Secret Scribbled Notebooks by Joanne Horniman
Published in Viewpoint: On Books for Young Adults vol. 12 no. 3 Spring 2004
The title of Joanne Horniman’s Secret Scribbled Notebooks comes from Jack Kerouac ‘s “Rules of Modern Prose” from Good Blonde and Others. The full quote refers to “secret scribbled notebooks and wild typewritten pages, for your own joy.” And so Horniman—and her narrator, seventeen year old Kate O’Farrell—organises her narrative. Kate records, in a combination of brief notebook entries (in a red, yellow or blue notebook, depending on need and mood) and longer typewritten pages, her thoughts and feelings over a few months in her last year of high school. Like Loving Athena and Mahalia, Secret Scribbled Notebooks is set in Lismore, a small inland city on the far north coast of NSW; it’s not too far fetched to describe these books as Horniman’s Lismore triology, each dealing with love in various permutations, each exploring the nature of love and how it helps and hinders on the path to adulthood.
The HSC as rite of passage is a common motif in Australian YA fiction, but here school and study recedes into the background as Kate experiences a series of meaningful events that help shape her decision about her own future post-HSC. Her sister Sophie has a baby, and languishes in new, milky motherhood, mourning quietly for the semi-famous singer who fathered her baby and moved on. Kate herself meets a boy, “beautiful, brown and slender”, in a second-hand bookshop called, fittingly, Hope Springs. All the while, she wonders about the parents that abandoned her and Sophie years ago.
Kate writes “Sometimes, I think I’d be happy if I could just make sense of all the fragments of my life.” This, of course, is the function of those notebooks and typewritten pages. In her red notebook, Kate records her feelings, the music she is listening to, the meaning of a day’s event, her passionate love for the baby niece she names. The rarely-used blue is for exploring her scant memories of her father; the yellow is the book in which she imagines a future for herself working in publishing and living in a “proper” city.
Books form the prism through which Kate and Sophie view and organize their worlds; The Journals of Anaïs Nin, Kerouac, Yeats, A Room of One’s Own, Sartre—all perfectly chosen by Horniman to indicate the inner lives and fascinations of these smart, deeply-feeling, wounded but determined young women. Sophie’s favourite novel is Anna Karenina, Great Expectations is Kate’s, and each book offers the sisters versions of love (love as sacrifice, love as bitter disappointment) that ultimately both girls reject. And lest they sound too-good-to-be-true (Kerouac and Nin at 17? Absolutely!) Kate also remains very much a believable young woman, her language slipping from lush and elevated to very realistic teenage observations and usage.
Secret Scribbled Notebooks is a deeply satisfying novel on every level. It is both beautifully understated and beautifully written. Horniman has a rare skill in expressing the deepest emotions of her characters without resorting to melodrama or sentimentality. She never underestimates her readers’ intellectual and emotional maturity, and doesn’t therefore resort to set-scenes of high drama and angst to keep them engaged. For instance, Kate introduces Alex, the beautiful boy from the bookshop, to her sister and best friend Marjorie, and he easily befriends both girls, leaving Kate to feel quietly uncertain and a little jealous. Yet there’s no sleep-preventing anguish, no tearful recriminations, just a natural working-out of things as Kate grows to understand who this boy is she is falling in love with, and to trust his feelings for her. It’s the very subtlety with which Horniman writes such scenes that impresses—and I suspect it’s this deftness with language and emotional that is the reason why Horniman is frequently under-rated as a writer of rare skill and power.