If I Tell You, Alicia Tuckerman (2018)
Note: We don’t give star-ratings. We review in order to encourage the development of AusQueerYA, by deconstructing the good and the bad bits, to learn and grow as writers.
‘The second our eyes lock in the dark is all the time I need to know that whatever happens next, my life will never be the same.
Life and love don’t wait until you’re ready, but what if finding yourself means losing everything you’ve ever know?
Seventeen-year-old Alex Summers lives with a secret and the constant fear someone will find out. But when a new family moves to town, they bring with them their teenage daughter Phoenix Stone. When Alex falls for Phoenix, there is no warning. In a small town with small minds, girls don’t go out with other girls, even if they want to.
In fear there is bravery – you can either cling to the edge or have the courage to jump. But what do you do when you’re left spiralling through the freefall?
This is a heart-wrenching story of love in an unloving Australian landscape.’
Alicia Tuckerman has come out (pun intended) blazing with her debut AusQueerYA novel. It is an emotional rollercoaster of a page turner. Let’s start at the beginning. We are introduced to Alex with this insight:
‘I’m a lesbian. I waited for the shame, for the need to go and stick my tongue down some boy’s throat to prove how straight I was, but it didn’t come. And that terrified me more than knowing I was gay. If I wasn’t ashamed, what was I?’ (p. 3).
There is a complexity shared in these few sentences that Tuckerman repeats throughout the book. The struggle between being proud of yourself but scared of everyone else. This is not your typical coming out story, because Alex already knows she is gay and Tuckerman makes sure the reader knows that upfront. This story is about the courage it takes to live that truth, to come out again and again every day, and the unique challenges of being Queer outside of Australia’s capital cities.
The second main character, Phoenix, is openly lesbian, and this works well to motivate Alex to come out too. This plot device (main character comes out only after love interest appears) usually annoys me, but it didn’t jar on me so much here, mainly because Alex’s reason for not being out was the main focus of this novel (societal/family pressure in regional/rural areas) and Alex knew she was gay already, rather than needing Phoenix to awaken her to this fun fact about herself.
The plot is an outright tear jerker, and the major plot twist had me floored.
‘Promise me, you’ll jump’ (p.32).
Tuckerman knows how to tell a yarn. If I Tell You is own voices not only in terms of its lesbian main characters, but also for the rural setting. This makes it an especially important text for Queer teens living in rural areas, because the novel ultimately has a positive ending and encourages living as your true self over submitting to parental, societal or other expectations.
To Be Improved:
This review was based on an uncorrected proof copy, so originally there was a particular scene that didn’t sit right. The scenario was that Alex and Phoenix were kissing on the bed, and Alex wanted to take things further, but Phoenix says, ‘Stop’ and Alex says, ‘I don’t want to’, and climbs back on top of her (p. 166). Phoenix reciprocates, but I still found the lines of consent blurry, and so I shared my concerns with Tuckerman. I am including this here because I think it’s important as writers to recognise why we need other people to read our work, why editors are invaluable, and to understand that we really can be too close to our own work sometimes. Turns out Tuckerman had already fixed this in the final copy but was shocked at how many times that scene had passed by both herself and her editors eyes without raising an alarm in either of them. Tuckerman had amended the scene for the final copy to have Phoenix be the one to re-initiate the make out session.
Lesson: always have other people read your work.
The other issue that was raised by this book was on a comment made by Alex’s best friend Lin. Lin is questioning why Alex has never hit on her before and then makes the joke that it didn’t matter anyway because, ‘I like sausage too much to turn vagetarian.’ (p. 97). This joke, while fitting with Lin’s character of saying wildly inappropriate things all the time, is transphobic in nature and should have been called out within the text. Tuckerman has since addressed this issue and apologised for not calling it out in text.
Alex’s mum did not take the Queer thing well and literally kicks Alex out, but then she just pops up again in the end and they sorta work it out, but it’s awkward as. That plot line isn’t given as much airtime as I would have liked. SO MANY QUESTIONS.
I want to bring up one last aspect of this novel. If I Tell You kills off one of it’s main Queer characters. The Bury Your Gays trope is a sensitive issue in the Queer community, but in this case, I do not see the use of the trope as a negative. For an in depth analysis on why it is sometimes of to bury your gays, refer to this article by Get YA Words Out.