Nicole Hayes is one of my favourite Australian authors. This is due to two main factors – the first, that she is a magnificent writer who manages to capture emotion so well that I have often found myself nodding with recognition when reading her works. The second is that she is also a diehard footy fan, just like myself – I won’t hold it against her (much!) for her unfortunate choice of team, however.
I’ve managed to read all of the books to which she has put her name, but it is also important to note that in addition to being a successful author, she is also most successful in other mediums as well. Most notably, in the incredible podcast “The Outer Sanctum”, an all-female team which discusses the joys of AFL footy. She is also a teacher of creative writing in Melbourne and an editor. Needless to say she is an amazingly accomplished person as well as a fantastic writer.
Her first young adult book, The Whole of my World, was published in 2013. It beautifully combined two of her great passions in life, writing and AFL footy, in a beautiful and emotional book about a young girl’s love of AFL and the great impact it has on her life. Set in the evocative Melbourne suburbs of the 1980s and our main character, Shelley, is desperate to escape the incidents of her tragic past and the memories that her father carries with him in their house. Her escape is in the form of AFL and a new group of friends who support the same team as her. What better way to escape tragedy than to yell, scream and smile in a large community of fans on the same journey with the same team of players?
Perhaps even more excitingly, Shelley finds herself even able to make friends with one of the star players. What better way to prove that she belongs? Surely this is the ticket to her happiness and from freeing herself from the burdens that she continues to carry. But not all that glitters is gold. Her relationship with the star player Mick is not met well by her friends. Her new friend at her new school, Tara, begins to treat her with cold silences. Her best friend, Josh, cannot reconcile who she is today with who she was then.
This book spoke to me so much it felt like it was written for a younger version of myself. It almost aches how much I wish that this book, the first young adult fiction book about AFL featuring a female main character, was written 15-20 years ago when I was younger. It resonated deeply with me as I’m sure it will with many other readers. It was beautifully written and covered some important topics – aside from being a narrative about AFL, it is so much more than this. This book truly demonstrates what a rare vintage Hayes is when writing fiction.
Hayes then followed this with another young adult read in 2015, One True Thing. This book steered in a different direction from her debut. This time, readers are transported to 1990s Melbourne in the midst of a political campaign of the state’s premier – otherwise known to protagonist Frankie as mum. She is used to being in the public eye, being a politician’s daughter, but this particular campaign is going to turn personal quickly – something which Frankie’s mother has been careful to avoid in the past.
Frankie’s real passion is music. She plays in a band with three friends, including her best friend Kessie. When Kessie invites a student journalist to interview the band, it is when Frankie’s world begins to turn on its axis. The journalist is also a new student in town, Jake, who is attractive and, not to mention, holding a major candle for Frankie. Just as their new romance is blooming, a controversy unexpectedly hits Frankie’s family. Photos emerge of her mother having a late night rendezvous with a younger man, and her mother refuses to tell the public anything about these photos. This new scandal threatens to tear apart the family and indeed the very heart of Frankie’s life.
This was a tender and enjoyable novel which, once again, truly captures the era and its passions. The references to Pearl Jam give the book a real sense of time, as well as the treatment of women in politics was an interesting addition to an already great read for teens.
The next book was a team effort, with fellow editor and contributor Alicia Sometimes, in From the Outer: Footy Like You’ve Never Heard It, published in 2016. A charming and sentimental examination of the relationship with AFL footy from the point of view of many different voices – and far from the traditional voices at that. Where the game is typically associated with young, white males, this book examines the relationship which alternative voices have with the AFL. Taken from the blurb, the contributors include “those who are female, Indigenous or gay; those with a disability, a foreign accent or even – perhaps most dubious of all – literary learnings.” This immediately spoke to me, having always felt a bit “on the outer” myself as a passionate supporter of footy.
These voices included Chelsea Roffey, the first ever female AFL level umpire, who writes a humorous and downright clever piece as a letter to “Doubting Thomas”, but also Jason Tuazon-McCheyne, founder of the Purple Bombers (an LGBTQI supporter group), Angela Pippos, Christos Tsiolkas and Maxine Beneba-Clarke. Each person has a different story with the great game. Some are giving voice to great love, some were expressing their grievances in spite of this love, and some just downright do not enjoy the game at all.
Without exception, the pieces that adorn this book are tender, emotional and relatable. Even though I have always loved AFL personally, I have had a great many qualms with the game, particularly as a female supporter. But these qualms are also shared by the Indigenous community (Stan Grant writes particularly well on this issue) as well as many others. A book which combines the literary, the community and the shared experience of AFL footy season is one I was always going to love. This was a book that I was disappointed had to end and I loved each and every piece. I really do thank Nicole Hayes and Alicia Sometimes for bringing together this wonderful book.
Next for Hayes came another collaborative work with Sometimes, this time for young readers to explore the exciting year that 2017 was to be with the newly formed AFLW league, where women could finally enjoy a footy league of their own. A Footy Girl’s Guide to the Stars of 2017 was an introduction to some of the biggest stars that the AFLW boasted at its inception. Here’s some of what I’ve had to say about this book on a previous blog entitled “Fight like a girl: women in sport” – readers get a glimpse into the lives of such stars as Melbourne’s Daisy Pearce, a nine-time premiership player and six time best-and-fairest winner, and Adelaide’s Erin Phillips, an Olympic medal-winning basketball player who always had a passion for football. These are just some of the amazing stories to come from the AFLW, but, perhaps more importantly, the skills and competition from just two rounds of playing [at the time of writing this piece] have been remarkable, and there are already so many stars that we can look forward to watching for many years to come.”
And finally, also in 2017 (a huge year for her!), saw the release of Hayes’ most recent work of young adult fiction, A Shadow’s Breath. Here is a review which will soon be published on the blog as part of a larger piece – so, a sneak peak!
“In A Shadow’s Breath, we meet Tessa, a teenage girl on the threshold of adulthood who has experienced more horrors in her childhood than many face in a lifetime. And, at the end of her school year, it seems that the horrors have yet to suffice. She has seen things, things that she wish she could unsee – but she simply can’t. And now she finds herself trapped in the wilderness with her boyfriend, Nick, and nobody knows to help them escape.
The format of this book is a great testament to Hayes’ skill as a writer. Each chapter alternates between “then” and “now”, as readers gradually come to know how Tessa and Nick have arrived at their dire situation. Perhaps even more heartbreaking is the way that we see Tessa’s life fall to close to its lowest point, being to redeem itself again, only for it all to come crashing down horribly yet again for her. It’s a tragic story that could hit all too close to home for many disenfranchised youth living in rural Australian towns who suffer from family violence just like Tessa.
This is exactly the kind of book I would have picked up even if I weren’t lucky enough to receive [it as a free copy]. A new addition to my most keenly-watched authors, Hayes manages to evoke a beautiful sense of place in all of her novels – although its beauty is disputable, the depiction of Carrima is no exception to this rule. She also manages to capture the tribulations of the teenager so well that it is simultaneously and pleasure and extremely unnerving to read. I think that the most poignant example of this can be found in A Shadow’s Breath during the “then” portions of the book, when we are privy to what Tessa went through in the years before the novel’s beginning. I’ve touched on family violence, but there are also issues of abandonment, mental breakdowns, alcoholism, bullying and abuse. We can see how Tessa slowly begins to turn all of this around as her life starts to become something comfortable and reliable for her again. However, unfortunately, we know as readers that this will only be temporary – so unfair given just how much Tessa had to go through to get even to that point.
I really did enjoy reading this book – I love gritty, realistic fiction, particularly when it is made so accessible to young readers. The book undoubtedly contains adult themes, but they are tackled in a way that teenagers can understand and empathise with them. I’d say that Hayes’ target age range for this book would be 13+.
Oh, and did I forget to mention? There’s a huge plot twist about 85% of the way through this book that changes everything.
Through her impressive range of back catalogue fiction and non-fiction publications, Hayes has proven herself to be firmly entrenched as one of Australia’s pre-eminent voices. A remarkable talent to writing not just for teens but also for children and adults, and not just narratives but also journalism, Hayes is certainly an author which I am keen to see what she does next!