Title: My Spare Heart
Author: Jared Thomas
Published: May 31, 2022
Publisher: Allen and Unwin
Readership: Young Adult
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Content/trigger warnings: racism, alcoholism
I received a copy of My Spare Heart from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.
Seventeen-year-old Phoebe’s life is turned upside down when she moves from the city to the country to live with her dad in this powerful and uplifting story about family breakdowns, facing truths and finding balance.
Phoebe’s non-Indigenous mother, a busy event manager, and her father, an Aboriginal man and uni lecturer, have split up and she’s moved to sleepy old Willunga with him and his new health-obsessed girlfriend. It’s only a few kilometres from Phoebe’s old friends and the city, but it feels like another world.
Her new school is full of hippies, but some of the kids are cool and the local basketball team is tight, and before long Phoebe’s fitting in. But as her mum becomes increasingly unreliable, Phoebe’s grades begin to suffer, her place on the basketball team is under threat and her worries spiral out of control.
Phoebe can’t tell her friends and is worried her dad will get angry, but pretending everything is fine is breaking her heart. How can she help her mum without tearing her family apart?
I was approached by the publisher to see if I would be interested in reviewing My Spare Heart and in the email I received it was described as one of the most real books the publisher had read in a while. While at the time this didn’t mean much to me, after reading and reflecting on the impact the story had on me as a reader, I not only agree but am so pleased that that was a description that was shared with me.
My Spare Heart is the story of Phoebe, who’s parents have separated due to her mother’s alcholism. Now she’s living with her Aboriginal father and his new partner and starting at a new school that’s completely different to what she’s known previously. She’s having to make new friends, deal with racism, and her conflicted feelings towards her parents all while she’s trying to just be a teenage girl.
I don’t read a lot of young adult these days, and my preference is for Australian stories or stories that focus on diverse identities and First Nations stories, for which this fits perfectly. Jared Thomas has a very compelling storytelling voice and I was hooked from the first chapter – he’s written a fierce, yet vulnerable, teenager who’s life is complicated and confusing and who, as a reader, I’m deeply empathetic towards.
It tackles the systemic racism that Aboriginal and First Nations’ people face in Australian society – from the loud, in-your-face racism, to the insidious, backhanded and whispered comments. It’s never preachy, but it’s eloquent and to the point and so well written. It also has beautiful moments celebrating culture and heritage that were some of my favourite scenes in the whole book.
The story deals with complex family dynamics, especially as Phoebe’s non-Indigenous mother is working through her alcoholism, and the way that parents can support and let down their children in ways that can be hard for children to process. I liked that the book included opportunities for Phoebe to speak to other people who were in similar situations within their families and gave her a safe space to talk about it without the pressure of people judging her.
And, of course, there were Phoebe’s passion for basketball, which was the one thread through the whole book that gave her solace. She kept coming back to it as her baseline barometer and I haven’t read too many books where basketball was the sport focus, so that was also very interesting to read about.
I think this is well-worth checking out for any young adult reader (be they teenagers or adults) because there are some truly important messages in this book for everyone. This is definitely a favourite read of the month.