Yellow by Megan Jacobson

A review by Nalini Haynes

Kirra is Yellow, nick-named by her dad for her yellow complexion and cat-like yellow eyes. She lives in a small surfer town near Byron Bay on Australia’s east coast. Her surfer dad, Lark, left her mum for another woman who’s already pregnant. Kirra’s mum, Judy, was ‘always’ a drinker but now she’s falling-down drunk all the time.

A public phone rings near the beach where Kirra is taking some time out. Boogie, the ghost in the machine, talks to Kirra, telling her a tale of murder and asking for help to bring his murderer to justice.

Kirra’s town is well-realized; I felt it was a blend between St Marys and St Helens on the east coast of Tasmania, an area where my surfer ex-step-father and brothers are based. Only Kirra’s town is in northern New South Wales or Queensland, so it’s hotter.

In the beginning, Kirra is in the popular girls’ group but they have a Circle (intervention) because, apparently, Kirra has the wrong Spice Girl spirit animal and walks incorrectly. Kirra runs away from their ‘discipline’, creating a rift that then becomes class-based.

Class struggles are defined, with lines drawn between Kirra’s ‘housing commission’ area and the wealthy side of town. I didn’t think the housing commission built suburbs in small towns but I could be mistaken. Who the wealthy kids are isn’t clear, other than anonymous people who live on the good side of town. Noah, who lives on the poor side of town, seems impervious to the class struggle as he’s always been one of the popular kids. This left me wondering if the problem is with whose parents are delinquent and perceptions of power rather than a financial divide.

Yellow is set about 1997 as indicated with the Spice Girls reference: Kirra is 14 and her mom was 18 in 1982 and had Kirra aged 19. Lark, Kirra’s father, refers to being in Johnny Howard’s employ, then slang for receiving unemployment benefits. Willow mentions Ross and Rachel’s sexual tension in Friends; Friends started in 1994 and, in 1996, Ross and Rachel got together… only to break up in January 1997 before reuniting in the 2004 season. Jacobson situates this novel in 1996 or a delayed-TV viewing of 1997 very well. (Australia traditionally delays TV releases; it’s only now, in the 20-teens, that we might see things within hours of US and Britain audiences and that’s only to reduce piracy resulting from longer delays.)

Jacobson’s Achilles Heel is surfer culture. This town has the Main Beach and the South Beach where people surf. I was left with an impression of a town built on a peninsula but that doesn’t work with both beaches having good surf. It could be a north beach and a south beach but that begs the question: of two beaches close together, why does only one have a reef and WHY is ANYONE surfing over a reef? And how do the waves retain surfer-respectability once over the reef?

And, worse still, why did a (presumably) self-respecting surfer rave about a surf beach NEAR MELBOURNE??? No surfer worth their salt, especially not one from Queensland, would bother with a beach near Melbourne. I’ve seen surfers on a beach near Melbourne and I wouldn’t bother bodysurfing the ripples they’re trying to catch, pretending they’re waves. 😀 (Self-respecting surfers go to the east or west coasts, NOT south.)

However, I love the broken and neglected public phone box. It’s totally Telstra, although I thought they maintained their equipment better up until the privatization in 1997.

Yellow is a story about high school, cliques and living in a shark-infested high school. Teens have their secrets and their strengths. Revelations create depth for characters who also grow. Literary references abound like in several other YA novels published in the past year or two. The story builds well, dropping clues right up to the climax then the denouement is very thorough. Possibly a little too thorough — it was a bit long post-climax — but the ending is satisfying. I highly recommend Yellow.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
ISBN-13: 9780143573333
ISBN-10: 0143573330
Format: paperback, 272 pages
Publisher: Penguin
Yellow — a close-up of an eye drawn in triangles each filled with one colour creating a mosaic-like image