At first glance, it looks like a typical boy meets girl story. However, Sally Partridge’s latest novel, Mine, is so much more. The book’s stunning cover illustration by Astrid Blumer introduces us to Kayla and Finlay (or Fin), the protagonists of the novel: we don’t see their faces, but we know that Kayla’s hair is in part strikingly blue, Fin is wearing a hoodie with a thunderbolt on his back. They are sitting on bench. One of them must have arrived to the meeting on a skateboard. Someone carved their initials into the back of the bench. Next to “K+F” is a broken heart. A squirrel watches on.
Fin’s alter ego is Thor, hence the thunderbolt: “now there’s someone I can respect”, he tells us. “Strong. Angry. Invincible. The guy can control lightening. They say that when it storms, it’s Thor fighting giants.” The moment Fin steps onto a stage and begins to rap he turns into his hero. At night, he is the star of a popular band, playing to adoring audiences in Cape Town’s clubs. During the day, he is mostly stoned so that he can survive the drudgery of school and the threats lurking at home in Lansdowne. An only child, abandoned by his mother when he was a young boy, Fin is growing up with a violent father who couldn’t care less what happens to his son.
Kayla is the skater. She loves comic books, has a rather unusual penchant for classical music and plays the flute. She comes from a more stable home, but like most teenagers feels that her mother and step-father do not understand her. At school, she has the reputation of a “slut”. “There is no such thing as romance anymore – guys just want one thing”, she says. She feels so lonely and insecure that even this kind of abusive attention she receives seems better to her than none. What she does not recognise and others refuse to see is that she is not only beautiful, but smart, kind and super talented.
Mine alternates between Kayla’s and Fin’s perspectives. We fever along with both of them as they are trying to find a way to each other. The first time Fin sees Kayla, she flits by on her skateboard, her blue hair flashing. She immediately leaves an impression. When he accidently sees her again at a school recital, playing her flute, he is clearly smitten. But the girl who is chasing after Fin warns him of Kayla’s reputation. Their first proper encounter is awkward, yet Fin recognises something in Kayla that is all too familiar to him: “She acted just like I do whenever someone compliments me. I whack it back, retreat into my little cave of self-loathing.” And so, from the start, he senses that he can be truly himself with her.
Falling in love is never easy, especially when you never feel worthy. Or “impossible to love”, as Kayla thinks of herself. Fin’s song lyrics flow from the heart: “Does anyone know me? … I’m nobody, a freak. Never be, ever be, good enough to be the One.”
What do you do when you “feel like all my cracks are showing”? Kayla and Fin decide to give it a try, to open their hearts to each other and break the cycles of self-doubt that repeatedly get them into trouble. Cautiously, love is declared and promises are made. Previous patterns of engaging with others are tested and abandoned for something new, better: “We stand like this in silence. Her face is so close to mine. I want to kiss her more than anything in the world. I can see she expects me to. Wants me to, even. And that’s exactly why I can’t.”
Fin needs to show Kayla that he is not like all the other boys: “She makes me want to believe I can be the good guy for once.” And Kayla desperately tries to be the kind of girl he imagines her to be. She has only ever known disappointment before: “But I can’t help that I want the things other girls have. I mean, why shouldn’t I?” she asks. They are both scared out of their wits, but willing to risk it all. Yet, sometimes the best of intentions cannot stand up to the destructive habits of one’s own past. “Love also stings sometimes… We both know that.”
Partridge is never afraid to tackle the big issues young people have to deal with growing up. And in Mine, she also does not shy away from addressing the horrendous consequences of peer pressure, our need to belong, or the minefield of budding – anything but innocent – sexuality. It is about that first big love: “I’m on such a high from being around him, it’s like I’ve slipped and fallen into his universe and it’s just us and no one else.” It all feels incredibly real, including Cape Town – the other main character of the novel.
In André Brink’s An Instant in the Wind, one of the main characters fears that “love is the beginning of violence and betrayal. Something in oneself or in the other is killed or betrayed”. This fundamental recognition echoed in my mind while I was reading Mine and heading towards its explosive, unpredictable ending. What touched me most about Partridge’s novel is that its emotional truths resonated with the teenager I once was and the woman I am today. I believe that, unlike many young adult novels which are specifically aimed at teenagers, Mine will appeal to anyone who has dared to defy his or her one’s own demons for love. “For the unrequited lovers and broken-hearted”, reads the book’s dedication.
Partridge is an acclaimed novelist and short story writer. Three out of her previous novels published locally were awarded the prestigious M.E.R. Prize for Best Youth Novel. The fifth one appeared only in German translation. She has been recognised by IBBY International for her young adult fiction. Mine is her best work to date.
by Sally Partridge
Human & Rousseau, 2018
An edited version of this review first appeared in the Cape Times on 17 March 2018.