Vikki Wakefield, This is How We Change the Ending, Text Publishing, September 2019, 272 pp., RRP $19.99 (pbk), ISBN 9781922268136
Mr Reid has two handwritten signs stuck to the wall behind his desk, like giant Post-it note reminders.
They might as well tell me to fly.
The futility of imagining any type of future seems well entrenched for 16-year-old Nate McKee. Living in the same forgotten suburb where youth worker Mim (playing a very minor role) grew up in Wakefield’s debut novel All I Ever Wanted, Nate’s cynicism and apathy is reinforced by what he sees around him.
His own bedroom has been taken over by his father Dec’s hydro crop, his mother left long ago, and he now shares a set of bunkbeds with his toddler twin brothers, one of whom is disabled. His young stepmother tries her best, but she’s young and overwhelmed with the twin’s needs, and often bears the brunt of Dec’s unpredictable rages. Living on a diet of chip sandwiches and watching his father disappear each night to the pub, Nate doesn’t see any point in trying to escape a fate he feels is already sealed.
The place of refuge for Nate and the other kids looking to escape their troubled homes is Youth; a community centre with a kitchen and rec room, a few old couches and a big screen TV. However the government is threatening to close the space, and it is not until some of Nate’s own poetry is stolen and his words graffitied across the wall of the building that Nate feels a spark of hope; When they’ve burned all our houses the streets will inherit.
For too many young people, the ending seems as though it can’t be changed. Wakefield has offered the reader an opportunity to understand entrenched poverty and disadvantage through the eyes of someone living it, and it is not comfortable reading. It is searingly honest, gritty, and yes, depressing. Whether young people see themselves within this story, or are understanding the challenges others face in day to day life, this novel is one that students aged between 14-18 should engage with. It should feature in every secondary school library collection. It is perfect for a book club, novel study, a character study of anti-hero Nate or as an examination of urban life in parts of Australia, with teachers’ notes available.
Reviewed by Kay Oddone