A world-wide hit in the late 1990s, Author Melina Marchetta wrote a manuscript about a teenage girl searching for herself and the way she is to live. Her name is Josephine Alibrandi who is a 17 year old Italian Australian or ‘wog’ as some know it, in the novel and film of ‘Looking for Alibrandi’. Much of the discussion of Alibrandi has centred around this portrayal of the multi-cultural society of Australia, although remarkably, the novel has managed to largely avoid the negative and superficial “issues” pigeon-holing so much realist fiction for young adults is victim to.
There is no question that Marchetta’s own experiences as an Italian-Australian have informed her story. Nor is there any doubt that in Josephine Alibrandi she has created a fresh non-Anglo-Australian voice of great power and integrity. Nevertheless, Marchetta does find that the focus on the Italian heritage of her protagonist (and herself) can be both distracting and limiting; it was not, she says, her first impulse in telling Josephine Alibrandi’s story; Another legacy of the shared Italian-Australian heritage of both author and protagonist is the common assumption that the book must be autobiographical.
The reading of her novel is in some ways complimentary, being as it is an indication of the kind of response readers have to Josephine, and to the lively and truthful tone of the novel; Marchetta has captured her characters, their situation and the inner city suburbs of Sydney acutely and precisely. The ambivalence Marchetta feels towards Josephine is revealed through the characters of Sister Louise, her headmistress, and her boyfriend Jacob, neither of whom hesitate to point out to Josephine when she is being selfish, over-dramatic, or plain stupid.
A quite shocking example of this is in the scene where Jacob rescues Josephine from a violent mob of teenage boys in a McDonalds car park, and then abuses her for her stupidity in spitting on and further antagonising the ring-leader. It is an indication of the exasperation that Josephine provokes in those who care about her, and Marchetta agrees with Jacob that Josephine’s dramatic and impulsive behaviour too frequently land her in avoidable unpleasantness.
To be fair, Josephine can be fairly hard on herself, and her ability at and willingness for self-scrutiny develops as she matures. It is testament to Marchetta’s care in balancing the complexities of Josephine’s character that the reader can witness her tantrums and drama-queen turns, her often thoughtless and selfish actions, and yet know that this is an essential part of her emancipation, and that it does not detract from her vitality, compassion and intelligence.
Young Australian readers will find the setting of the novel very realistic and familiar. They will identify with the portrayal of Australian high school life, attending a debating meeting, the description of suburban Sydney and catching the ferry to Circular Quay, the fact of being part of a dysfunctional family ? all these details of the setting are realistic and will be instantly recognisable. Many teenagers of foreign parentage will relate to Josie’s rebellion against her Italian side and to all the references to the Italian culture.