Book Review: Notes from the Teenage Underground by Simone Howell




I enjoyed this novel of Simone Howell’s.  It is the classic struggle of a teenage girl who is in a friendship group of three struggling to find her own sense of identity.  Seventeen year old girl, Germaine (Gem or Gem-Gem as she is known by her friends) Gordon struggles to find people who like her and relate to her.  She loves movies, her hippy-feminist mother, her friends, Lo and Mira, and her co-worker, Dodgy, (at least she thinks she does) from the video store.  The main character Gem is tight with Lo and Mira and has been for a number of years.  Lo, Mira and Gem come up with a plan to do something radical to help draw people to them, whilst ensuring that they continue to be different to the mainstream (or Barcode people as referred to by Lo).  Lo has placed herself as the leader of the group, daring the others to take risks and playing them off against each other with their insecurities.  Lo is uncomfortable with the fact that Gem has a very close relationship with her mother, Bev, as she lacks this herself. 

Gem also works at the local video store with Dodgy and Marco where they all share a passion for movies and the process of making them.  Gem is desperate to be like everyone else, to fit in, even to the point of wanting to lose her virginity.  She uses films, haiku and a range of inspirational guides to discover the meaning of friendship and family.  Gem discovers that she is more comfortable behind the lens observing life around her.

Howell tells the story in the first person from Gem’s point of view which works very well with all of the introspection of a seventeen year old.  The chapters are short and to the point with great headings (ie Halo of authenticity - when Lo brings a mushroomed drunk Gem home to Bev and they both come out of it looking like angels).  Howell has captured the sense of the teen going through a transition so well; the tough decisions they need to make, the sacrifices, the friendships, and how they relate to the family and the world throughout.  Gem’s voice is spot on for a seventeen year old with the language that Howell has given her.

I could relate to the struggles of Gem and the tension of wanting to fit in with her peers, not wanting to change herself to the point of losing who she is and still being drawn to the loving relationship she has with her mother.  Gem is going through the moment of trying to understand who she is and where she fits into the world around her and which is something most teenagers struggle with.  

I enjoyed a number of things about this novel.  One was that it took me back to the teenage angst that so many of us went through or are going through and the realisations that come to us.  It is a great moment when Gem sees herself in Ponyface Roberts when Ponyface realises she was living the shadow of Bliss Dartford. 

‘I looked at her long, miserable face and suddenly saw myself.’

I also really enjoyed Gem’s relationship with her absent mentally ill drug taking father and the complexity there.  The only thing that bugged me a little was a slight feeling of implausibility to the truth of what was going on in Lo’s life. 

This would be a great book for older teenagers and adults wishing to reminisce about the trauma of those teen years.  

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