Magazine article The Spectator

Girls Will Be Girls

Magazine article The Spectator

Girls Will Be Girls

Article excerpt

Girls will be girls

SPECIAL

by Bella Bathurst

Picador, L15.99, pp. 310, ISBN 0330491008

You'll have noticed them on the roads, minibuses, full of schoolgirls, being driven by harassed teachers to some country location where the girls will be put through end-of-term, healthy outdoor activities, protesting all the way. Among any group of eight 13-year-olds there'll be a victim, a loner, a leader, and so on - it's been the stuff of many a novel since Lord of the Flies, but it is Bella Bathurst's considerable achievement to bring to this scenario something contemporary and fresh.

Right from the beginning, there is a ferocious undertone to this story. Anyone familiar with modern teenage girls will recognise the authenticity of the dialogue - brutal, vulgar, full of jeers and sneers understood only by themselves. It zips along at a terrific rate, especially between Caz, Jules and Hen, the three central characters. They smoke, they yearn for sex, they are foul-mouthed, and yet at the same time they are touching, each so desperate to be 'special', not to have a dull life ahead of them. They are forceful, making Ali (the loner, and by far the most interesting character) read to them books `as filthy as the frigid school library could provide'. They make Izzy (the victim) wretched with their cruel taunts about her scratching (she has eczema). But in careful passages interspersed among the ever-rolling dialogue the anguish each of the girls feels about her unsatisfactory self is exposed.

The plot, such as it is, revolves round Jules's jealousy of Caz, whom she reckons is `first class' to her 'economy'. She craves Caz's beauty, her strength and her popularity. The two girls are meant to be best friends, but in the way of 13-year-old best friends there is as much rivalry in the relationship as loyalty. Jules worries that she is attracted to Caz and panics in case she is 'a lezzie', which she is sure she is not. On the contrary, she is determined to lose her virginity to a boy as soon as possible. There is an ugly scene when she does so. But the impact of this gruesome incident, graphically described, is nothing compared to the shock of experiencing her first orgasm in an extraordinary and unexpected way. There, Bella Bathurst shows an understanding which raises the level of the novel above the predictable.

All this sounds grim, but in fact it's curiously exhilarating to read. It isn't exactly funny - it's much too acerbic in tone for that - nor is it really witty, but it is often sharp and tart enough to be vigorously entertaining. The girls are sometimes so nasty that they ought to repel, but they don't, they fascinate. There's pity for their stage in life which provides a soothing balm that softens the more shocking passages and makes them somehow endearing. One passage in particular sticks in the mind. Caz (who is the least explained character in spite of being the leader) produces some pornographic magazines, claiming that the disgusting images are hilarious and inviting Hen to agree. But the effect on Hen, who is anorexic and mutilates herself, is devastating - to her the pictures are torture, which she struggles to conceal from Caz.

There is a violent ending to this tale which is a little too melodramatic, and plenty of the themes running through it are cliched (like the anorexia), but there is a consistent determination to study character which prevents any cheapening. …

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