Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Forever young


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Another Life Altogether by Elaine Beale; Spiegel & Grau, $26

Oh, adolescence! Such a tender time of tiptoed uncertainty, anxious gropes in the dark, and the delicious anticipation of independence, a hallowed place bordered but not bound by parental authority. It's a time in a young person's life that becomes riddled with hidden consequences, as 13-year-old Brit Jesse Bennett, the star of Oakland-based lesbian author Elaine Beale's debut novel Another Life Altogether, soon finds out.

A draft of the first chapter of this novel won the 2007 Poets and Writers California Writers Exchange Competition, and, in later stages, went on to garner a literary agent and a lofty book deal. That first chapter is indeed a charmer, deftly managing to establish narrative voice, style, and mood in all of 20 pages; readers will immediately be hooked with Jesse and her assorted adventures.

Being a teenager is enough of a struggle on its own, yet Jesse must also contend with the fact that her mother has been admitted into a mental hospital, an embarrassing, unmentionable situation she skillfully deflects by telling others that "she won a cruise around the world," and will be gone for "months and months." She writes inventive letters to herself in her mother's voice, reading them aloud to her classmates, telling them Mom is still off in some far-flung region of the globe enjoying a bullfight, a trip to the Pyramids, or the Parthenon. Not everyone believes her, and soon the truth is painfully revealed.

Jesse's mother is soon released from the institution and lands right into the loving (and exhaustibly capable) embrace of her family. The family's inexplicably passive father relocates them all to another East Yorkshire district, where Jesse befriends thin, gruff girl Tracey Grasby, who snaps her gum and doesn't take any crap from her classmates. But it's Tracey's sister Amanda, another tough cookie, who catches Jesse's carefully wandering eye. This fiery attraction is revealed in fine, wincingly-authentic fashion when Jesse defends bookish nerd Malcolm. Then her big mouth does all the talking.

There are a lot of truths in Beale's fiction, and some are the aching, hard-won variety. Jesse emerges as quite an engaging, unique girl with a burgeoning taste for female companionship, and though her circumstances are indeed challenging, by the book's end, it's evident that the road ahead of her is limned with hope, passion, and good fortune.

It's a big book cresting at just over 400 pages, but Beale's storytelling skill is remarkable, and this tale of the young and the restless flows effortlessly. For a look at what the author had been up to prior to this, readers may also want to check out Beale's 1997 mystery Murder in the Castro, which holds its own as a fun, entertaining romp where deep, dark secrets, political corruption, murder, and high drama unfold right on Castro Street. Imagine that!

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