Fourteen-year-old Kirra Barley lives in the housing commission area of a small coastal town near Byron Bay. Her mum has a drinking problem, her laid-back surfer dad has recently moved three blocks away to live with his pregnant girlfriend, and, even though she is in the popular group at school, Kirra is bullied constantly by the very people she calls friends.
Some people might say there are solutions to Kirra’s problems- they might suggest she tell an adult about her mum and get her some help. They might tell her to accept the situation with her dad, who she still can’t help but adore. They might encourage her to find friends that treat her with the respect she deserves. But saying is easier than doing, and Kirra, already socially awkward and shy, is hesitant to draw more attention to herself than she already gets. The reason she gets so much attention? Her freakishly (according to her) large yellow eyes, that she thinks look almost alien. She considers them her worst feature, and hates that she is unable to hide her thoughts (or herself) from people because of them. She also hates that they are the cause of a lot of the teasing she has received over the years, even though they are the one constant in her life.
These problems would be enough of a concern for anybody, but things are destined to become worse for Kirra. After triggering an unfortunate incident regarding her dad’s girlfriend’s dog, Kirra is led into an unexpected relationship with a ghost boy named Boogie. Left to haunt an old Telstra phone box, Boogie asks Kirra to help him by proving who murdered him twenty years previously. He promises, in return, to make her popular, get her parents back together and not haunt her if she can do this for him. Kirra, feeling obliged to help (and with nothing to lose), decides to take on Boogie’s challenge, and sets about trying to solve the cold case, despite serious concerns that she might be insane. As she delves into the past, she starts to realise that the answers to her problems have been within her all along, and that sometimes you can be haunted in more ways than one. It also leads her to ask some important questions- what happens if the people you think you know have a lot more hidden than you could have ever possibly imagined? How can you determine the difference between weird and unique? Will Kirra ever be able to prove who killed Boogie? And most importantly, will Kirra’s newfound awareness help her to solve her own problems, boost her confidence and set her back onto a more positive pathway?
At the start of this book, the author almost drowns her characters in references to growing up in Australia during the 1990s. Just a little bit younger than Kirra during these years, I immediately recognised the tell-tale signs of a 90s childhood through the things she mentioned- the importance of wearing the right surf brand, the best Lip Smackers flavours, plastic butterfly hair clips, and choosing which Spice Girl best represented you. While this felt like a bit of an onslaught, it also helped to firmly set the scene for this story, and show, without any doubt which decade the novel is set in. Once all the referencing was out of her system, the author was able to get on with the story and really bring it to life. The supernatural elements of Boogie’s haunting add a little something extra to the narrative, and these contrast nicely with the bitchiness of the school kids, the laid-back attitudes of the surfing town and Kirra’s uncomfortable experiences of being so obviously different from everybody else. With undercurrents of Puberty Blues scattered throughout the storyline, this novel features strong, likeable characters (as well as a few less amiable ones) , and is well-worth reading if you want a beautifully written insight into teenage hardships, young love, family dramas and friendship problems, all set in a small coastal Australian town.