Under the Radar by Des O'Leary
There is an old adage in writing that one should write ‘what they know’. Des O’Leary knows and understands high school students. He dedicates this new novel to the students of Aorere College 2003-2015 and one can confidently say that these students come to life on the pages of this novel.
Having not read the first offering from O’Leary, this was the first introduction to the central characters of Sione and TJ. Sione’s choice for the year is to stay out of sight, out of harm's way, and most importantly, under the radar. There is very little likelihood that will happen given the events of the day. Most notable of which is the introduction of a new student - Teresa - who is physically bigger than most of the students and, coincidentally, Sione is tasked to look after as she adjusts to life at MEHS (Manawahe East High School).
O’Leary presents a hugely diverse mix of young people in terms of racial background, religious affiliation, family environments, gender, gang connections and interpersonal conflict. It has all the essential elements of how life in South Auckland schools happens.
The language and dialogue used is on point throughout. O’Leary captures that South Auckland vernacular with the confidence and humour that mirrors the school environment. It’s the dialogue that is the real star of this story with near perfect cadence with just that hint of cheekiness. The rap style verses that are included throughout again add to the relevancy of the text and resonate with the characters.
Central to the story is the overbearing influence that gangs have in South Auckland schools. Gang culture is aggrandised by some of the characters in the novel and it takes all of Sione’s willpower to avoid becoming part of the FBK group - a gang made up of Sione’s mates from softball.
Teresa’s emergence from her shy shell which manifests as a fairly antagonistic demeanour at the start, comes during the sports day. The conversations here - as with many other moments in the novel - are hilarious and make the novel worth reading for these alone. However, there are an abundance of reasons to pick this novel up. It captures so much of the spirit of the community members and the daily life for these young people.
The values of family, church, and school are brought to the fore in an attempt to stem the tide of perception towards an aggrandised gangsta lifestyle. This is a very entertaining novel and one that is worthy of reading multiple times.
If this is the start of a continuing high school saga then this is cause for celebration. It is about time that we had such expressive writing for our young people.
Reviewer: Chris Reed
Cuba Press, RRP $25