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Hilary T. Smith
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Girl Defective - Simmone Howell This review also appears on wordchasing“This is the story of a wild girl and a ghost girl; a boy who knew nothing and a boy who thought he knew everything. And it’s about life and death and grief and romance. All the good stuff.”..and Girl Defective does have these things. But for me, it isn't about those elements so much being about a girl finding her place in the world. As with Notes from The Teenage Underground, Simmone Howell does this beautifully: it’s real and organic and subtle. Within the framework of a flagging record store, an unconventional family, a lost girl and a charismatic one – another girl grows and changes. Girl Defective is not just about the things that change her, but the girl that is changed - her metamorphosis between the pages. "Sometimes I’d see Dad look at my brother and feel the acid tang of jealousy in the back of my mouth. I’d flash on Gully at four saying, ‘I’m a boy and Dad’s a boy but Sky is a GIRL.’ And I’d feel cursed and isolated and defective."Sky is a girl in transition. She’s not even sure if she fits in with her family of misfits: a father stuck in the past, a little brother who won’t take off his pig snout mask, and a mother who left her behind. She’s somewhere in between friendship and infatuation with the magnetic Nancy. A musician turned developer wants to build over St Kilda’s history and the place Sky calls home. Then there’s the quiet, short-sighted boy, spending nights pasting up pictures of a girl’s face on walls.There is a palpable sense of place in Girl Defective, (I promise that’s not just my bias as a former St Kildan speaking), and Howell’s rendering of Melbourne’s seaside playground suburb is both affectionate and frank. Alongside the tourists attractions and crowds and the slow slide from bohemianism into gentrification, Howell also portrays the homelessness, sex work and drug abuse that are very much a part of St Kilda. It would be disingenuous to ignore the sharp socio-economic contrasts that characterise the area; that disadvantage and privilege exist side by side in glaring disparity.It’s a setting that fits Girl Defective, a kind of warped urban fairground populated by artists and hacks, misfits and celebrities. The fanciful and the real are entwined here: underground parties are filled with girls in silver and boys in masks, while street workers hug the edges of Carlisle and Greeves Streets. A run-down record store clings to the glory days of the mix tape and pristine vinyl, while a window on Inkerman Street is filled with the ugly mugs of infamous curb-crawlers.As with the location, Howell develops her characters with various shades. As one character later states, they are not “bad” people, but they are flawed and layered. Part of this story is about Sky discovering this fundamental truth, peeling back the different versions of themselves people present, and understanding what lies beneath.At the heart of Girl Defective are these relationships, each of which have some bearing on Sky’s character development. Whether they are familial, romantic or platonic, the connections between the characters are engaging and nuanced. Howell addresses matters of loneliness and lust, alienation and alcoholism, manipulation and empathy. Yet this isn’t a heavy book. There’s a certain levity to story that balances its substantial content, and an artfulness to the writing that is intelligent and gorgeous to read."Kid, that was what she called me. Or little sister, or girlfriend, or dollbaby, or monkeyface. Sometimes she even used my name – Skylark, Sky – all in that drawl that felt like fingernails on my back lightly scratching itches I didn’t even know I had."And then of course, there’s the music. (The lovely Mandee has put together a playlist for the book.) As befits a book with an iconic record store at its centre, music is woven through Girl Defective like an extension of the characters and setting, a soundtrack not only accompanies the plot, but feels integral to it."Late in the night, in the yoga light, I listened to Leonard Cohen but I didn’t have to coax the sadness out. His voice was a long tunnel with the tiniest pinprick of light at the end."A unique coming-of-age story with a touch of mystery, a lot of character and full of heart, Girl Defective is indeed “all the good stuff.”The Face on the WallSimmone Howell posted about one of the "sparks" for Girl Defective on her tumblr, which links to this article from The Age: "The Girl in the Tunnel".Reading that Rone's work played a part in inspiring Girl Defective felt almost serendipitous, given my own burgeoning obsession with his art. His posters and murals are highly recognisable, now appearing not only in Melbourne but around the world.I'm not sure exactly what it is, but I think there is something a little haunting about Rone's 'girls' and their expressions. I don't know what their origin stories are, but I can't help but wonder if there are any lost girls among them...