Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Hearing Helen by Carolyn Morton #YA #review

Title: Hearing Helen
Author: Carolyn Morton
Publisher: Human & Rousseau, 2013

Big disclaimer: contemporary YA is not my usual genre, but Carolyn Morton won me over within the first few pages, with just the right touches. One of the issues that I have with YA is that main characters often seem to exist in a little solipsistic bubble. And yes, while I agree that teens are often self-centred, they do have many concerns beyond the “me-me-me”. Morton gets the balance just right.

Helen is the youngest child of two, and she feels as if her parents are ignoring her in favour of her older brother Hank, who can do no wrong in their eyes, it would seem. Their family has fallen on tough times, and both parents are overworked trying to make ends meet. They appear to have pinned their hopes on Hank, who is gifted musically and whom they think has a more than good chance of winning a prestigious music competition that promises a large cash prize.

Though Hank’s winning is not in the bag, their parents clutch at this straw, on the off chance that it will provide a better future, as if it’s the only outcome that will save them. If Hank attains this goal, he will be able to study medicine and his parents out financially. At least that’s the plan. No pressure, right?

Poor Helen comes second. Like her brother, she’s gifted musically, but she’s not as good as her older sibling. She’s desperate for some praise from her folks, but they’re too preoccupied and exhausted to realise that she’s asking for some recognition.

Added to the mix is the enigmatic Madame Pandora, Helen and Hank’s music teacher, who berates Helen for not having the heart in her playing – and part of this story is about Helen understanding her motivations for playing music.

Yet this is also a book about friendship. There is a slight hint of a love triangle, but it’s not overbaked. Thank goodness. Helen is besties with June, and Kean, the boy Helen’s a wee bit infatuated with, has eyes only for June. Throw in a life skills project at school where these three friends have to care for a crying, hiccupping baby doll, and you have a recipe for some interesting dynamics.

Helen mostly has to work out her priorities, and Morton allows the story to unfold in a suitably satisfying way. This novel is a light read, so if you’re looking for something that lays on the wangst and grit, then this is probably not for you. Morton writes from the heart, but in a way that is not overly sentimental or too preachy. I particularly liked how she described Helen’s musical endeavours, which Morton brought across with authenticity (and reminded me of my own days suffering piano at high school).

All in all, this book is best summed up as a sweet, short and uplifting tale about young people who must decide to be honest with themselves and others, about what they really want in life. And then having the gumption to bide by their decisions.

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