The Harper Effect (Pan MacMillan 2017) is a YA story by Sunshine Coast author Taryn Bashford. I wanted to read this one before I launch into Bashford’s new book The Astrid Notes (just released…review forthcoming) because it features some of the same characters. And after ‘meeting’ Jacob in The Harper Effect, I cannot wait to learn more about how his life pans out in the next book.
But this book centres on Harper Hunter, an adolescent suffering from all the doubts and insecurities and angst of teenagers the world over; she also happens to be a rising international tennis star.
The focus is on Harper and her tennis career, Harper and her relationships with her family members (particularly her sister, Aria), Harper and her best friend Jacob, and Harper and her coach, Milo. We see the entire narrative from Harper’s perspective as she tries to navigate all of these tricky relationships, while striving to find her own identity and pursue her dreams. Like all teenagers, her self-confidence can be shaky, and she makes plenty of mistakes along the way. She is always second-guessing her own motives and the motivations of others. She hurts people she loves, sometimes intentionally, sometimes through misunderstandings or carelessness. She is only sixteen but is moving through the adult world of competitive sport. She is new to finding love and doesn’t really understand how complicated relationships can be. She is desperate to hold onto her childhood hopes and friendships and alliances, but also keen to become independent and to prove herself.
So The Harper Effect ticks all the right boxes for a YA novel as it explores the territory faced by most adolescents, even if her life is quite a bit different because of her sporting skills. We are taken into the messy, chaotic and uncertain teenage brain. Bashford deliberately uses the occasional overblown metaphor and some flowery writing because it takes us directly into Harper’s head (remember all those years of bad adolescent poetry?)
Two things stood out in this story for me. The first is that Harper is a strong, capable, determined female – a great role model for young readers. The fact that she makes mistakes but learns from them, that she is clumsy but knows how to apologise, that she is naïve and vulnerable but persists in her pursuit of being a better person – all of these things combine to create a heroine character. Not someone who never gives up – because she does think about giving up, all the time. But someone who ultimately DOESN’T give up, but pushes on through the pain and the disappointments and the failures, in order to grow. The second thing I liked about this book is the romance. Most YA features romance in some form, usually fairly innocent and chaste, but in this story the complex romantic entanglements between the main characters are written with an almost adult passion, whilst never stepping over the mark in terms of what might be appropriate for a teenage reader. Bashford writes desire and yearning with real feeling and nuance. Harper loves wildly – her emotions are as uncontrolled as a rushing river. She has all the feelings – love, hate, jealousy, loyalty, passion, desire, fear, guilt, shame – and she doesn’t have a clue how to handle them. So she just muddles through (as most of us do in life). When the book opens, she has just been dropped by her tennis coach, she is not speaking to her sister, and she is in love with one (or maybe two?) boys. And one (or maybe two?) of them may be completely wrong for her. As the narrative progresses, Harper faces tough decisions and difficult choices, makes friends and enemies, grows up a little, and begins to think seriously about what it is she wants from life. Harper, Colt, Aria and Jacob are all broken in some way, and these flaws are what makes them so appealing.