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A coming of age that keeps on coming.

Crusoe’s Daughter
by Jane Gardam

You know how when you’re 15, everything is SO important? You don’t just read a book; you fall madly, passionately and desperately in love with a book. This is a time defined by periods, breasts, boys and BFFs – a time when a book about a young girl learning about sexuality hits the mark exactly. Although if I’m honest, we may be past 15, but it’s STILL all about periods, breasts, boys and BFFs. It’s just that now, there are cocktails involved, the boys have facial hair and the panic about periods is NOT getting them. But I digress.

Jane Gardam’s “Crusoe’s Daughter” is the story of Polly Flint, an intelligent but isolated girl at that clichéd “verge of womanhood”. I read it at exactly that same moment in my life; that time when the body is the enemy.

“I found that blood was pouring all down my legs. . . . Aunt Mary … drew herself up to the height of the ceiling and said, 'I shall get Frances,' and vanished, and I stood drunk and shaking.”

At 15 I could barely talk to my mother. We were well into that teenage dead-zone where all we could say to each other was ‘You’re Wrong, I’m Right’, except not in those exact words and with a lot more screaming. The intimacy of discussing menstruation, particularly with my mother, simply wasn’t for me. Yet this book did talk about it, without shyness or embarrassment. To a 15-year-old girl, that straight-forwardness was startling.

A few years later I reread the book to see if it could still wow me or if it was just my identification with Polly’s teenage experience that had made the book so important, and I found myself entranced once again. Not because it shocked me once again, but because I realised that the author was writing with the wisdom of hindsight. Being older and wiser, I was able to understand the complexities and subtleties to which I had previously been oblivious. Or maybe I’m just still just as obsessed with body image as I was at 15.

One verse that particularly sticks out to me is when Polly declares, “I learned our bodies are only furniture. That attractiveness has nothing to do with looks or years.”

In an attempt to make people like me feel better about my big bum, the do-gooders demanding the banning of skinny models from magazines have missed the point. I may not meet the ideal (by any stretch of the imagination) but I’ve never had any problem igniting interest. Hot ones, not hot ones, all sorts of ones. I have every reason to still hate my body and yet, like Polly, I now know that attractiveness is in the mind of both the beholder and the beheld.

So yet again, I’ve fallen in love with Crusoe’s Daughter. One day I will give it to my (very!) future teenage daughter because she’s almost certainly going to be a melodramatic, uncommunicative, mother-baiting pain in the posterior, just like I was. And perhaps at that point I’ll have another read to see what else is hiding in there, waiting to be uncovered by age and retrospection.

words: Kristen Hodges


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