Glenda Millard’s latest novel, The Stars at Oktober Bend is a unique and heartbreaking coming-of-age story that shines a light on the human psyche.
In recent times, young adult fiction has received something of a bad rap for its cookie-cutter plots generally featuring a hot guy who, when he finally pays attention to the girl next door with whom he was friends as a child, instantly falls in love with her despite her gangly awkwardness. Add in a broody vampire taking a liking to the new girl in town and you’ve got the next paranormal cross-over.
That said, there are exceptions to this well-worn rule, which form a category all of their own, such as John Green’s much-loved The Fault in Our Stars and Looking for Alaska, Gayle Forman’s If I Stay and even Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. In their own right, each take on the ‘coming of age’ theme in their own special way, and that is what makes them so popular.
To look at, Australian author Glenda Millard’s YA novel, The Stars at Oktober Bend definitely falls in the latter category. But as you delve into the pages of this unique and memorable story, you will find something altogether different, a coming-of-age tale that stands on its own in terms of comparability – at least in my opinion.
“They sewed me up when I was twelve. Mended my broken head with fishbone stitches. Tucked my frayed edges in. Tucked everything in. Things meant to be and things not. Do it quick. Stop the flow. Stop life leaking out of Alice.” This is how The Stars at Oktober Bend begins and it is with those few words, said so plainly and yet so powerfully that this book hooked me and found a place in my heart for many years to come.
Alice Nightingale is twelve when she receives an acquired brain injury doctors believe to be so severe that her mental capacity will not be beyond the age she is at the time of the attack. The repercussions upon her family – her brother Joey and her grandmother, not to mention her often referred to yet barely present grandfather Charlie – are great and it is through Alice and because of Alice that they are outcasts in their small town of Oktober Bend.
Now fifteen years old and unable to attend school because of her ‘limitations’, Alice struggles in the prison that is now her home, fighting to be free of the prognosis the doctors have given her. This “twelve-ness”, as she refers to it. As a way to escape and prove she is capable of more than expected of her, she turns to poetry, crafting the words which have become vocally lost to her with beautiful and unexpected precision.
In an effort to make herself heard, she leaves these secret verses in public places for strangers to find – such as the nearby railway station – taking comfort in the thought that someone will understand her long held secret.
Manny James has secrets himself. He struggles to find his place in this new world in which he has wound up: this place that is so far from his war-torn home of Sierra Leone. Though only sixteen years old, he has seen atrocities and experienced tragedies his classmates would not even dream of and yet he must keep his left-behind identity from them in order to avoid persecution. He must blend in and survive. It’s all about survival and that is one thing that does not change no matter the environment.
Eventually these two misfits, social outcasts if you will, find their way to one another and through the other’s story, find a way to create one of their own. A beauty and understanding that looks beyond what others take at face value. That is what makes this book stand out from other coming of age stories, and in a league all of its own.
There’s something magical about Millard’s prose as she weaves the tender tale of these two teenagers craving to be heard in a world of static and chaos. Her approach is careful as she takes on topics such as disability – one not often covered well in fiction, let alone novels of this genre – but she does not stray from confrontation, presenting readers with cold hard facts in a way that is subtle but at the same time not allowing them to be ignored.
The Stars at Oktober Bend was my first introduction to this multi award winning author – who has written a number of YA novels and children’s books – but it will by no means be the last. Magical and tender, tragic and terrifying, this book will take readers on a roller-coaster of emotions and a journey you will never forget.
[Editor/Author Note: This review was originally published by The Australia Times.]