The Year Nick McGowan Came To Stay by Rebecca Sparrow
UQP RRP: $22.95
The Year Nick McGowan Came to Stay (2006) is essentially a prequel to Rebecca Sparrow’s Bridget Jones-esque tale of Rachel Hill – The Girl Most Likely (2003). This time around Sparrow has the hard to define (and harder to please) YA market in her sights, taking the reader back to Hill’s senior year at high school; think exam pressure, embarrassing parents and unrequited love with a spectacular 1980s soundtrack.
When local tearaway Nick McGowan is invited to board with the Hill family, Rachel’s small, orderly world comes crashing down around her. Against a backdrop of assorted teen life lessons, the enigmatic Nick’s secrets are revealed and Rachel learns a thing or two about judging a book by its cover. While busily judging and assessing Nick’s rebellious ways, Rachel stumbles through 1989 with all the finesse of a contestant on It’s a Knockout (her family’s favourite TV show!)
This is a likeable, easy read with lots of laughs and cringeworthy moments. Its moral messages are sweet and timeless (if rather heavily underlined) and the relationships feel authentic.
Sparrow evidently loves, and has a good memory for, the music and popular culture of the era, which was also a highlight of The Girl Most Likely. Music, film and television references will resonate for those in Sparrow’s/Hill’s generation. I know it had me reaching for my Transvision Vamp cassettes. If only I still had something to play them on!
Rachel is an interesting protagonist: distinctly upper-middle-class, academically minded, and a school prefect with a cosy family life. Her sister is studying in France, providing her conscientious, P & C hero parents with space to accommodate the curious loner of the book’s title. Though not without her insecurities, Rachel leads an unusually comfortable life for the lead player in a contemporary youth novel. There are so many other examples of Australian young adult fiction striving to reflect social diversity in its extreme, that it almost seems risky on Sparrow’s part to wrap a teen story around this conventional community. This particular type of Australian teendom, though, provides ample space for comedy set-pieces around demoralising part-time jobs and high street fashion slavery, without delving into darker teen territory.
The ‘80s setting may appeal to younger readers in the spirit of retro curiosity, with the storyline easily transposed to almost anyone’s high school years. At the same time, the most welcoming readership for this novel will probably be Sparrow’s adult fans, for whom it will be a guilty pleasure polished off in a lunch hour. Though lacking some of the punch that made The Girl Most Likely a success, Nick McGowan does provide a positive, smart heroine for younger girls and a comical dose of nostalgia for older readers.