By Vikki WakefieldYoung adult Text Publishing
All I Ever Wanted
This absorbing debut novel opens during a stifling summer in the badlands of Adelaide’s outer suburbs. Mim, the odd girl out in a notorious crime family reluctantly picks up a package from a drug dealer – only to be mugged by the boy she’s long worshipped as she ferries it home. ‘To have the object of your affection steal your package and roll your bike into a ditch somehow opens up all kinds of possibilities,’ Mim reflects.
Indeed, it sets the pattern for Mim to break several of the self-imposed rules intended to form a roadmap to another kind of life and her desire to ‘be different, be other’ to her neighbours – and her obese shopaholic mother.
Despite the grim setting, the characters are richly and lovingly drawn, with smart-mouthed, determined Mim a particular delight. At the core of the book is the idea that things (and people) are not what they seem; nothing new as a concept, but it’s executed with winningly original wit, style and heart.
Vikki Wakefield is a graphic designer by trade and it’s reflected in her wonderfully visual writing, which brilliantly captures the heat and neglect of the disadvantaged suburb Mim lives in – and paints the characters in vivid, arresting detail.
In her astonishing debut, Wakefield draws the reader into Mim’s world, a world from which Mim is desperate to escape. Mim has set herself rules to live by, so that she doesn’t turn out like her mother who has all but given up. But as her 17th birthday nears, the rules are broken and Mim finds herself drawn into the family business and a drug deal gone wrong.
This novel is a near faultless example of a troubled character’s struggle with everything she’s meant to become. Wakefield genuinely captures the grim realism of the outer suburbs and its inhabitants in a pulsing thriller.
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Jemima Dodd can almost see into her own future: ‘It’s easy to turn out like I’m supposed to. Pregnant and unemployed and living in a half-house’. The youngest child in a drug-dealing family, Jemima (or Mim), is all too familiar with pills, shady characters and hard necessities – her two brothers are in remand. Mim is wary of her ‘forgotten’ suburb and how it seems to leach the promise out of its inhabitants. She suspects that her next-door neighbour is a prostitute. The vicious mastiff down the road threatens to maul anyone who comes too close. Everyone seems to watch each other and cautiously guard their own secrets.
At 16, Mim has managed to steer clear of ‘the business’, but when her mother sends her to pick up a package, it proves to have a hold on her too. Getting caught in a drug deal represents a kind of betrayal for Mim; long ago, she’d vowed not to turn out the same as her family. That’s why she’s created ‘the steps’, the rules that will set her free: I will not take drugs. I will not get tattoos. I will not turn out like my mother. If she can stick to the plan, she can get out of the street she lives in, where girls go missing without anyone noticing. She can get out of her stiflingly predetermined life and escape to France, Egypt, Prague, the Dead Sea – be anywhere but home.
Mim’s grand plans could be thwarted by crime, by her family, by her background – or by Jordan Mullen. Mim has sketched his name inside hearts and sent him anonymous Valentine’s Day notes, but he’s never noticed her. So when he smiles at her one scorching day like he wants her to stop, she does – and he betrays her too, taking the brown paper package and breaking her heart. It’s a wonderfully tense opening scene that launches the reader headfirst into this short but powerful book.
For the most part, Wakefield sustains the promised tension. Miserably wondering what to do about her botched pick-up, Mim becomes enveloped in uncertainty. It’s summer – and what a summer, smelling of hot tar – it defeats good intentions with its oppressive heat. Such a summer could take a wandering girl one way or the other, and it’s easy to admire Mim’s tenacity and honest self-searching as she realises she has to decide her own future. And while this all sounds rather heavy, Wakefield has an admirably light touch and a natural way with dialogue that brings even minor characters convincingly to life.
In Mim, Wakefield has created a memorably gutsy, funny and self-aware heroine. At once self-contained and in thrall to the sweet, treacherous bloom of yearning, Mim feels intensely but tries to push feeling away; it’s just too risky. As she says of her disappointing life-in-progress: ‘I could hold my breath between the times I’ve had something I wanted, and lost it – and still live.’ Yet her rules get in the way of living: how useful, really, are guidelines that only tell you how not to be? As these rules fall by the wayside, Mim reconsiders the people around her: her best friend, the girl next door, the witch who lives down the street and even her family. Putting herself in their place, she feels more comfortable in her own.
All I Ever Wanted is a tough and lovely coming-of-age novel about being able to stand in muck and still feel strong and beautiful; about rediscovering one’s ‘people’ and, through this, one’s self.
Estelle Tang is online editor of Kill Your Darlings, where the KYD YA Championship is currently under way. She blogs at 3000 Books and has reviewed in the Australian Literary Review and written for the Wheeler Centre’s Long View series.
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