I had the privilege to be a volunteer in a session with Alyssa Brugman for Year 3 to 6 kids as the recent Newcastle Writers Festival. She easily kept the group of over 60 creatively engaged, but her thoughtful responses to their questions had me intrigued. Naturally, I had buy one of her books. Or two.
Solo is Alyssa Brugman’s eighth novel, and when she graciously signed it for me at a dinner that evening she smiled and said, ‘Good choice’. I know asking authors about favourite books is supposed to be like asking about favourite children, but there was a light in her eyes that would have made her other books jealous.
The narrator of Solo is Mackenzie, a girl on a wilderness camp for troubled teens ‘with potential’. The story unfolds gradually, bouncing back and forth in time as events of the camp trigger memories of her life. Much of her story is shrouded in mystery, and it is only when she undertakes the lone overnight camp-out, the ‘Solo’ of the title, that her personal demons can no longer be avoided. Without other coping mechanisms, reality and hallucinations merge and she must face the choice: does she confront the truth of her past or run from it forever?
It is a skilfully woven novel, treading the fine line between overplayed sentimentality for the neglected child Mackenzie was, and presenting the consequences of that neglect in a cynical, violent teenager who could easily have alienated readers. Instead Mackenzie is clever, angry, detached, sad, logical yet often irrational, vengeful, in denial, painfully lacking confidence yet supremely able to manipulate circumstances to get what she needs, and unable to trust yet yearning for relationship. She is not a stereotype of a ‘troubled adolescent’, but is a character with depth, firmly anchored in the harsh realities of children growing up without a safe home and loving parent.
I particularly appreciated Brugman’s many fresh metaphors and similes. One that made me smile was, ‘There was a pause like a Chinese burn in the conversation.’ Another is sadder.
… my mind is like the sea – it rocks and rolls, and if something bad happens it roars. Then I am trapped inside the waves, tumbling over and over and sure that I can’t breath, wondering if it will ever end.
The blurb on the back of the novel includes a paragraph about Callum, a guy around Mackenzie’s age who is also on the wilderness camp. It subtly implies a romance is a significant part of the novel, but though Callum is an important secondary character, the romantic element is minor. This is not a romance novel and any greater romantic thread would have been out of place.
It’s a relatively short novel (174 pages) and an easy read, and comes under the Young Adult category, but that shouldn’t stop adults from reading it. It’s a mature novel in its writing and approach, and is well deserving of an adult audience. That said, I would recommend it for mid-teens up, most of whom would relate to the matter-of-fact voice of Mackenzie and her no-nonsense, survival approach to life.
Links: Alyssa Brugman’s Website