Monday 22 April 2019

Unpacking Harper Holt

Unpacking Harper Holt by Di Walker. (Walker Books Australia, 2018.) PB RRP $16.99  ISBN: 9781760650599

Reviewed by Julie Anne Thorndyke

You will need a big box of tissues for this one.

Tragedy can hit any family at any time. Normal life is thrown into chaos, and both parents and children struggle to regain equilibrium and a “new normal”.

Harper Holt and her super-capable translator mother Helena, and corporate-fix-it-man father Hugh, are a tight family unit of three. Moving regularly for Hugh’s work, they have the routines of travel, rental houses, new schools and life-planning down pat. It is Helena who smooths the way, enabling their transient lifestyle.

A good student despite many school changes, twelve-year-old Harper feels that the frequent changes in her life, resulting in a lack of long-term friends and no sense of belonging, have to stop. She is an intelligent and emotionally mature girl. She wants a permanent home, a best friend and a dog.

Helena is swift to organise dancing classes for Harper, just as she provides for another desire, bikes for riding on the tracks in their new, affluent, beach-side suburb in Melbourne. Harper meets a girl called Eve at dancing class, and makes an instant connection, as does Helena with Eve’s mother, Victoria.

During the first six chapters of setting the scene, a sense of foreboding builds. To put the reader off track, the author sets up a situation where Hugh goes out on  a boat in bad weather. However, it is the mother, Helena, who dies in a car crash on her way to collect him from the marina. Alone in the strange new house, Harper waits for her mother, who never returns.

A rollercoaster of grief, mourning and loneliness spirals out of control. Hugh is frozen into inertia by his grief. With no family of friends for support, Harper is left to make funeral decisions—something no twelve-year-old should have to do. Harper has effectively lost both parents.

Helpers arrive. Leanne, their relocation professional. Monica, the social worker. Mr Thorley, headmaster of Harper’s new school. When Harper starts attending the new school, she immediately falls victim to the bullying tactics of Rowena. Without the support of her mother and father, Harper feels desperately lost and alone.

Victoria and Eve intervene and help smooth the way to a new way of coping, one day at a time. Friendship develops, and with the support of Eve’s family, eventually Hugh resumes his parenting role.

Protagonist Harper is a likable character and we empathise with her struggles throughout the story. The portrayal of grief is realistic and there is no glossing over of her pain.

Do I have any quibbles with this book? The cover. It is a close headshot of a girl’s face behind dishevelled hair. This image sets the right tone for the story, but the girl’s brown eye is rimmed with eyeliner. This doesn’t fit right with the bike-riding, pony-tail wearing, twelve-year-old protagonist Harper. It seems to push the book to an older market. Di Walker wrote this story for middle-grade readers, but the marketing seems to be aimed at YA. The themes of grief, mourning and loss are meaningful to all ages. I was engaged by this book, as I think older teens and their parents would also be. It will take a mature twelve-year old to cope with the emotional impact, so perhaps the marketing team got it right after all.

Just sometimes, the dialogue seems too formal. The male characters are less nuanced than the women and girls. But the two-faced Rowena, sweet-as-pie to teachers and yet a manipulative queen bee to her peers, is skilfully portrayed. Haven’t we all met her?
Dealing with both bullying and grief in one book is challenging, both for the author and the reader. In this debut novel, Di Walker has shown deep insight into both of these very real problems. Readers will respond to Harper’s troubles, and gain greater emotional intelligence through the experience.

Highly recommended. Keep the tissues handy.

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