Not That I'd Kiss a Girl, by Lil O'Brien (Allen & Unwin, $37)
Reviewed by David Herkt
The "coming out" memoir is a recent invention. It is just 60 or 70 years old. Before that, sexual identity was largely unspeakable and unpublishable. For the contemporary world, discovering one's sexual orientation is a personal and social journey. Individuals are often conflicted. Families can be split apart. A larger community supports or condemns.
Lil O'Brien's just-released Not That I'd Kiss a Girl triumphantly joins the select few New Zealand examples of the autobiographical coming-out genre. Compulsively readable and very much aware of the world, O'Brien's memoir is suspenseful and engaging. The book is practical and human – something that is more than valuable amid the sometimes pious wokeness of the early 21st century. It is also very funny, with a humour based on honest observation.
From the moment a 19-year-old O'Brien finds herself thrown out of the family home, standing beside a dark road in an unnamed South Island city, her book holds the reader's attention. A third-year student, with an ongoing major in the University of Otago's drinking culture, O'Brien has just confirmed to her parents that she is a lesbian, in the worst possible way – in the midst of a family argument. "I don't ever want to see you again," her mother spits out, enraged.
Employing a classic narrative strategy, O'Brien swings back in time and describes the early adolescence of a privileged teenage girl at a private school. Despite the accessories – parties, balls, weekends in Queenstown - O'Brien isn't comfortable in her own skin. She is not attracted to boys and her series of crushes on other girls begins to feel more and more significant.
However, all of these things must be discovered. They are not sudden revelations. The important thing about O'Brien's coming-of-age memoir is the journey. Not That I'd Kiss a Girl is candid and is valuable because of it. It is a record for our time – and for the future - of just what it was like to be a teenage lesbian and to find a place in the world.
Written accessibly, the book makes for unputdownable reading – and not for only young people hungry for examples and information. Taking the reader on an emotional roller coaster, there is nothing like it in the New Zealand publishing catalogue. The tight focus on adolescence is a major attribute, revealing an unfamiliar world but accompanied by an engaging guide. Not That I'd Kiss a Girl educates as it entertains – and it does both extremely well.