Unsettled teenage thoughts can be gripping, says Nicky Pellegrino.
If the movie Black Swan didn't entirely put you off letting your teenage daughter take ballet classes then Various Positions by Martha Schabas (Text, $37) is likely to finish off the job. This début novel from a Toronto-based writer is basically Lolita in pointe shoes.
The story is centred on Georgia Slade, a socially awkward teenager who is obsessed with ballet. Dancing is her escape from her parent's messy marriage, the politics of school and the disturbing prospect of boys, a way to exert some control over her life.
When Georgia is accepted at the elite Royal Toronto Ballet Academy, she thinks all her problems are solved but the truth is she's just opened the door to a whole new set of them.
From the outset, she is singled out by the male artistic principle, Roderick Allen. Nicknamed "the Rodomizer", he's an old-school ballet master with a reputation for humiliating his pupils, which he quickly lives up to. He's mean enough to routinely reduce pupils to tears and drive one girl towards an eating disorder simply because she doesn't have the graceful legs of a dancer.
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Georgia is riveted by Roderick; by his maleness and his power over her. She longs for his approval. She's on the cusp of that age when girls start thinking about doing things with boys and, when he singles her out for her talent, his attention confuses her. "Men are always men," her flaky mother tells her when she finds the girl googling her teacher's picture, creating more of an issue. And since her parent's marriage is the result of a teacher/pupil affair, it's not such a stretch for Georgia to think it might some day happen to her.
Alternately repelled and fascinated by sex, Georgia begins to see it everywhere. This growing curiosity, coupled with the pressure of her dance training, overcooks her brain. "I closed my eyes and looked for a cool, quiet place inside my head to curl up," she tells us, "But my mind felt humid and overcrowded."
Before long, she's convinced her teacher's interest in her is fuelled by lust but he's too scared of risking his job "to put the moves" on her. Borrowing her Mum's digital camera, she comes up with a way of showing him she's interested.
Schabas has done a tremendous job of climbing into the untidy brain of a teenager - Georgia's actions and thoughts are disturbing and believable. While this is one of the novel's greatest strengths, it may also be a downside if you're not especially keen on being trapped inside a teenager's head for 300-odd pages.
Nevertheless, this is a strong début - more finely nuanced than Black Swan and certainly more real - and an uncomfortable read at times, especially I'd imagine if you happen to be the mother of a teenage girl.
Unflinching and unsettling, Various Positions is a tightly written coming-of-age story you won't need to love ballet to appreciate.