Josephine Alibrandi, a Catholic girl, narrates the novel in her final year of High school. She attends St Martha’s, a wealthy catholic school in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. Her academic scholarship ensures her place at the school as she is not as well off as the population of largely wealthy Anglo-Celtic girls that attend the school. Her Italian origin has been the reason for much persecution toward her in her life. Her background against the moneyed origins of her peers also provides much source of angst for Josie.
She lives in the inner-city suburb of Glebe with her single mother, who takes care of her. Their rather small dwelling is the source of some embarrassment for Josie.
Josie is essentially on a journey of discovery throughout the novel. This journey reveals much about herself, her family and the many lessons that she is yet to learn in her life. Her search for her own cultural identity is coupled with her struggle as a poor student among many wealthy ones.
Josephine also has a number of self-esteem issues that manifest themselves throughout the novel in her perceptions of the world. These issues are further complicated by her family situation. Issues that are dealt with include:
Role of The Family
Josie is searching to discover the true nature of her family history. She comes to learn that much of what she has been told in incorrect. A number of issues that both she and her mother deal with are explained by some of her family circumstances.
Her grandmother, father and mother all have a significant amount to teach her about herself and about herself. Each in their own way has the power to impart some personal experience that will assist Josie in her journey. She does come to learn, however, that these realisations can do much harm. Overall, however, her journey in regard to her family is a cathartic experience that solves many issues she was forced to deal with.
Josie’s father, Michael Andretti, has only recently come back into life. He is introduced to us in Chapter six. While Josie’s mother was still pregnant he left Sydney for Adelaide. He return comes with the assertion that he does not “want a complication in his life” and again he seems to be deserting Josie. She confronts him about this, and his attitude does not win her affection. It seems that Michael cannot provide to Josie what she needs – a stable father figure that might help her to make sense of her own identity and unique set of circumstances.
However, later in Chapter 8, Michael comes to her aid and she feels proud to have him walk alongside her. Josie has long craved this feeling and her father finally provides it to her. Their relationship continues to grow stronger throughout the novel, and he tells her that “If I had to choose a daughter, I would have chosen you”. This remark, combined with his attitude seems to reaffirm his postion is her life. He proposes that she comes live with him in Balmain and that she becomes his adopted daughter. She is prepared to consider a name change, yet her journey of discovery dictates that she cannot leave her mother and live with Michael. He provides only part of the answer in her journey, and she realises that she cannot desert her mother.
Josie’s grandfather, Francesco had a unique situation with his wife – Josie’s “Nonna”. Being from Italy (the old country), it was customary for arranged marriages to be set up by ones parents. This is the situation that “nonna” found herself in. However, she committed adultery, and had a child that was not fathered by Francesco. This child if nonna’s hypocrisy is a way of making up for her past sins, and a way of easing the pain of her failed marriage and the problems that have occurred in her family as a result. Josie comes to realise that many family situations tend to be passed from generation to generation and that her mother is not to blame entirely for her own situation.
While Josie does make a great many discoveries about her family situation, she still remains unaware of many of the hardships that her mother had faced in her own life. Josie reacts badly to her mother seeing a man, and we can see that she still has much to learn. A journey of discovery inevitably involved ones family, and the issue that one discovers can often be painful as much as cathartic. This is because many of the issues open up wounds that may have otherwise not been disturbed.
Josie’s family is part of the Italian community in Sydney. Her grandmother settled in Australia with Francesco, a man that was 15 years older than she was and with whom she had been forced into a marriage with. When they did reach Australia, the way that the Australian women behaved and their attitudes to men shocked Josie’s grandmother.
Josie understands that her Nonna’s early years were fraught with difficulty and loneliness, as she was isolated from what she had known. Josie in her discovery comes to find a parallel between certain parts of her life and that of her grandmothers. Her insecurities are essentially those of her grandmother.
The traditions of the Italian community have refused to die in Josie’s family and she often questions some of the particular on-going ways. She says “culture is nailed into you so deep you can’t escape it”. Josie’s journey of discovery essentially teaches her not to be ashamed of who she is, and to cherish the old ways of family. She comes to the realisations that her Nonna is too old to adopt new habits, and that she be appreciated for who she is. Josie realises that her Nonna went through a number of trying experiences that were not completely her own doing. In some sense she understands that fate and external factors have as much to do with the way that we live our lives as our own decisions do.
Josie, however in her journey of discovery fails to make a complete understanding of tolerance of others. When she overhears a girl at her school complain about “wogs” she breaks her nose. This act demonstrates that Josie does not understand that the Anglo girls have also inherited much tradition, good and bad, from their parents. Parents who knew an Australia that was predominantly white have influenced the Anglo girls at the school. Only since the 1950’s has Australian become the multicultural society that it is today. The girls who make racist statements are only learning this behaviour from their parents.
The journey of discovery teaches us that while we make our own decisions in life, we are also victims of fate. Nonna, Josie, her family and the girls at the school are all affected by external factors beyond their control. The influence of our parents, friends and our culture will shape who we are as much as what we choose to do.
In her interaction with others, Josie meets a range of people with their varied standing in the social order of Sydney. Jacob Coote is local boy who lives in Redfern and goes to a Government high school. We are also introduced to John Barton, the school captain at a wealthy Catholic high school. He is also the son of a politician. In meeting these two individuals, Josie comes to discovery the class barriers that exist in society and the differences between these different groups. She comes to see the differences and the similarities between her life and that of the two boys.
John has great expectation placed upon him by his family and suicide seems to only way out for him. His death is an important part of Josie’s discovery process as she comes to realise that while she is poor, she is also free to pursue any sort of life that she wants. John’s life, however, was pre-ordained and he had to die in order to achieve his emancipation.
Josie comes to see a number of contrasts in Jacob. He is tough yet sensitive and loves him family. These contradictions are mirrored in the Italian community where a woman must wear black after her husband dies, however he is allowed to remarry. Josie would like to be in love with John and to have people look at her with envy, however it is Jacob that she is attracted to.
Her discovery helps her to realise who her true friends are. Josie does learn later in the novel that she is the most popular girl in the school after she is votes school captain. This comes as a shock as her social standing was something that she worried about.