A Social, Housing, Problem!

Tanja Cilia

CHARLES CASHA; martina@chat.com, klabb kotba maltin, 2009, 80pp, paperback, ISBN 978-99932-7-280-9

Everyone is in the house, but no one is home. They might as well be on different planets.

Dad still has the old-fashioned idea that he must be the breadwinner and works all hours to prove it. Mum does voluntary work and cooks with a tin-opener and a pair of scissors (when she bothers to wield them). Brother is weaving a cocoon around him – this might suffocate him rather than help him metamorphose into a butterfly.

And what about Martina, the eponymous heroine of the book? Like most teenage girls, she has aspirations of becoming a model. Her character is a curious mixture of self-absorbent, naiveté, and narcissism that she does not even realise she is being groomed by one of those predators who surf the internet specifically for entrapping girls like her.

Bad role models such as Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, Lindsey Lohan and Paris Hilton depict stylised pornography as par for the course to becoming famous. Social sites encourage latchkey children to interact with anyone who happens to be online, if they feel the need to talk to someone ‘real’ (and I use the word objectively) rather than watch television – or, perish the thought, skim through their school books.

In Malta, Toddlers and Tiaras is not yet an issue; however, as many children are obsessed with the idea of “modelling”, I would say, more than they are with learning music, or dancing, or practicing a sport. Marina happens to be rather gifted in the looks and figure departments – so for her, it is an obvious “career choice”.

Since she cannot communicate these feelings with her mother, who is always too busy to listen, or her father, who is rarely at home, or her brother, who lives in his own private world, she turns to her monitor screen.

Flattery and psychological use of words drop her neatly into the trap set by someone who already has a bevy of girls at his disposal – but who is somehow fascinated by this unaffected, innocent girl, and wants to add her to his list of conquests.

Martina is a girl of principles – and this is what makes her a hard nit to crack. She wants the fame that is being dangled like a carrot before her eyes, but is not (yet) ready to pay the price that is asked from her in order that it be achieved.

The girls who treat her like a prude needle her competitive spirit; she is almost persuaded that the only way to get to the top is to do what Miley Cyrus recently said was “taking the reins”… And yet, Martina is not fully convinced of this, because she concocts a cock-and-bull story in order to explain her absences from home.

Casha throws red herrings along the path to the end of the book. We wonder what is wrong with Robert, Martina’s brother. We wonder where to her mother is disappearing. We even wonder whether her father is really doing overtime, at some junctures in the story. I cannot understand, frankly, how it is possible for people to not have edible food in the house, and so have to resort to eating rubbish – and yet I know for a fact that this happens often. Surely it cannot be that Robert has guessed what is happening to his sister? .

Casha obviously knows how the minds of teenagers work – his career as a teacher shows through his work. He takes us step-by-step through the seduction of the green Martina by the worldly-wise Donald, who, in another genre, would have been a vampire sucking the lifeblood out of nubile young ladies. The charity shop fashion show, quite the deus ex machina, later allows Martina to pursue her dream, albeit as a one-off.

Families like Martina’s, where each person is ensconced in his own pursuits, alas do exist.

Teens who feel relegated to Second Division behind their siblings will identify with Robert – even if they are female. His is the perennial problem of sibling competition that does not surface, and cannot therefore be addressed. It rumbles discontentedly, further alienating him from the rest of the family. Until…

In this YA novel, Casha seeks to give a subtle, hip warning to teenagers who cannot comprehend the motives behind certain people’s overtures of friendship… and he succeeds.

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