by Leanne Hall
Published March 2021
The title of Leanne Hall’s fourth novel is aptly chosen and it holds multifarious meanings. Speculating on the ending to Picnic at Hanging Rock, one of her protagonists says,
They followed vixeny Miranda through a crack in the rock, through an almost invisible tear in the fabric of the universe…I imagine the cracks that might exist in our daily lives, in ordinary places. Secret doors at school, jagged edges of air that don’t match at the train station. Fractures leading to another world. Where do they go, those girls that accidentally fall through a gap in the universe? What’s on the other side?
Lost girls can slip through such jagged cracks. The gaps explored in this book are also those between the rich and the less moneyed, the rifts between former old friends, as well as generational distances and racial divisions. It’s an ambitious contemporary YA book, and a bit of a stylistic departure for Hall. Her debut and its sequel, This is Shyness and Queen of the Night, were a beguiling blend of realism, speculative fiction and urban fantasy for middle-late primary readers, and her previous novel, Iris and the Tiger, was surreal, playful and magical.
There’s no such whimsy in this latest work. The Gaps is strictly realist in tone and pivots on a crime, but does not concern itself with tracking the movements nor dissecting the motivations of the perpetrator. Nor is it a typical whodunnit or police procedural; it’s more interested in surveying the aftermath of an abduction. Sixteen-year-old Yin is taken by an armed assailant who breaks into her house. Right from the start, the mystery is deeply confounding. The Mitchell family property is well fortified with a six-foot high wall. How was the fortress penetrated? There was nothing untoward or suspicious prior to the home invasion and no subsequent ransom demands. Yin’s disappearance cracks open normal life for everyone.
Alternating between the first-person narratives of two fellow Year Ten students at Yin’s school, the novel explores the overwhelming sense of communal loss, grief, paranoia and fear. Hall does not focus too much on the victim either; Yin’s ‘quiet, smart, deep into the orchestra scene’, but aside from that, this most beloved daughter, sister and friend reminds a cipher upon which others project their own anxieties.
Chloe is one of the narrators. Following the favoured YA technique of a narrative framed by an outsider, she’s a scholarship student of the posh Balmoral Ladies College. It’s situated in a leafy affluent area with swimming pools, tennis courts and driveways as long as airport landing strips. The school itself boasts ‘ten art studios, a photography studio, three darkrooms, a printing room, a dedicated woodwork space, this massive pottery kiln, a tech studio full of 3D printers and a computer loaded up with the latest software.’ After six months there, Chloe is still considered a new girl and she’s still grappling with all the cliques and subgroups that pre-date her arrival; ‘In all the thinking about whether to take up the scholarship offer, I didn’t think about whether I would fit in, or what it meant to trick your way into somewhere you don’t belong.’ Of working class stock, she’s never been hothoused in privilege. She lives with her younger brother and mother in a rambling, unsecured block of units. Her mum works in hospitality and her dad rarely visits. Chloe knows she doesn’t reside in the right postcode, at least not in the eyes of her peers. As she says, ‘I don’t go skiing with them in winter. We didn’t ride ponies together as kids.’ Though she mostly keeps to herself, and was barely acquainted with the missing girl, Yin’s disappearance leaves no one unaffected, and Chloe is soon caught up in the maelstrom.
In the hyper-tense and newly fearful school and home environment, the usual dynamics are off kilter. Claire and Milla, Yin’s closest friends, look incomplete without her, ‘a triangle with one of its sides missing,’ and at lunch time instead of the dispersal of students all over the courtyard, small groups are huddled together, as though for power and safety in numbers. Parents become even more vigilant about their daughters’ whereabouts, demanding they keep the location app on their phones switched on at all times. Picnic at Hanging Rock is summarily scrapped from the syllabus, with the belief that this tale of missing girls would inflame the imagination of an already jittery student population. Chloe starts to grip her keys ‘so they poke out for maximum stabbing potential’ when she goes running. She chastises herself for her anxiety while remaining determined not to succumb to it, ‘If l let myself be scared, then it meant another victory for the evil people of the world.’
A terrifying chain email circulates throughout the student body, advising what to do in the unlikely event of an abduction, with questionable advice that includes to urinate to try and prevent rape, and to not look at the attacker or attempt to see his face because to identify him is a death sentence. Every local man, be they a teacher, neighbour or father is a potential suspect, and conspiracy theories are rampant. There have been previous abductions linked to the school but each time the girl was returned. Why is Yin’s case different? Is a serial offender responsible? The lack of clarifying answers, the police combing through nearby sites and the media cycle of news and no-news fuels an ever-growing hysteria.
Yet aside from having to deal with a possible killer on the loose, the Balmoral girls are still going about their normal teenage business, oscillating between heightened alarm and normal operating procedures (homework, flirting, parties, hookups, parental and sibling interactions). As Chloe wryly reflects, ‘It’s amazing how people can swim from gossiping about our teachers providing DNA samples to what they’re going to wear on Friday night in one breath.’
Hall excels at depicting hierarchies of the schoolyard: the academic pressures and expectations of exclusive secondary education, as well as the power jostles, ‘frenemies’, and ever-shifting alliances at an all-girl school where nicknames like ‘the bitchnami’,‘teen witches’, ‘the Suckerfish’, and ‘the Shark’ are carelessly thrown about. Here, as in Alice Pung’s YA novel Laurinda, and elsewhere in society, the intersection of class and race play out in predictable ways: the white and privileged get to lord it over those who aren’t so lucky to be born the right colour and into the right family.
Aside from her economic circumstances, Chloe also feels socially uneasy due to her bifurcated identity. Being Eurasian, (her mother is of Singaporean descent; her father is Anglo) her sense of belonging is riven in two; not quite one or the other. As a part of both she is wholly of neither. Hall denotes the casual racism and generational prejudice within the school grounds. Yin’s parents separated and her mother remarried; there’s idle speculation that Yin’s biological father had something to do with her disappearance, ‘The Chinese guy. Apparently he runs an importing business and spends a lot of time overseas. He could easily be involved in organised crime’ says one of the students with flippant certainty. Another is prompted to add (in earshot of international students from Hong Kong, mainland China, Malaysia and Taiwan),‘My mum says there are way too many Asians at Balmoral these days. It wasn’t like that when she went there. My parents are thinking of sending me somewhere else. If they wanted me to be around this many Asians, we’d move to Bangkok for something.’
It is Chloe who intervenes to call out how racist it is to blithely assume ‘Yin’s dad is a gangster, like a walking stereotype from a John Woo movie’. The other girls stare at her in wonder, not just for her daring but because she’s not considered a ‘real Asian’ as she’s ‘from here’ unlike the international students. She was born in Australia after all, and can speak without an accent. There are gradations of racism steeped in this microcosmic world of high school that’s reflective of the wider community. Sometimes the democratisation of money can soften the divisions and hierarchies of racial prejudice but Chloe’s not able to rely on that as a social leveller. She describes her mum at a school meeting: ‘the rich blondes huddled on one side of the room and the rich Asians on the other side, and she hadn’t fit into either group.’ Moreover, her mum believes that although Yin is rich enough, her Chinese ancestry means that ‘already some people might not care as much,’ in the same way as people care less about sex workers or the homeless, should any harm befall them. There are gaps in society where some people aren’t as valued as others.
On the decidedly affluent side of the divide is Natalia, the second student narrator. By virtue of her background, a safety net will always be available to catch her should she fall through the gaps. At first it seems as though Hall is investing in this character all the tropes of the insolent mean girl of teen rom-coms. Natalia after all, is the undisputed queen of the ‘Blondes’. A glacial beauty, with a Sharpie tattoo on her legs and her summer uniform hitched high while everyone else is wearing their winter gear, this casual shoplifter gives off bad girl vibes and behaves with the unspoken motto, ‘disobey, but don’t get caught’. Smart alecky, popular and opinionated, with a cruel and sarcastic streak, Natalia is completely different from quiet, unassuming, nerdy Chloe, and she’s not afraid to raise some pertinent points when it comes to matters of gender, violence and (self) protection. When self defence classes are introduced in the school, she rails, ‘Why do we have to learn to defend ourselves? Maybe men should have classes about not assaulting and killing us.’ She tries to hide her fear with forced jocularity. Of the balaclava-wearing abductor she says to her sister Liv, ‘He doesn’t take the pretty ones don’t you know? So I think I’m going to be safe.’
But Natalia’s been hiding a secret that few of her high school posse know about. The disappearance of Yin has affected her more than she lets on. She was best friends with Yin in primary school and feeling guilty that the bond between them frayed, largely due to Natalia’s deliberate sabotage. As kids they’d created a fantasy land in which they were both
travelling warrior queens of the Opal clan, fairy immortals imbued with magic but masquerading as flesh and blood human…but the kingdom crashed, war broke out and the game ended. It didn’t make it through the transition to high school and neither did our friendship.
They thought they had a psychic connection, so strong was their bond but as Natalia sadly confesses years later, ‘And what did I do with that connection? Took a big pair of scissors and severed it right across the middle, because it didn’t suit me anymore, because I knew Yin wouldn’t be cool or popular in high school, or stand out in the same way that I wanted to.’
The armour of protection she wears makes Natalia hard to read because she hides her true feelings, ‘I’m a girl made of concrete, a veritable feelings bunker.’ It’s a credit to Hall that her characterisation of Natalia is layered and complex. Despite their differences of postcode, race and class, only Chloe can tell that there’s something wrong with Natalia, something roiling beneath her ‘perfect skin, skinny legs and boobs the exact right size.’ She’s conscious of the vulnerability Natalia’s trying to override. Both characters are fully-fleshed vital creations. With an astute eye and keen ear for native teenage speak, Hall, who also works as a YA specialist in an independent bookshop, captures both teenagers in their distinct voices. Though ostensibly fiction, there’s a deep sense that The Gaps is informed by real experiences, not just of school dynamics but of recent predatory violence against young women. This verisimilitude adds weight to the drama within and beyond the school gates.
Warily Chloe and Natalia form an odd friendship, brought together by the distraction and healing power of art. They should be poles apart but the established rebel and the newbie nerd form a kind of truce. As part of her assessment Chloe chooses to focus on photography, inspired by the works of Bill Henson. His aesthetic first makes itself felt in the description of the crime scene in the first few pages of The Gaps. It’s barely lit and eerie ‘rosy-dawn-tinged, police-light blue.’
Prompted in part by the loss of Yin, and drawing influence from the widespread sexualised imagery of young women as well as Henson’s ethereal lighting, Chloe wants her art project to confuse viewers about whether they’re gazing at a fairytale or a crime scene. The TV series that’s currently capturing the attention of the Balmoral teens, Devil Creek (with the tagline ‘Who killed Emily Blake?) is ‘totally dead girl porn’ announces Natalia. Looking at a billboard ad for the show, with the dirty and scratched victim, Chloe realises that, ‘the girl looks damaged and sexy.’ Hall brilliantly examines the melange of confused messages sent to teenage girls: how they have to undertake self-defence lessons to ward off unwanted attention and yet at the same time, are surrounded by eroticised pictures of an assault victim who’s marketed for entertainment.
Natalia becomes Chloe’s model. She ‘sprawls on the mottled concrete, red feathers sprinkled around her body, looking like a littered petal, or a lost princess, or a dreaming virgin or a bad girl getting what she deserves. All of these contradictory things that somehow gets heaped on young women.’ Although it is to become misinterpreted later, the art project becomes a quasi- feminist statement. It conflates all that’s troubling Chloe: the abduction of Yin, the confusion and anger of the violence enacted upon women, and Henson’s pale-skinned, high-bred, dishevelled adolescents: ‘trouble or hedonistic? It’s hard to tell.’ She calls the piece ‘Someone’s watching’ and the title is as ambiguous as The Gaps. Who is witness to and responsible for and colluding in such images of gorgeous degradation?
Hall proves she can do gritty realism as well as quirky and magical. There isn’t a neat ending to The Gaps, for a pat resolution would go against the grain of the book. It eschews a forensic crime investigation for a psychological portrait of bereavement and a community at loss – and these are not ever easily resolved.
Speaking of Joan Lindsay’s luckless students atop Hanging Rock as well as the stylised images of beautiful victims, Natalia says, ‘All of those girls come from in-between places… dead and alive. Heaven and hell or some other place and the real world.’ The Gaps attempts and indeed succeeds in exploring some of these in-between spaces.