Alex still stands out in editor Sarah's mind as one of the best flawed, real female characters ever written in New Zealand YA. Alex: The Quartet brings together the four Alex books in one handy package, giving her the ideal opportunity to re-read all four and think about them from a modern perspective.
Alex is an extraordinary teenage girl driven to swim at the Rome Olympics by a mixture of ambition and competitive bloody-mindedness. Alex: The Quartet tells us the story of first love and the ultimate heartbreak. It’s a story of breakdowns, brilliance and loneliness, as well as messy, complicated friendships and relationships. It is a masterwork that pulls you into Alex’s life and makes you dream about her dilemmas. It did this to me when I was reading it age 11, and just a couple of weeks ago, aged 38.
It is a masterwork that pulls you into Alex’s life and makes you dream about her dilemmas.
Alex is whip-smart, a brilliant actress, a good dancer and pianist, and very popular at school. But her defining feature, for most of her story arc, is that she is a committed and fiercely talented swimmer. The first book, Alex, is defined by her competition with Maggie Benton in the swimming pool, battling injury in the form of a broken leg, and losing her heart to her first great love, Andy. It is set against the cultural background of a nation divided over the question of sending an All Blacks team with no Māori athletes to South Africa.
One thing I connected with as a 11-year-old girl who had short hair and inevitably played boys in drama production, was the question about why exactly I liked to dress like a boy. I was made to feel unusual and teased, as Alex is, for not always fitting in socially. ‘I hugged people because I was pleased for them, winning things, or it seemed to help when someone was in tears about something. I rubbed Julia’s back at school sometimes because it seemed to help her wheezes. So what?’
Despite her talents, Alex has almost constant anxiety which affects every aspect of her life. Her swimming, her relationships – particularly that with her best friend Julia and in later books with Tom – and her acting are all affected by her anxiety. ‘I saw Miss Macrae looking at me in assembly; later she bailed me up in the corridor. Was I all right, and then some nice stuff... I hardly knew what she was talking about. Was it obvious I was on a tightrope?’
Despite her talents, Alex has almost constant anxiety which affects every aspect of her life.
Throughout the first book, Alex, the narration takes us through Alex’s ultimate race at the New Zealand Nationals in Napier, the race that was meant to lead to Rome; or not. Alex talks to Andy in her head; it isn’t until the twelfth chapter that it becomes clear why it is she is talking to him as though he is omnipresent. My eyes are prickling now.
And so to Alex in Winter. Instead of being written in chapters, it is written in parts telling segments of the story, with paragraph spaces for clarity; part of it is narrated in the third person from the home of the Bentons. Joyce Benton, Maggie’s mum, is plotting to derail Alex’s Olympic hopes, though both girls are ultimately selected for Rome. This heightens the tension as it isn’t clear what her plans around swimming togs fashion parades and other social machinations are going to do to Alex’s hopes.
My 11-year-old self related very strongly to Alex’s feeling of being alone amongst peers. I was no brilliant sportsperson, nor was I particularly charismatic, but I certainly didn’t fit in, and books like Alex made me feel like this was okay.
I was no brilliant sportsperson, nor was I particularly charismatic, but I certainly didn’t fit in, and books like Alex made me feel like this was okay.
Another running concern, from the perspective of the media of 1960, is whether sportswomen could be said to be feminine, in an era where there were few women who had the determination to make it in their chosen sports for this very reason. ‘I don’t feel unfeminine, unless of course you’re talking about these school uniforms which aren’t exactly flattering, are they? Or is it for protection?’ says Alex. Having read headlines about the Williams sisters, I don’t think the world has moved on as far as we’d hope.
Alex in Winter introduces a new male love interest, or a new male anyway, in the form of Keith, who had been Andy’s best friend. He plays rugby, and Alex’s narration of a rugby match is great: she sees it with eyes that see the verbal brutality from the parents watching, along with the brutality of the game itself: young boys and grown men getting mashed into the ground by their opponents.
As Rome draws nearer, Alex begins a diary, which pulls in her reading of the trial scene of Joan, which sets us up for Songs for Alex. But first, it leads us to the events of Alex in Rome. I’m not sure this writing technique adds anything new, given the book is written in first person, but it does position Alex as younger in the mind than perhaps the other books do, which is valuable to keep in mind as she undergoes yet more trauma in her young life. ‘I don’t even want to go to Rome now. You can’t have a team of one.’
...it does position Alex as younger in the mind than perhaps the other books do, which is valuable to keep in mind as she undergoes yet more trauma in her young life.
Throughout the build-up to Rome, Alex is under intensifying pressure from the media. To respond to interviews, to say the right thing, to perform in charity races, to behave in a ladylike manner. This is a book that nurtures empathy, and while the media may never behave, it may make its readers reconsider that snarky response on Facebook or Instagram, perhaps just not press submit on a message targeting a high-profile person, once they see what it feels like from the inside.
As Alex in Rome begins, Duder notes ‘No New Zealand swimmer competed at the Rome Olympics.’ That may be true, but the collective memory argues otherwise, thanks to the zeitgeist of Duder’s book.
The third book is written in named chapters, and in two voices; Alex’s, and a new character called Tom/Tommaso, a Kiwi student of opera in Milan who is in Rome for a holiday. Tom is eight years older than Alex, but that doesn’t stop him immediately falling in love with her. This, as an adult, made me uncomfortable, as do a lot of the things he does: blagging his way into the Olympic compound in disguise as translator, watching her train, acting as tour guide after getting others to trust him; these are all what we’d call ‘grooming’ in our current era, given the power imbalance.
Leaving this aside, Alex’s Olympic experience is nail-biting and fantastic storytelling. The build-up of tension and the sympathy after races that Alex expresses, knowing exactly how much every other athlete there has sacrificed to be there, makes this book truly engrossing.
The build-up of tension and the sympathy after races that Alex expresses, knowing exactly how much every other athlete there has sacrificed to be there, makes this book truly engrossing.
The blossoming of true love, which Alex slowly comes to feel for Tom, is realistically complex, as every teenager will relate to. The loss of self-identity as you spend your time focused on this new exciting feeling is well-written. And doesn’t Tom’s hair sound divine? ‘It wasn’t only the incredible colour, which the patchy sunlighty through the trees was setting alight with streaks of copper and gold. It was wavy and very thick, and longer than any Kiwi short back ‘n sides.’
And after the overwhelm of Rome: ‘they’ll clip your wings when you get home.’
This quote proves portentous. As I read Songs for Alex, I realised that it was for the first time. I recalled Alex being good at drama, but I didn’t remember her getting University Entrance and playing Joan of Arc in Saint Joan. And I didn’t remember how her life in New Zealand played out after her triumph.
You just want Alex to be happy as this book takes her on further rollercoasters of emotion. You want her to stop being stressed, and to start enjoying life. ‘BRONZE MEDALLIST ASKS WHAT MORE DO THEY WANT?’
You just want Alex to be happy as this book takes her on further rollercoasters of emotion.
Andy’s friend Keith is a sort-of love interest, and Alex goes to varsity parties and begins dressing in disguise, sometimes as a boy, sometimes just dressing to be unrecognisable. ‘Just like you’d hate female clothes if you had to wear them, yards of material, stupid teetery shoes, stockings, handbags, tight skirts, bras that cut you, merry widows, make-up you hate wearing , hair in rollers, having to choose... Men call it being in drag, and it is.’
She is melting under the pressure from swimming, and from her Joan rehearsals, as well as her post-Rome notoriety and the nail-biting wait for UE results. And then there’s Tom, adding to the storm of stresses and emotional turmoil before any sense of helping it all lift.
Please read this book. It is a look back at how things were, how dependent the world was on male appreciation and approval. The world has moved on, and even when this was written in the 1980s, life was steadily becoming kinder to women who didn't fit the mold society created for them. This holds up as amazing storytelling from one of our best storytellers. I recommend it for age 10+, but it is probably better enjoyed by those 13+, those who are starting to feel the pressure of the world and need an incredible strong, female hero to share this with.*
*I’ve written this entire review without mentioning a flaw that happens throughout the book: not a writing flaw, I hasten to add. But a publishing flaw. There are scanning errors all the way through. Sometimes it just means reversed apostrophes, for a section it meant misplaced lines (adding themselves to the next paragraph) which was a bit jarring, and for certain parts, misspelt words. I've heard of booksellers selling these as a way to make kids feel smart, which is a nice way of putting it. But actually, a proofreader or three would have picked these up.
Alex: The Quartet
by Tessa Duder
Sarah Forster is the founding editor of The Sapling alongside Jane Arthur. Her day job is writing for Victoria University of Wellington, but her heart lies with children's books. She has two sons, aged 9 and 7. She grew up on the West Coasts of the South Island and of Western Australia, and lives in Wellington.