Saturday 4 March 2023


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Between the Flags by Rachel Fenton  {Reviewed by STELLA}
A girl, a drowning, a rescue, a comic. Rachel Fenton’s teen novel explores the difficult territory of trauma with tenderness, humour, and humility. She cleverly leads you into what seems to be a story about striving, peer pressure, competitive sports, and being a teenager in today’s world which presents a plethora of ‘big issues’ to young people (climate change, racism, class, body image). And it is all these things, but it is at its core a gripping and emotional observation of grief and the many faces this can wear. At first, you are unaware that the main character is carrying or, more precisely, hiding a burden that is too big to be named. Mandy is a member of the Surf Lifesavers' club at Soldier Tree Bay, North Shore, and the book begins with her, face down in the sand, one of six other fourteen-year-olds waiting to compete in the race for the flag. Here you are in Mandy’s head, having the action described in blow-by-blow picture frames. A perfect comic strip in the making. This is disconcerting and intriguing, visually (through the text) pulling you into this place, this moment. It also, subtly, tells you something about Mandy. She has this coping mechanism for a reason. But what won’t be revealed for quite a few chapters. She’s an outsider, partly pushed away by the other girls, partly holding herself separate. At school she’s stopped speaking, ostracising herself further, and she’s falling behind, and not through a lack of ability. Casey, her little brother, loves her stories and wants to see what she’s drawing, but he’s not always around. And her big brother, Dan, has long flown the coop. Mandy’s loneliness drives her further into herself. And to make it worse, it looks like her Mum and Dad are breaking up. She’s angry with both of them. And she’s fed up with the nasty Jen and her friends, and the boys, especially Oliver, who are always making fun of her. Why couldn’t she be more like Mako, instead of nicknamed Orca? Seeing the psychologist helps, but the turning point is when she accidentally hands in her comic instead of her English essay. Mako may be the comic book hero but Mandy Malham is the unforgettable character of this novel as she shows us how we do and don’t cope with difficult situations and how we can overcome trauma and move forward. Between the Flags is a powerful, affecting novel with a comic strip at its centre.

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