Move over Puberty Blues and make way for this Guide to Running into the Brick Wall of Adolescence at Full Tilt.
For discerning readers of teenage angst, Creepy & Maud, by WA author Dianne Touchell, may come as a relief. This is an insightful peek into that ephemeral state of the changeling teen-to-adult years and it is this quality that makes Creepy & Maud more than just entertaining. This slim volume is chock-full of witty substance.
The adolescents of the title tell the tale and they suffer because they prove incapable of conforming to type. Set in 2012 Australian suburbia, Creepy & Maud is a sophisticated noir love story.
Both characters feel alienated, but while Creepy has accepted that he is marginalised at school and that his parents have capitulated into lying for the sake of appearances, Maud struggles to tolerate hypocrisy and her parents' inability to parent. Trichotillomania is a condition where the sufferer pulls out their hair out to relieve stress and soon Maud's head boasts bloody bald patches. Her condition worsens as she continues to fail to "fit in".
Creepy and Maud are neighbours and he takes to spying on her with binoculars bequeathed from his nanna. Soon he is communicating by holding notes up to his bedroom window for her to read: Creepy has fallen in love. OK, it's called voyeurism, but he's a compassionate peeping-Tom. Maud is not objectified so it's not all that bad.
A bookseller-turned-author who spent a stint in the US, Touchell had long wished to write stories. The middle child of three sisters, she used to make up tales for her siblings. She also recalls bouncing a tennis ball off the side of the family house while telling herself stories to the rhythm of the bouncing ball. "The neighbours must have thought I was insane," she reflects.
Creepy & Maud's going into unusual territory for a so-called young adults' book, says the author and mum of one boy (Tristan, now aged 21). It is a mark of her determination to be real about that bright arc called adolescence. "I have always thought that teenagers were underestimated," she says. "I saw that a lot in my bookselling days in the sorts of things that were rejected by schools in particular for being too confronting, too emotionally fraught. If you listen to what groups of teens say to each other and how they react with each other, most of it would be considered inappropriate if it was presented in a book for them to read. And yet that is their reality. I don't write shocking things for shock's sake. What I write is what teens think about, what they feel and what they endure."
Touchell remembers being a teen who desperately wanted to fit in and didn't. "I did all sorts of weird things to try and fit in, even to the point of trying to absorb character traits of others who appear more normal, like Maud did. I'd try on those accepted character traits, much like trying on clothing."
The author says she was a door-slamming, object-throwing teen and reckons teen dysfunction is essential.
"I don't pretend to know what makes teen years so sharp, but I think it's something to do with the fear associated with trying to conform but also retain your own identity - if you can find it. There are so many pressures on teens to conform to others' expectations - parental, teachers and friends. It is fraught."
Fraught indeed. But perhaps it should also be universally comforting to note that being occasionally nuts is probably necessary as a teen. "I don't think those feelings of angst should be diminished or 'got over'. They should be accepted. It should be OK to sit in that madness for a time."
Bright, loud and real, this is a book for every parent who fails to understand their teenagers and for every teenager who succeeds in understanding that their parents know nothing about them, the world and how either ticks. This is also a much-needed new kind of teen love story, as tender as it is intelligent.
Creepy & Maud is published by Fremantle Press ($19.99).