When Rebecca Starford’s mother first leaves her at the Silver Creek boarding school at age 14, Rebecca wants to run after her, jump into the car, and never return to the Victorian bush location.
Instead, she waves goodbye and mumbles, “It’s okay, it’s okay.” And so they begin, the lies that for the next year spill “like an oil slick” over everything Rebecca says and does and knows to be true about herself.
A terrible troika begins immediately to dominate the 15 denizens of Red House, the dormitory to which “Becs” has been assigned. Solitary Kendall with the albino-white hair, stinky white shorts and spindly blue chicken legs becomes Piggy from Lord of the Flies.
Becs knows she should try to protect Kendall from the steady drip of bullying, but in the face of the troika she manages only acquiescence. Over the course of her year at Silver Creek she morphs into a ghoulish version of herself. The one-time nice girl begins to thrill in the upset she causes Miss Lacey, the ineffectual twentysomething staff member charged with minding the Red House miscreants.
Starford, founding editor of the Kill Your Darlings literary magazine and one-time deputy editor of Australian Book Review, has crafted a gripping memoir that is a good argument against sending your children off to boarding school. One girl cuts her wrists, another runs herself into a tree on purpose to knock herself out, and Kendall sets fire to herself. My only quibble is that I would have liked the author to return to Kendall’s self-immolation, to tell us more about what happens with her and the others after they got to Big School. Instead, the focus of the book shifts onto Rebecca’s adult love life, which has elements of drama about it but none of the sturm und drang of Silver Creek.
Thank goodness that in her year at Silver Creek young Rebecca discovered the solitary consolations of journalling, for this has enabled her astute and frightening rendering of female adolescence. The psychopathic Portia is unforgettable.
No wonder memories of the Red House girls still lurk at the edges of Starford’s memory, “nudging like a boat tied loose to a jetty”. I’ll wager that in her writing at least, she isn’t done with them yet. MG
Allen & Unwin, 272pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 21, 2015 as "Rebecca Starford, Bad Behaviour". Subscribe here.