JULIE BUNTIN Marlena. Reviewed by Justine Ettler
We know from the beginning of Marlena that things won’t end well, but the how and the what and the why are cleverly withheld.
How much would it take to send your private-school-educated 15-year-old daughter off the rails? It starts out with getting in with the wrong crowd, then escalates into dropping out of school, closely followed by taking up cigarette smoking and binge drinking, and ultimately culminates in underage sex and the consumption of illegal drugs. Not very much, if the gritty teenage narrator of Julie Buntin’s electric debut novel, Marlena, is anything to go by.
Cat is 15 and an A-student on a scholarship when her parents divorce. The family finances take a tumble – right through the floor of the American middle class – when her dad goes off with a younger woman and leaves Cat, her big brother Joel and her mother just one rung above the poverty line. Cat is pulled out of school and enrolled in a local public school in the poor part of their new town. The transition proves too steep and sudden and Cat and her family fail to adjust. Her brother defers his college scholarship to work night shifts in a factory and her mum takes up heavy drinking to numb her feelings of rejection – not to mention the horror of becoming a cleaning lady to survive. While life when Cat’s parents were together wasn’t easy, their divorce results in Cat dropping out of school and the development of an unhealthy fascination for her beautiful trailer-trash neighbour Marlena. Seventeen and a high-school dropout, Marlena is also addicted to pills, going out with a teenage drug dealer, and regularly exchanges sex for pills with her father’s meth-cooking business partner. For Cat, Marlena’s philosophy of instant gratification offers immediate relief from her unhappy family life in the form of cheap thrills and excitement.
Thanks to the sections narrated by the older Cat, the reader knows from the beginning that things don’t end well for Marlena, though the how and the what and the why are cleverly withheld by Buntin, who keeps the reader guessing to the end. Sentences like ‘She drowned, technically’, give the reader just enough information to create curiosity but not enough to sate it. Similarly, ‘Neither of us really believes that what happened to her was pure accident.’ Meanwhile, Cat clearly survives only to progress in her 20s into alcoholism before settling into a fairly precarious sobriety in her 30s.
While the two best friends walk similar paths for most of the novel, Cat eventually realises they’re from different sides of the tracks and, when it comes down to it, it’s that narrow distance between trailer-trash poor and lower-middle-class poor that makes all the difference. As does the fact that Cat’s mum stays with her kids, whereas Marlena’s disappears. These depths and subtleties are one of the novel’s great strengths.
While the American slang and language is a bit flattening at times – the sections from the 15-year-old Cat’s point of view have a young-adult feel about them – the sections narrated by the older Cat often include lyrical descriptive phrases and passages that underlie the narrator’s maturity. For example:
Nostalgia is no longer considered a sickness, not technically, but it was once—the seventeenth-century Swiss physician Johannes Hofer gave the affliction its name, from the Greek words nostos (home, or even, return home) and algos (pain). A disease, responsible for suicides, the appearance of ghosts, the arrival of disembodied voices. Driving its sufferers manic with longing … And yet my desire is not attached to a particular place – not to Silver Lake, not to Marlena, not to Mom and Dad or Jimmy. I want to go home, but what I mean, what I’m grasping for, is not a place, it’s a feeling. I want to go back. But where?
The novel is a kind of updated version of the film Girl Interrupted (but without the psych-ward setting). If Breaking Bad offers a fantasy of becoming an amateur meth producer in the suburbs, the insights provided by Marlena into that world are harder hitting and altogether more realistic. Just as parents enjoyed the vicarious horror of We Need to Talk About Kevin, readers who worry about their teenage kids will find a lot to work with here. Me, I was surprised by how the novel brought all that teenage madness back: it certainly got the memories going, thick and fast.
Julie Buntin Marlena Picador 2017 PB 352pp $29.99
Justine Ettler has a PhD in American fiction and is the author of three novels, including the controversial bestseller The River Ophelia (a new edition forthcoming in 2017) and Bohemia Beach (to be published by Transit Lounge in 2018). She has worked as an academic and a freelance journalist, and her work is available on her website www.justinekettler.weebly.com
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