Book review: It Sounded Better in My Head by Nina Kenwood

(cover image courtesy Text Publishing)

Transition points in life are never easy.

Oh, we’d like to think they are, or at least will be, since as much as we dread all the change and disruption, we’re also usually quietly (or loudly) excited about the idea that something new and different could be coming down the pike.

It’s an often frantic battle, one that Melbourne schoolgirl Natalie, the lovably ill-at-ease protagonist of Nina Heywood’s text Prize-winning debut, It Sounded Better in My Head, comes to know all too well when, at the end of high school with a hoped-for university course beckoning, at a university where her besties Zach and Lucy (who are totally, and unexpectedly a couple of nine months standing), her envisaged cosy shift into near-adulthood is blown to smithereens by her parents’ weirdly-coordinated and highly-awkward announcement that they are splitting up after our twenty years together.

On Christmas Day, no less.

It’s a bombshell of epic proportions that the now-mostly acne-free university student wannabe – she spent the early-to-mid teenage years covered in acne so bad it has left considerable scarring on her back and an ongoing ever-present war with zits on her face, not mostly under control – definitely did not need.

Coming hard on the heels of the coupling of her only two real friends in the world, Zach and Lucy, whom she met as a special writing retreat for school students three years earlier and with whom she has been tight friends ever since, it’s a disastrous turn of events that shakes to the core the emerging idea that, mostly post-acne, the only way is up.

But when has life ever been that compliant?

“I slow down as I approach the house, trying to look a lot more confident than I am. There are two guys I don’t know sitting on the steps leading up to the front door. They glance at me as I open the gate and walk towards them but continue their conversation. Should I say hi? I should say hi. I imagine myself saying hello in my nervous, too-formal voice and I imagine them raising their eyebrows at each other and then mimicking me behind my back as I walk in. I won’t say anything. That’s safer. I should pretend to be on my phone. But it’s too late for that now. I’m right beside them. Oh god, is one them Benny?” (P. 31-32)

Pretty much never, thank you very much, and as Natalie comes to grips with that fact, in the seamlessly efficient and emotionally trouble-free manner than none of us ever manage, especially as teenagers, she’s forced to re-evaluate all kinds of things, not all of them necessarily bad.

Take her growing romance with someone entirely expected, a person very much in her orbit who challenges all kinds of ideas she has about herself.

After years of loner status at school, some of it self-imposed, much of it not, a crippling sense that she is ugly and unlikable and a reclusive lifestyle that even Greta Garbo would see as a excessive (her parents certainly think so), Natalie has neither the social skills nor, initially at least, the inclination to see where this all goes.

And yet, for all gnawing uncertainty about what this guy means to her, and where it might all end up, Natalie finds herself heading down a path she never mapped out nor felt like travelling down at the same as everything in her life is upending itself like over-eager apple carts.

It’s a great life lesson in the giddy unpredictability of life but like most of us, Natalie is in no mood to sit there and be lectured.

She might want many of the things in the offing (not her parents’ break-up obviously) but she’s not sure how to get them or what to do when she’s got them.

Nina Kenwood (image courtesy Text Publishing)

Hers is not a unique dilemma but thanks to Heywood’s obvious gift for creating and sustaining a delightful protagonist, Natalie fills It Sounded Better in My Head with a lovably flawed and all too human responses to Big Changes and Major Life Events.

More often than not, she zigs where she should have zagged and make completely the wrong choices but therein lies the appeal of her character and thus, this delightful book – who among us hasn’t, at some point or another, and let’s be honest, almost continuously, made the very worst of all possible decisions?

It’s driven often by a near-perfect idea of how things will turn out – in Natalie’s case this is referenced over and over in cinematically epic terms where she contrasts what her idealistic mind’s eye says should have happened with what actually went down, to gloriously hilarious and heartfelt effect – which, when it doesn’t pan out, throws us for so magnificent a loop that our capacity for any kind of sane or well-meaning response is rendered near useless.

Which is a disaster, we think at the time, because we have quite likely ruined everything.

After all, if the best laid plans of mice, men and Natalie are rent asunder, what good can possibly come of the less-than-idea, resulting cascade of events?

“My throat feels dry. It’s a little sore. I think I’m getting sick. I’ve caught something off him. Glandular fever, maybe. Or scarlet fever, which I thought was an old-fashioned disease that didn’t exist anymore until a girl at my school caught it after kissing too many people at a music festival. Alex probably kisses so many girls that he’s a walking bacteria incubator. He’s probably built an immunity to all the germs he’s carrying, and I have zero immunity because I’ve been kissing no one, and I will collapse under the exposure.

I need to get a grip. A boy might like me. This information should not send me into total emotional collapse.

I can do this. I can do this.” (P. 173)

Quite a lot, as it turns out.

The delight of It Sounded Better in My Head that it embraces the idea than less-than-ideal doesn’t mean bad; in fact, quite often, in our idealising of the “perfect” life we do ourselves a disservice by closing ourselves to great and good things such as romance, when it doesn’t fit the mold we pictured.

If there’s one thing that emerges from this light, bright and pleasingly substantial book, it’s that the supposed less-than trajectories that we erroneously think will go nowhere because they deviate from our jealously-hoarded and deeply-prized expectations might in fact be the best things that ever happened to us.

It’s hard though to see that, and even more so when you’re an older teenager still figuring out life – to be fair, that never actually stops but it’s definitely messier when we’re younger – and so you can understand why it takes Natalie a long while, and many melodramatic, over-thought-out missteps and moments to see that life isn’t a total loss when it departs from the expected ideal.

In fact, and It Sounded Better in My Head champions this sensibility to an impossibly-pleasing, winningly-written degree, it might lead to places far better and more wonderful and ultimately life-affirming than you, and most importantly in this context, adorable, lovably-flawed but well-meaning Natalie, ever thought possible.

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