I leave my life up to fate for a few minutes and look what happens. If karma’s a bitch then fate is her psychopathic cousin. You know, the one no one invites to family reunions because she makes the little kids cry.
Frankie has been suspended from school and is facing possible expulsion. Her Aunt Vinnie is at her wits end, her best friend Cara is at risk of getting into trouble by association, her cheating ex-boyfriend is going all doe-eyed, and there’s a cop hanging around. Not exactly an ideal time for Frankie to receive a call from a boy named Xavier, who delivers a bitch-slap from fate when he tells her that he’s her brother. The revelation pushes to the surface the traumatic relationship Frankie had with their mother, Juliet, who dumped Frankie at the Collingwood Children’s Farm when she was just four years old. Before Frankie can even begin to make sense of this new family dynamic, Xavier disappears. Frankie needs to find her brother, to figure out what having a brother even means, but can she do that without getting expelled and pushing Vinnie past breaking point?
Frankie is an exciting narrator and protagonist to follow because literally pulls no punches. She tells it like she sees it, and won’t back down from a fight. The narration is filled with brilliant dry one-liners observations and an honest portrayal of what it is to be a teenage girl. A key strength of the novel is the complexity of the characters. Mr Tran is a minor character who has a major impact by the mere act of sitting silently by Frankie’s side while Vinnie goes into bat with the principal. Vinnie, Frankie’s aunt, has been pushed to her limit by Frankie, but can still break right in the thick of an argument with Frankie to crack up laughing at a joke.
Cara is Frankie’s best friend and fearless ally, who also frequents the principal’s office. Cara’s approach is always to defend Frankie first and ask questions later. Cara and Frankie are great characters to follow, so much so that it was a little disappointing when a love interest came on the scene, as I would have been thrilled if focus was on the love between friends rather than romantic love. That’s not to say I wasn’t all misty-eyed while reading poignant moments between Frankie and her love interest, or that romantic love dominated the novel. The banter between Cara and Frankie, their propensity to get each other into trouble, and their similar headstrong personalities that makes them such great friends while also potentially setting them up for epic fights made them an exciting duo to watch. I was greedy to read more of their friendship, and found the romantic love interest came at the expense of the friendship.
The physicality of Collingwood is beautifully entwined with the story from beginning to end. The smells, sights and sounds illicit not only a strong sense of physical place, but also a strong sense of emotional place. From magpies clashing over scraps while Frankie waits outside the principal’s office, to the hum of the drinks fridge in the Emporium being the only sound to break the tense silence between Frankie and Vinnie, to the stench of ‘rotting fruit, Spanish donuts, pigeon poo, baby vomit and hairy-guy odour’ at the Saturday market Frankie really wants to leave so she can find out where her brother is. Shivaun’s evocative world-building is the greatest achievement of the novel.
Frankie is a sharp, raw, hilarious, heartbreaking and uplifting debut.