***I think it’s fair to start this review with a warning: I haven’t loved a book this much for a while, so I’m probably going to ramble. I started Head of the River in the airport after finding out my flight had been delayed by an hour. What else could I do but start reading? A couple of hours (and two more delays) later, I was half way through the book and completely hooked. If you’re a fan of Australian contemporary YA you simply cannot miss Head of the River. Leni and Cristian were characters I was immediately drawn to. However, I felt a particularly strong connection with Leni because I saw a little of myself in her. Not in terms of her athleticism (because I will do anything to avoid exercise), but in terms of her drive and determination to achieve the very high standards she set for herself. This was me in high school and half of university. So I was particularly intrigued by Harry’s exploration of the pressure teens feel from parents and peers, whether that be real or imagined. I say imagined because often, we put more pressure on ourselves than other people. I certainly did. It’s incredibly hard to shake yourself out of that mindset and even harder to tell yourself it’s ok to fail. I can’t think of another YA novel where this topic was executed as beautifully as in Head of the River. Another interesting aspect I enjoyed was the exploration of body image, weight and eating behaviours. What made this so compelling was that it was Cristian who faced these problems in Head of the River. Eating disorders are so often represented as only really affecting teenage girls, so it’s great to see authors like Harry shedding light on how young men are also susceptible. Performance enhancing drugs in sport has been big news in Australia over the past year, with prominent ALF and NRL players and clubs under investigation. I was interested by the questions Harry raised about drugs, and indeed drug testing, in school competitions in Head of the River. The novel also looks at why people might turn to performance enhancing drugs, particularly as a promising young athlete. I felt like it all came back to pressure people feel to achieve – even if it’s pressure they’re putting on themselves. In the midst of all these issues and the competition, Leni and Cristian are also dealing with the same things most teenagers are. They’re navigation the ups and downs of romantic relationships as well as friendships and fitting in with the popular crowd. I loved the way Harry wove these ‘normal’ teen experiences into the novel, making it something most people can easily relate to. I also loved seeing how sport could bring people together and create new friendships, particularly when it came to Leni and Cristian’s dad, who made a new life in Australia among his rowing crew. Finally, don’t be afraid to read this novel because it’s about competitive sport. I am as un-sporty as they come and I couldn’t put this down. Because Head of the River is about so much more than the sport of rowing. It’s about fitting in, opening up, break-ups and blossoming relationships and dealing with the weight of expectation. Head of the River is a beautifully written story, which will stay in your mind long after the final race has ended.
Thank you to University of Queensland Press for providing a copy of the book for review.