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Good Oil

Good Oil - Laura Buzo 4.5 starsFull disclosure: This review has little to no objectivity. It’s barely even a review. The whole experience of reading Good Oil was so fraught with nostalgia and personal resonance that any ability I had to critically analyse it was chucked out the window before I’d even finished the first chapter. ”Bottom line is – I can’t run my own race. I’m constantly checking what’s happening in the other lanes.” ~ Chris”Oh, well. Love is pain. Or is it beauty is pain? I wouldn’t know about the latter, but the former makes my sternum ache.” ~Amelia Reading this book was like opening a long forgotten photo album, catching glimpses of the ignored past pressed in between sheets of paper. Many of the scenes could have been lifted from the adolescence and young adulthood of myself and my friends – and probably countless others - there was a closeness to my own reality here that made the intertwined stories of Amelia and Chris both laughing-so-hard-I’m-crying funny and stomach-twistingly painful. Good Oil does a beautiful job of bringing back what it’s like to be 15 and 21, with searing authenticity. As an adult, it’s easy to brush aside teenage emotions as incredibly self-involved and of little consequence in the grand scheme of things. You know the ones I’m talking about. Being so horribly in love you can feel it in your elbows. Desperately earnest and trying to carve out your place in the world. Awkwardness that stalls your tongue and trips up your feet. Feeling disconnected from the lives your peers are leading. The kind of feelings dismissed in later life with a good-natured, indulgent eye roll. Good Oil treats these moments of growing up with sincerity, and respect for how real and all-consuming they are at the time. Buzo certainly makes her characters stand under direct lighting – there’s no concealing their flaws, or flattering angles here. Everything is laid bare and the characters’ decisions and behaviour are open to scrutiny in all their various shades of grey. But what Buzo masters is showing that nobody is exempt from messing up, and that “good” people are just as capable of inflicting hurt or making dubious choices as the “bad.” In this respect, Chris is one of the most realistic embodiments of a 21 year old male I’ve yet seen in a young adult novel. I believed every word of his messed-up, self-loathing, conflicted voice and the emotional flagellation he put himself through, or sought to drown in alcohol. He would have been a character easy to dislike, but Buzo also shows his intelligence, humour and kindness – flashes of the person he is capable of being.And Amelia, oh Amelia, some of her pages were so difficult to read because her voice was so raw and bursting with the passion and frustration and anxiety of fifteen. Her awkwardness felt achingly familiar. I wanted to reach into the pages and assure her that things would change – that eventually she would feel like she fit into her own skin and her own life.It’s hard to distance myself enough from this book to gain the necessary perspective to discuss things like plot and character arcs and pacing and so on. It read like pieces cut from real life, all rough edges and blurred lines and crushing honesty. Chris and Amelia and the supporting cast were less like characters than people you would walk by down the street, or had figured somewhere in your past. I can’t my put my finger on exactly what feeling this book conjured as I read it – but the closest I can think of is homesickness. The complex tangle of nostalgia and yearning, and the realization that life rarely works out the way you think it will. The small fragments of realism (the drive from Sydney to Newcastle, drinking James Squires’, part-time checkout jobs, sneaking into the pub, PE with no showers afterwards, Augie March, families that drive you crazy… I could keep going here) pieced together a story that I absolutely believed and completely broke me down. The ending is quietly powerful and wrenching, and it lingered long after I closed the book. Gush and awe aside – some parts of the story did feel a little awkwardly placed, for example, the recurrent them of Amelia’s aversion to her parents’ smoking. While it illustrated part of her character, I felt it occasionally came across a little heavy-handed. Minor matter of personal taste though, I guess. Good Oil is probably best summed up with the quote from the back cover: “A story that’s real and warm and just a little bit heartbreaking.” It really, really is.