Title: Head of the River
Author: Pip Harry
Genre: YA contemporary
Length: 304 pages
Published by: UQP (University of Queensland Press)
Published on: June 25th 2014
Source: received in exchange for review – thanks, UQP!
It’s the most elite school sporting event in the country. Nine rowers, 2000 gruelling metres and one chance for glory in the ultimate team sport. Sit forward … ROW.
Tall, gifted and the offspring of Olympians, superstar siblings Leni and Cristian Popescu are set to row Harley Grammar to victory in the Head of the River.
With six months until the big race, the twins can’t lose. Or can they?
When Cristian is seduced by the easy route of performance-enhancing drugs, and Leni is suffocated with self-doubt, their bright futures start to fade. Juggling family, high expectations, study, break-ups, new relationships and wild parties, the pressure starts to build.
As the final moments tick down to the big race, who’ll make it to the start line? And who’ll plummet from grace?
You don’t need to like rowing in order to enjoy this book. Or even know anything about it (I certainly don’t). You don’t even need to like sport.
Take me, for example. I am a great believer in the power of INSIDE over outside. As Neil Gaiman has so kindly summarised for me:
I know nothing about rowing. Okay, I know that Australia’s pretty good at it. And I know that it gives you calluses, because a guy in my grade at school is a rower. So I wasn’t ridiculously excited for this book, because I didn’t think I would be able to relate to it.
I am happy to say that I was wrong.
Head of the River is told in a twin POV…literally. Cristian and his twin sister Leni, children of Olympic rowers, switch between telling the story. Cristian’s story involved emotional eating, taking up drugs and lack of self-esteem. Leni’s, meanwhile, was more about the pressure of the sport and learning to work within a team.
Despite having such pressure, being kids of Olympians, I absolutely LOVED the parents in this story (parental involvement, hooray!). The Dad, Vasile Popescu (yes, I am proud I remembered his name), is Romanian and doesn’t speak the best English. He pushes his kids but he also wants the best for them. The Mum is more laid-back, with the attitude that it doesn’t matter what happens – she still loves her kids. And she’s always looking out for Leni and Cris.
So we have Cris. In a switch of the usual, he’s the one who has issues with his weight, rather than from a female’s POV – which was really great, since eating disorders are not something only girls suffer from. You don’t see that often in YA. He turns to drugs as a way to enhance his performance, and his thought process was well-written – going in circles from “I have to do this” to “What if people find out?”
Then there’s Leni. She’s the over-achiever, the one who gets straight A’s as well as being a champion rower. I think I could relate to her a lot better than I could to Cris – she responds to the pressure by trying even harder, and there’s no release for her, because even the thing she loves (rowing) is a competition. So I could relate to her really well.
Both of the twins often reminisce to the start of their rowing, how none of it mattered. Both of them sometimes deal with their issues in ways that aren’t the best, but it’s also a growing process for both of them, and there was a lot of character development there. Leni loosens up a bit and eventually is able to work in a team and have fun with the other girls.
There were a few things I wasn’t so keen on, though.
Cristian’s main conflict, right towards the end, felt rushed to me – we didn’t see all the consequences of what he’d done, and he seemed (to me, at least) to get off pretty lightly.
I also wasn’t crazy about the romance sub-plots, because I didn’t feel they were that necessary in what was already a strong story.
Then there was the final ending, which was ABSOLUTELY heartbreaking and a clear message to sportspeople in general – like before, it felt really rushed and there wasn’t enough build-up for it. It kind of came out of nowhere. Well, not out of nowhere because it was hinted in the very beginning. But it had an almost tacked-on effect which felt…not quite as though it was added for shock value, but as though it wasn’t particularly necessary.
In the end, though, I really did love the twins’ stories, the cautions about using drugs, and the unique use of rowing as the framework for the story. This is one to read regardless of how much you like sport.