages (2010, Proverse Hong Kong, 154 pages). Later a few things start to turn out right too. Finally a reassuring balance of sorts prevails as her life continues, and maybe that's an important message.
“ ‘God, what's happened to our family?’
‘I know. It's like a hurricane's hit us.’ ”
Fifteen-year-old computer whiz Olivia Best and her twin sister, the piano-playing, shoplifting and sometimes-suicidal Melanie, live amid intense problems, almost too many to list. They must defend themselves as best they can. “Melanie won't tell me anything about her sessions with the counselor. She has put a fortress around herself, and around the fortress, a moat. The moat she has filled with snapping crocodiles. Their jaws open, threatening to devour.”
Difficulties intensify when their mother decides to leave the family for a lesbian love-affair with her yoga teacher. This turn-of-events dents the confidence of their distracted dad, a would-be novelist who appears sure to fail. “You can see the shock on Dad's face. He looks like he's just been kneed in the nuts.”
Olivia, an ever-observant narrator, bounces between lingering childhood and pending adulthood. She's slow to win friends. “Humans are not my forte. In class, I don't even talk. I've kept my mouth shut for so long that the other kids probably think I'm a mute.” Like many teens, she has self-esteem issues. “I am nothing, an insect; Olivia Best, a target for bullying and mockery.”
Much that Olivia wishes for looks impossible. “Why can't things just be back the way they were? If I had magic powers, like in my game, I would rewind time, turn back the clock 12 months to when we had a nice family unit. Then I would freeze time or, more accurately, put time in a loop…. And my mother would never leave.”
Maybe Olivia couldn't cope without moral support and advice from a trusted source – her favorite toy, a stuffed, green frog affectionately nicknamed GF. “The frog's voice comes out at a special pitch, frog-pitch. He is unable to be heard by normal people. He can only be heard by me.”
With the frog's help, Olivia musters the clout to tackle not only her own woes, but even some belonging to her family and friends. “ ‘Christ,’ says GF, who also has his ear up to the receiver. ‘Aren't we meant to be the kids and they the adults.’ ”
Will Olivia somehow find the time and enthusiasm for romance too? If so, where should she direct her affections? Surely she can do better than to focus on another computer prodigy, the unhygienic Bad Breath Bevin. “BBB is often grubby, half-washed. Snot crusts the edges of his nostrils. His clothes smell musty, as if they haven't been dried properly. A cloud of dirt puffs out around him, like Pig-Pen in Peanuts.”
A joint-winner of the inaugural Proverse Prize, Instant Messages will appeal to teenagers, especially girls, because it rings with realism. From neighborhood bullies, heartbreaker boyfriends and vanishing virginity to substance abuse, unreliable adults and emotional insecurities, the Best sisters face precisely the same problems as many readers do. Although set in London, the situations and dilemmas hold relevance across Europe, in North America and beyond.
A few humorous moments help to ease the tensions. More often, Olivia's plights aren't funny at all. As she realizes, sometimes you must fight with every ounce of strength. “But now I am wild, fearless…. Despite the searing pain in my right shoulder I turn and bite my captor hard on the nose, nearly take the tip of his honker off. It starts pissing blood, red liquid streaming down his face.”
Perhaps the book needs a better title. Olivia, her sister and others do trade a few instant messages, but probably no more than most people do.
Born in New Zealand, Solomon lived in England for nine years, but returned to her homeland in 2007. She has four previous books, three novels -- Black Light (1996), Nothing Lasting (1997) and An Imitation of Life (2009) – and a short-story collection, Alternative Medicine (2008).
In the modern world, many things may be “instant”, like messages, meals and sometimes gratification. But usually there's nothing quite so quick about solving problems. As Olivia learns (and maybe readers do too), finding suitable solutions often takes big doses of time, patience and understanding.
Approval rating: 70 per cent.
For more information: http://www.proversepublishing.com
(February 2, 2011)