This Side of Home

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Renée Watson, This Side of Home,  Bloomsbury/Allen & Unwin,  1 April 2017,  352pp.,  $12.99 (pbk),  ISBN 978161963930

Identical twins Maya and Nikki, in their final year of high school in Portland, have long-term plans for their future. Attending the same college; hanging out with established friends; dating boyfriends from their peer group. But change is coming to their school, their neighbourhood … will their cosy life also be disrupted?

I was hesitant at the start of this book – the blurb seemed a bit too predictable. I also wondered whether the experience of African-American young people would be relevant to Australian teenagers.  However, once I was into the narrative, it carried me along and engaged my attention. Most of the plot revolves around the changing relationships between a group of friends, and the problems of re-negotiating social ties according to changing needs and ambitions. These are common problems in any coming-of-age scenario.

Issues of ethnicity are dealt with, exploring the subtleties of class, social gentrification and interpersonal relationships across the racial divide.

Told in present tense, from Maya’s point of view, the story has pace and immediacy. The dialogue is believable, and Watson handles the romantic elements of the story in that uniquely American mode — sanitizing the action and skimming over details. This might seem coy to an Australian audience but her approach makes this book suitable for early secondary school readers upwards. Although the book is a “fat” paperback, the language is straightforward and the well-spaced text is not dense or intimidating.

Despite my initial hesitation, by the end I was impressed by the author’s expert handling of issues in this smart, contemporary novel.

Reviewed by Julie Thorndyke

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