Remember how I said I hadn’t read any novels since the start of the year? Yeah, poor Clancy of the Undertow has been sitting, patiently, on my desk since literally February. Which is a damned shame, I tell you—this was a wonderful little queer coming of age story set to a wonderfully rich (but not overdone) backdrop of small town Australia, paring back what could have been a story all about The Hardships of Being Gay in a Small Town to an intricate and fun character study of our titular leading lady, Clancy. Though it was recommended (and loaned, by a generous person who now finally has their book back after seven months) to me on the basis of it being Some Good, Good Gay YA, Clancy’s sexuality isn’t the focus of the book nor the focus of her character arc. It’s much more than that, and Clancy is built into a detailed, believable picture of a girl that became one of my favourite YA protagonists I’ve come across.
Clancy (yes, her parents named her after the poem) is a disgruntled and somewhat emotionally confused teenaged girl trying to just get by in her soul-sucking retail job in her soul-sucking red-dirt town, harbouring a hopeless crush on the local cool girl Sasha, and awkwardly trying to avoid her family’s in-fighting every night when she comes home. Things get more complicated when her father, a road worker, is accused of causing a fatal car accident, and the whole community converges to call him a murderer and throw Clancy and her family under the proverbial bus. It’s also about this time that Sasha appears out of nowhere and starts to show an interest in Clancy, stranding the poor baby gay in a place where she’s questioning her loyalties, her feelings, and who exactly she is and wants to be. She doesn’t have a concrete answer by the end of the story, but she does have a rewarding and sympathetic emotional journey to read about. Plus, as I said, I just… really enjoyed Clancy as a character, almost unexpectedly so.
There’s a certain type we can recognise as standard for a YA protagonist. They’re usually bookish, smart, probably something of a social outcast (if not outright bullied) for something to do with this; generally white, and brown-haired (perhaps because the genre seems to have decided that redheads are too rare and thus would render the character a Mary Sue, and blonds are clearly evil); and of middle-ish class and comfortable-ish standing in society unless the plot is explicitly about their family being on Hard Times. And heterosexual, of course. They’re oh-so-average but also Different in some way, and probably harbour some resentment for the Ordinary people around them. This is broad strokes, but I’m sure you can think of several examples off the top of your head.
Now, this isn’t to say that if a YA protagonist fits this bill they’re badly written automatically, or that this isn’t a valid experience to represent in books. But you know… change is as good as a holiday. It’s always exciting when a hero side-steps from this familiar pattern, be that in terms of sexuality, ethnicity, or simply character type. The teenaged me, as a brunette from a middle-class family with Anglo-Celtic heritage, high academic scores, and mid-to-low self-esteem, can admit that she’s had her turn. As well as the importance of every reader having the chance to see themselves in the media they consume, it just also makes for a refreshing change to get inside the head of a protagonist who doesn’t perfectly fit these expected conventions.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what made Clancy such a fun character for me, since it’s a bit of everything, in that Clancy herself is a bit of everything. The first thing that stands out is that, well, she’s a bit of a bogan, which for whatever casually classist reasons you generally don’t expect to see in your lead characters of anything, unless it’s a comedy all about Australian culture. Again, the default type seems to assume a certain socioeconomic standing and looming sense of educated intellectualism as criteria for protagonists, especially in the YA I’ve experienced—most often middle-class suburban if we’re going the Average route (see Fangirl, every John Green lead ever) or super rich and glam if we’re going the escapist, look-into-an-elite-world route (see Gossip Girl, Vampire Academy, Blue Bloods). Again, this goes hand in hand with casual classism, but also this ingrained assumption that a character with a background (and country-town attitude) like Clancy can’t possibly be synonymous with the intellectual, bookish Type that a lot of YA seems to demand.
But there’s no reason that slightly bogan small town girls can’t be smart (or gay), for goodness’ sake. Clancy drops phrases and references that show she’s really quite intelligent and well read, but they coexist among her slang-filled Aussie lexicon, and her entire character doesn’t revolve around how she’s a bookish Belle-esque misfit. She’s sarcastic and tough-as-nails in a typically country kid way, but also intensely emotional and a hopeless romantic. She’s a scrappy tomboy who develops hopeless crushes on girls, but she isn’t bogged down into butch stereotypes or even a whole story that revolves around her gayness. She has a bitter and pithy dislike of Other Girls complete with a liberal dose of slut-shaming, but is also shown to be able to move past this and form meaningful relationships with the women around her.
It was an unexpected delight to spend 280 pages in Clancy’s headspace. Her narration develops a natural voice that really grows on you, blunt and/or chaotic as it can be. Throughout the novel I found myself wondering from time to time what this story was about—was it about the mystery surrounding the car accident that Clancy’s dad is being blamed for? Was it about her messy crush on the glamorous Sasha? Her equally messy but much more genuine budding friendship with the new girl in town? Her university drop-out brother and his hunt for the local cryptid? In the end though these are all arbitrary questions since while the book is about all these things, mostly it’s about Clancy, and the confusing, isolating nonsense that is being sixteen in a tumultuous time, and the person Clancy herself is and becomes because of this.
Clancy is just… herself, and it’s clear she doesn’t quite know who that is. As much as Clancy holds gentle resentment for her home, the novel doesn’t spend time wallowing in how she’s too good for this tin-pot town, and as much as she snipes internally from time to time it doesn’t put her on a pedestal for Not Being Like Other Girls. I don’t know, it seems like a low bar, and a very simple request to say “give me a YA hero that isn’t an aggressively average middle-class bookish brunette who falls into a romance with a member of the opposite sex”. It may also seem intensely ironic that I’m waving a flag over Clancy’s head for being Not Like Other YA Protagonists when one of the most annoying and defining features of the generic protagonists I’m talking about is that they’re Not Like Other Girls. I am aware of this, and this isn’t to say that Clancy’s story and Clancy’s character is inherently better than that of a bookish straight girl from the suburbs, it was just a noticeable side-step from that intensely familiar archetype, and Clancy herself such a compelling character that the whole thing was a breath of fresh air.
She stood out and captured my heart, this beautifully messy, slightly bogan, hopelessly but not plot-definingly gay, very real country girl. If you want a heartwarming, interesting, fun and unconventional coming of age story with liberal but not obnoxious doses of Australiana and a sweet tale about figuring yourself out, I would 100% recommend this little book.