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  • Death, Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Adolescent Literature
  • David Beagley (bio)
Death, Gender and Sexuality in Contemporary Adolescent Literature. By Kathryn James. New York: Routledge, 2009.

Adolescence would seem to be the point in life when the potential for development and achievement ought to be at its most potent. Adult physicality and desires are all burgeoning, but opportunities and choices should not yet be limited by adult responsibilities or baggage from the past. It is no surprise that the energy and fecundity of sexuality is an immediate, even obsessive, teenage concern. Yet, contradictorily, fascination with death also marks so much contemporary youth culture, from the dark decorative trappings of emo and goth gloom to the tragic rates of teenage suicide. Given the [End Page 294] intensity of both these fascinations and their pervasion of youth culture and identity, it is no surprise that they are expressed so readily in young adult literature.

Certainly the linking of the two is nothing new. At Avonlea, young Anne Shirley drifted dreamily down to the pond as the (dead) Lady of Shallott, only to be rescued (unwillingly, but as a turning point in their relationship) by her Lancelot, Gilbert Blythe. But recent literary explorations are not such innocent playacting. There is a carnality and immediacy in them that verges on, and frequently steps into, desperation and violence. In so many books and movies and television shows, brooding vampires are the new bad boys from the wrong side of the tracks, or the arms of a lover offer a brief escape from a sordid everyday life. Sabrina the teenage witch has become Buffy the vampire slayer, yet, in literary terms, it is an area that has been strangely lacking in critical engagement.

Kathryn James’s study aims to make critical connection between sociological theories and discourse on the ideas of death and sexuality and their (frequent) representation in adolescent fiction. She identifies five “points of departure,” or socio-cultural contentions, around which she explores textual representations of death: death is both a threat and an instrument of power, death is gendered, death is inextricably tied to sex/uality, death is the constructed other, and death is physical. This focus on constructed social relations creates a critical feminist perspective in the interpretations, tracing these ideological categories through the texts into broader culture.

As James notes, death is the one certainty in life, yet it is also “to quote Garrett Stewart, the ‘one inevitably fictional matter in prose fiction’” (12). The potential of this contradiction is obviously not lost on authors. Shakespeare’s “undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveller returns” provides a blank canvas on which any representation may be drawn. Thus, James has no shortage of literary material to consider; despite very clear boundaries for the study, ninety separate literary texts are discussed directly in the five main chapters.

Yet while the five “points of departure” provide a clear and logical conceptual framework around which any reader may apply relevant texts from their own experience (James draws predominantly from her local Australian market), they also lock the analysis into a firmly structuralist reading. Drawing principally on the work of Stephens, Mallan, and Bradford, James presents the literary texts primarily as exemplars of her five sociocultural contentions. Texts “function” and “are effective in positioning [the] audience”; one’s “lessons about history and race relations are often heavy-handed” (39), while another “works to resist patriarchal maturational models of subjectivity” (95).

This approach is particularly effective in the chapter on historical and postcolonial stories. Her interpretations of texts dealing with personal/sexual relations during war and conflict—Disher’s The Divine Wind, Lucashenko’s Killing Darcy, and Eaton’s Fireshadow, for instance— [End Page 295] recognize and detail the multiple contexts and values of their times and the relation to those of the modern reader. The elements of power and other-ness in James’s “points of departure” framework operate directly in the obvious “then-and-now” and “us-and-them” binaries of this genre. In Svendsen’s powerful frontier story Poison under Their Lips, James finds a juggling of ideological perspectives that undermine modern certainties about historical “truth,” especially in “the colonial intersection...