Maryam Master (text) and Astred Hicks (illustrator), Exit Through the Gift Shop, Pan Macmillan Australia, July 2021, 216 pp., RRP $16.99 (pbk), ISBN 9781760983512
Exit Through the Gift Shop is the first novel of Maryam Master who is an experienced playwright, whose work includes adaptations of books by David Walliams and Oliver Jeffers.
This book is about 12-year-old Anahita (or Ana for short), told in the first person in Ana’s cheerful, playful but also thoughtful voice. She describes her life challenges which are significant indeed. Not only is she adapting to two new blended families since her parents’ marriage break-up and also being bullying at school, but most seriously, she has cancer. Whilst the themes and the content of this story are sad, even tragic, Ana’s humour and efforts to be positive and accepting, create a surprisingly upbeat tone without trivialising the seriousness of her situation nor being self-indulgent.
I love the complexities of Ana’s character. She grapples with her fears, frustrations and disappointments, striving for acceptance of her situation, and at times, even achieving an inner peace that comes from valuing what is important to her. And so, without being didactic, the story provides lessons in resilience and facing life’s challenges and also some wise and philosophical insights.
The issue of bullying is dealt with in a sensitive and caring way, making the important and poignant point that experiencing constant bullying is traumatic (at times occupying more of Ana’s angst than her cancer) and that seeking help from supportive adults can help towards resolving the problem.
I love the writing style which is colloquial in a voice that is authentic for an Australian 12-year-old, but still rich and elegant, with original and vivid metaphors. I was impressed that this quick and easy to read story, comprising short chapters, develops several characters and a complex story plot whilst covering many serious themes – bullying, illness, friendship, appreciating kindness, family relationships, ethnic stereotyping, managing difficult emotions.
Novelty text and Astred Hicks’ quirky, humorous line drawings are scattered through the text, adding to the upbeat, playful tone, creating a true tween girl feel. Two of my favourite illustrations are the grey coloured page with a pattern of rain drops (for one of the saddest parts of the story) and the row of ducks for when her Dad tells her “all [her]ducks were in a row”.
Ana is a highly relatable character and kids aged 10 to 12 years would benefit from exploring the books’ important themes, whilst also relating to Ana and being absorbed in her story.
Reviewed by Barbara Swartz