Memphis Grace

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Catriona McKeown, Memphis Grace, Rhiza Edge, October 2019, 282 pp., RRP $19.99 (pbk), ISBN 9781925563719

Trigger Warnings: rape; sexual coercion; bullying

‘One person can tell a story, but its power grows when other voices join it.’

McKeown has written an engaging and intensely honest novel exploring the confusing and, at times, painful high school years.

Graceland is in Year 10 at a Queensland co-ed high school. Life is complicated: her best friend, Mikaela has suddenly left school without any explanation and is not answering her calls; Grace is dealing (or more to the point, not dealing) with the accidental death of her younger brother, who had Downs Syndrome, and she suddenly finds herself being noticed by Cooper, the coolest boy in school, who also happens to be Mikaela’s ex-boyfriend.

As her relationship with Cooper develops, we learn more about why Mikaela left and Cooper’s true colours start to be revealed.

Memphis Grace deals with some very hefty issues without being heavy handed or judgemental. I believe many young adult readers will relate to the pressure felt by Grace to look and act a certain way. Grace has firm ideas about what is right and is not afraid to stand up for them. When pressured to drink alcohol at a party, she responds with ‘My mum drinks a fair bit. It’s not pleasant… there’s not a single adult in my life who isn’t either drunk or sobering up so they can go stock up to get drunk again. And they all live completely miserable lives.’ Grace is determined to finish school and go to University to study nursing; she does not want to repeat her mother’s mistakes. You can’t help but fall in love with Grace.

As an adult reader, I heard alarm bells ringing from the start regarding Cooper and his smooth talk. To an inexperienced girl, his words would sound romantic, to me they sounded downright creepy: ‘ …I want you all to myself, Grace McKay. In fact, I’m determined to make you mine. Cooper puts more and more pressure on Grace to have sex with him: …if you really loved me, you would give it to me…’ It made my skin crawl. When Mikaela reveals to Grace the real reason for her leaving, Grace begins to realise that Cooper is not who she thinks he is.

How Grace and her friends deal with Cooper’s actions is very satisfying. McKeown cleverly ties in the #MeToo movement, highlighting the relevance of this story to young adult readers today. Don’t be deterred by what happens to Grace as this book is all about courage, friendship and ultimately empowerment.

While this novel deals with confronting subject matter, there are no explicit descriptions of what happens, making this suitable for readers in lower high school. It would be wonderful for boys to read this book and learn how men should behave, but unfortunately, the cover will make it hard to sell to them. Highly recommended for readers 13+.

Reviewed by Gabrielle Meares

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