BY BETT NORRIS
This review is part of a series of three which at first glance might seem random. The link they share is that they all excited me greatly when I first read them. One published in 1987, one in 2007, and one just this month, each shares a passion for language, vivid imagery, deep and immediate involvement for the reader, and each transports one to the particular time and place in which they are set. I consider this a good way to kick off a summer reading list, setting the bar high, and then searching for other novels to match this standard. So, something old, something new, and something timeless.
Here’s the review of something new, Giraffe People by Jill Malone, published by Bywater Books.
“Luminescent” writing. Nicole Peters would like that word. Booklist also called this novel “finely tuned, daring and perceptive.” I agree. I love Jill Malone’s writing, and her new novel really shows her talents well.
Cole Peters defines words using gut feelings instead of a dictionary. Fifteen, trapped in a family whose life is punctuated by dashes from one military base to another, further enclosed by being a chaplain’s kid, a subset within a subset, she calls it, making her feel doubly weird. Not just a military brat, but a preacher’s kid, those two facts encircle her life like a Venn diagram.
Set on base housing in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, in the years 1990 and 1991, Cole is bound to excel in everything she does, school, sports, music. Bound to excellence, not ordained to excel, instead, she is tied to it. Hours of homework in Geometry and Spanish, history and English, hours at practice running drills, running, hours practicing in her room with a guitar.
Fifteen, not quite sixteen. And running all the time, like a sustained note pitched to a frequency no one can hear.
What is my name? she writes in the margins of her book. Nic, Nicky, Nicole, Cole? Am I a jock? She plays and letters in three varsity sports. She worries about her GPA.
This is not just a luminescent work, it is a transcendent and transformative one. Jill Malone finds and plays the desperate times of the teenaged years like an old Gibson. The reader is instantly, effortlessly, back in those halls of high school, the auditoriums and locker rooms and gyms, the whispered conversations in the library, solving math problems on the phone, sneaking out late at night, wondering, always wondering, if you have gone too far this time, or not far enough.
In sweaty, steamed up, over-heated cars, in the mud and glaring lights of a soccer field, inside a smoky, smelly bar, hanging out in a boy’s room, just as friends, more than friends, Cole rises. She rises up, and up, until she is shining, glowing, luminescent, as reviewers describe too the writing in this, Jill Malone’s third novel. A past winner of the 2010 Lambda award for “A Field Guide to Deception,” Malone continues to delight with each new book. Her writing reveals a sure, deft skill at the subtleties and ever-changing emotions of characters as they grow and progress.
Malone is the real thing, a novelist of great touch and tone, like a fine musician, the kind who play because they love the music and look up at the end of a song, surprised to find an audience.
I hope Malone’s work continues to find the audience it certainly deserves. I invite you to begin to enjoy her work with Giraffe People, which I believe is her best yet.
Bett Norris is the author of “Miss McGhee,” and “What’s Best for Jane.”