The spectrality of adolescence in the novels of Vikki Wakefield
  • Adam Kealley

This paper considers the implications of the spectre as metaphor for the postmodern adolescent, in preparation for my own creative writing project. Pamela Thurschwell has previously argued the case for the spectral nature of adolescence. Occupying an uncanny temporal condition, adolescents are haunted by their childhood past and a future adult self they fear may never materialise. I suggest that this liminality can arise from the effect of a disjunct between their lived realities and the discourses which seek to define adolescent subjectivity; namely those of the nuclear family and the growth imperative inherent to the Bildungsroman. These ideological structures have their origins in the Enlightenment, yet despite their deterioration in the postmodern world, remain fundamental to the literature for young adults. I draw on the work of Avery Gordon and Esther Peeren to suggest that the spectral metaphor can be employed to interrogate these outdated discourses, calling attention to their spectralising effects on the adolescent subject. This is evident in the young adult novels of Vikki Wakefield, including Friday Brown (2012), All I Ever Wanted (2011) and Inbetween Days (2015), in which her protagonists give voice to the spectral adolescent.

Keywords: Spectrality — Haunting — Adolescence — Bildungsroman — Family — Metaphor — Vikki Wakefield


Buildings leaned like tombstones, walls gaped with cracks … Old water tanks crusted with rust, jagged fence posts linked with drooping wire, shuttered windows and the taint of green, the spreading noxious green of rot and rain.

‘There’s nobody here,’ Joe said. ‘It looks like a godforsaken ghost town.’

‘It is a fucking ghost town, you knob,’ Arden snapped. ‘I told you guys all about it.’

‘You said we were going to find our own place.’

‘This is better – I got us a whole town. We can be a family here.’ (Wakefield 2012: 204)


Such are the places occupied by the protagonists of Vikki Wakefield, an Australian author of four critically praised young adult novels who has been shortlisted for several literary awards. Wakefield’s adolescent protagonists are haunted by trauma and family secrets, occupying liminal positions within the physical and social landscape. The ‘spectral turn’ of the early 1990s, following Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx (1993), has resulted in the application of the ghost and its varied incarnations as an analytical tool to theorise aspects of culture, including marginalised peoples and the structures of their repression. This paper considers the implications of the spectre as metaphor for the postmodern adolescent condition, in preparation for my own creative writing project.

Pamela Thurschwell has previously argued that postmodern adolescents are spectral due to their uncanny temporal condition, trapped between a haunted relationship with their past and anticipation of a future they fear may never come. I suggest that this haunted and liminal condition may arise from the failure of social institutions to represent their lived reality in the postmodern world. In doing so, I draw on the work of Avery Gordon and Esther Peeren to suggest that the spectral metaphor in the novels of Vikki Wakefield is employed to interrogate the outdated discourses of the family and the growth imperative inherent to the Bildungsroman, social structures that have shaped adolescent subjectivity since the Enlightenment. In Friday Brown (2012), All I Ever Wanted (2011) and Inbetween Days (2015), Wakefield gives a voice to the dispossessed adolescent, calling attention to the spectralising effects of these discourses in the postmodern world. Simultaneously, the spectral metaphor offers her adolescent protagonists an avenue for agency, exploiting the very liminality that characterises this condition for its subversive potential.


The spectral metaphor

The power of metaphor stretches deeper than a mere ‘ornament of language’ (Yang 2015: 84). Cognitive linguistics posits metaphor as a conceptualising framework that has the power to shape our lived realities. They represent abstract ideas by analogising embodied experience. Thus, metaphors are more than just a literary exercise, as ‘our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world and how we relate to other people [and] thus play a central role in defining our everyday realities’ (Lakoff & Johnson 1980: 3).

In terms of an embodied metaphor, then, the very concept of the ghost seems other; its defining quality being the lack of a corporeal body. The ghost represents a condition of radical alterity which, as Esther Peeren explains, ‘certain people [are made to] live as, the conceptual and cognitive framework through which they are made sense of and come to make sense of themselves’ (2014: 6). The metaphor of the ghost is polysemic, encompassing an invisibility and disembodiment that may seem to render ghosts as powerless.

However, the ghost also has a revenant quality, returning to haunt the living. It is a figure which unsettles, questioning the very boundaries of reality itself. Ghosts are liminal and fluid, destabilising the border between life and death, between absence and presence. This uncanniness produces a strong affective reaction; a ‘dual association with fear and fascination’ (ibid.: 2) that can render the ghost a figure of agency as well as ephemerality. In its power to haunt the living and call attention to its erasure, the ghost is imbued with a unique spectral power. Thus, the spectral metaphor encompasses ‘that which haunts like a ghost and, by way of haunting, demands justice, or at least a response’ (ibid.: 9). As a metaphor, the ghost stands for the metaphorically disembodied, and the forces which operate to repress them.


The spectrality of adolescence

Esther Peeren argues for the consideration of the ghost as a metaphor to encompass not only those ghosts of the past, but ‘the possible and impossible hauntings of those living ghosts produced in and by the present’ (ibid.: 9). Peeren1 turns her attention to those who resemble ghosts ‘in that they are ignored and considered expendable, or, sometimes at the same time, become objects of intense fear’ (ibid.: 14). While Peeren employs this understanding to examine the spectral subjectivities of migrants, servants and missing persons, there is a compelling argument for the adolescent to also be read in such spectral terms, figured as both a state of liminality and a destabilising presence within society.

Pamela Thurschwell has noted that adolescence is a liminal state ‘caught between the past of childhood and the future of adulthood, an uncanny temporality that partakes of both backward-looking haunting and forward-looking desire’ (2010: 299). It is a space of not quite being; no longer a child, yet denied the agency of adulthood. This is complicated, however, by the fear ‘that those times will never come’ (ibid.: 300) resulting in the dispossession that marks Peeren’s concept of the living ghost.

For the postmodern adolescent, agency and materiality are linked with their arrival as an adult subject in the capitalist economy. Recent research suggests contemporary social forces, including health, cultural and economic factors, have dramatically lengthened the adolescent period, identifying an earlier onset of puberty and the delaying of typical rites of passage into adulthood, such as the completion of education and long-term monogamy (See, for example; Sawyer, S, P Azzopardi, D Wickremarathe & G Patton 2018). This has the uncanny effect of stretching adolescence into a seemingly unorientable temporal condition.


Functions of the metaphor of spectral adolescence

The spectrality of adolescence is more than merely an existential motif; in its demand for attention, the metaphorical ghost performs important sociological work. In Ghostly Matters, Avery Gordon articulates the function of the ghost as interrogating the dynamics of repressive ideological structures that operate within society. Postmodernity has brought the understanding that ‘the social world is textually or discursively constructed’ (1997: 11). However, there are interstices that exist between such discourses and the lived experiences of those who are subject to them. By ‘paying attention to the disjuncture between identifying a social structure and its articulation in everyday life’ (ibid.: 19), Gordon notes ‘the hauntings, ghosts and gaps, seething absences and muted presences’ (ibid.: 21) that call attention to the failings of the discourses which shape the social world.

Vikki Wakefield’s protagonists occupy the interstices between lived experience and two significant social structures pertinent to young adults and their literature: the family and the Bildungsroman schema, with its teleological imperative of personal growth. But hauntings call for scrutiny, a reckoning with both the ghosts and the ‘systems that organise the production, reproduction and distribution of social life’ (ibid.: 206). Thus, the protagonists of these novels function to call attention to the failures of the ideals of family and the growth imperative to represent adolescence in the postmodern world.

The family is ‘a highly charged ideological construct’ (Lundin 2009: 243) that remains a focus of children’s and young adult literature. Recent decades have seen extraordinary changes to realities of family constructs through divorce, blended families, same-sex relationships, gender equality and increasing secularisation. Despite this, the nuclear ideal continues to exert considerable ideological influence, particularly within literature for young readers. Ann Alston argues that this occurs even in texts which ‘address themes that contrast with the cosy nuclear family ideal’ (2008: 2). The lack of the ideal family structure tends to produce characters with a sense of loss or longing, romanticising the family as ‘the source of happiness, the beginning and ending of all childhood journeys’ (Lundin 2009: 246). This generates a narrative discourse which creates subjects who desire, and thus replicate, the ideal of the family. Echoing Gordon, Alston concludes that this ideological operation ‘creates a vision of family life which does not match the lived experience of its audience’ (Alston 2008: 5). Those caught in the interstice may then be considered spectral: both haunted by, and haunting, the social institution of the family.

Further complicating the development of the adolescent subject can be the haunting effects of family trauma, stemming from a family’s internalisation of its failure to meet this ideal. Drawing on the work of Nicolas Abraham, Rosario Arias explains such effects are often present within family dynamics as ‘unspeakable secrets, absences and gaps that we all incorporate in the process of individuation–separation from our parents and spell out in a cryptic way’ (2012: 356). These ‘phantoms’ (Abraham 1987: 287) can be historical traumas that have been passed down through generations, or repressed and unacknowledged childhood traumas that were experienced by the present subject. In the name of protecting the innocence of the child, parents often deliberately exclude their children from knowledge of unpleasant truths or events that have occurred within their family, yet their presence remains hauntingly evident in cryptic expression; a paradoxical conflation of presence and absence. As Esther Rushkin also concludes, ‘[w]e are all the products of our infinitely regressive family histories’ (1988: 354). Moreover, particularly during adolescence and its shift away from solipsism, the child cannot help but be affected by Abraham’s psychic phantoms; secrets which inevitably inform family dynamics.

The second social structure interrogated by Wakefield is the growth imperative that informs the Bildungsroman, the archetypal narrative of adolescent formation. John Stephens refers to this schema as ‘the most pervasive theme in children’s fiction’, where protagonists grow from ‘infantile solipsism to maturing social awareness’ (1992: 3). Growth is the foremost concern of young adult literature, promulgated by the tradition of the Bildungsroman. Yet this European literary tradition of novel formation is not enough to explain the preoccupation with growth in young adult literature. Instead, as Trites argues, growth, and the concept of growing up, is another example of an embodied conceptual metaphor that now structures social life. As a result of these two factors, young adult literature ‘is a genre saturated with conceptualisations of growth that imply growth is inevitable, necessary, sometimes painful, and must lead to adulthood’ (Trites 2014: 20). The real issues arise in negotiating the rift between ‘our romantic beliefs in growth’ and the postmodern adolescent’s lived experiences which fail to coincide with their ideal (Trites 2000: 20). Falling within this gap results in a condition of spectrality for many adolescents, including those represented by Wakefield.


The metaphor of spectral spaces

A key metaphor by which Wakefield represents the spectrality of adolescence is through their development within spectral spaces. Chia Sui Lee argues that ‘the way we think about space or establish a relation to a place inflects our understandings of the world, our attitudes to others and our construction of identities’ (2016: 21). Lee articulates three conditions of spectral space. The first is heterogeneous temporality, which embodies ‘a complex interaction of past, present and future’ (ibid.: 22). In such places, temporalities overlap or accumulate, undermining monological notions of time and identity. The second is fluidity; spaces that mimic the transgressive and mobile nature of the spectre. This encompasses places of transience, displacement and circulation, which can undermine the static concepts of home and family (ibid.: 26) that inform the subjective development of the adolescent. The final characteristic is uncanny-ness. These are places that appear haunted, unpredictable or altered, where presence is marked by absence. This incorporates Freud’s (1919) understanding of the uncanny as ‘unhomelike’, the de-familiarisation of places that once represented security and stability (ibid.: 30). Spectral spaces have a significant bearing on the processes of subjective development. In Wakefield’s novels, they function as a metaphor to interrogate the immutability of the structures which shape the social world, and direct ‘attention to internal and external otherness’ (Lee 2016: 31) of the adolescents who inhabit it.


Inbetween Days

Inbetween Days features the protagonist Jacklin, a seventeen-year-old girl who lives on the fringes of a town called Mobius, notorious for its proximity to a forest in which fifty-three people have taken their own lives. The forest is clearly a fluid, spectral space, one that refuses to respect borders: ‘The sign said the forest started here but there was no edge to something that big: it didn’t even stop when it reached our backyard’ (Wakefield 2015: 75). In its refusal to be contained, the forest reveals how the social structures that are intended to identify clear boundaries are meaningless, just as the sign cannot contain or define the forest’s extent. There are also links to the uncanny, with the suicides generating a liminal space where the line between life and death is blurred, analogising the adolescent state. Calling attention to this uncanniness is the bottle tree, a huge gum in which numerous bottles hang containing the suicide notes of those who entered the forest but never returned. In the wind, ‘the bottles played like wailing ghosts’ (ibid.: 77), an eerie line of communication ‘between the living and the dead’ (ibid.).  This spectral space with its hauntingly vocal bottle tree literally calls attention to the dispossessed in society. The forest acts as a backdrop which haunts Jacklin, inflecting her understanding of the world as constituted by the failure of its social structures, and acting as a constant reminder of her own spectral nature.

Jacklin’s subjectivity is clearly spectral. She occupies a liminal space between childhood and adulthood, where every day is just ‘an empty square on the calendar [she] couldn’t wait to put a line through’ (ibid.: 12). Jacklin recognises the uncanny temporality of her existence, noting that ‘time was slippery… the future was stretching from somewhere out of reach and the present was gone in a blink’ (ibid.: 332). She is characterised by ‘an anticipatory relationship to the future and a haunted relationship to the past’ (Thurschwell 2010: 300), driven by the imperative to leave adolescence behind. Moving in with her adult sister Trudy and dropping out of school, Jacklin is ‘in a hurry to grow up’ (Wakefield, 2015: 21) and attempts to perform the social acts that Thurschwell identifies as characterising adulthood: independence, employment and monogamy (2010: 300). The town’s shrinking economic state means that she loses her part-time job, however, and her casual lover breaks up with her when she pushes for a more significant relationship. Jacklin feels directionless and trapped in the town, its name a significant metaphor: a Möbius strip has only one side and one boundary, twisting in on itself in an infinite loop. Finding herself drawn back to her mother and the family home, she craves ‘a big plate of everything she had ever complained about, or scraped into the bin when [her mother] wasn’t looking, or secretly fed to the dog’ (Wakefield 2015: 197). She disrupts her family with her haunting, prompting her mother to remind her ‘this isn’t a halfway house’ (ibid.: 200). In short, Jacklin occupies an uncanny temporality that conflates her past, present and future selves, nostalgically clinging on to her childhood whilst longing for a future self she cannot yet articulate.

Jacklin is haunted by the ideal of the family, particularly by the cryptic secret that has torn hers apart. She occupies the ‘unclaimed land between the trenches’ (ibid.: 20) that represents the unspoken conflict between her mother and her older sister who left Mobius five years previously to travel around Europe. The secret is that her sister never made it to Europe, living instead in a nearby city after crashing her car into a dam—the same dam where Jacklin has spent her summers. This car has been an absent presence that has unknowingly haunted Jacklin—invisible, but there—just below the surface of the water. In the terms of Abraham and Torok, the submerged car functions as a cryptic representation not of the secret of her sister’s lie, but of a deeper trauma: Jacklin’s feelings of loss as the ideal family fails to match her lived experience of a bitter mother, withdrawn father and absent sister. This trauma is a psychic phantom that haunts her subjectivity (Abraham 1987) with the unspoken secrets that have been kept, ironically, to ‘protect’ Jacklin from feeling abandoned by her sister.

In keeping with Abraham and Torok’s psychoanalytic intent, such phantoms must be brought to light in order to be exorcised. The importance of communication and its therapeutic benefit is clearly represented in Inbetween Days, when Jacklin befriends a man who takes up residence in the hanging forest to reconcile his own family trauma, the suicide of his brother. This man reveals the impact of secrets, where his family refused to acknowledge his brother’s depression: ‘[i]t wasn’t my problem if I didn’t pick up the phone. And then he was gone and we’ve all been asking, why, why, but none of us really want to know the answers’ (Wakefield 2015: 289). Jacklin confronts her father over the silence that has nearly destroyed their own family. He too admits that silence, that not being ‘a demonstrative family’ (ibid.: 271) has taken its toll. He encourages Jacklin to persevere in opening a dialogue with her mother, ‘before you get so guarded you can’t say what’s in your heart anymore’ (ibid.: 273). The emergence of Trudy’s car from the dam, as a result of drought, forces the family to confront the secrets they have been keeping—not merely the cover-up of Trudy’s failed venture to Europe, but the deeper trauma of their inability to communicate their fears over the dissolution of their nuclear family.

Although Wakefield reveals the haunting aspects of both the family and the imperative of growth, in addition to their spectralising effects on those whose lived experience fails to meet their ideals, she stops short of completely subverting them in this novel. The nuclear family ideal is reinforced in the narrative’s resolution when Jacklin returns home, brokering a reconciliation between her mother and Trudy, as well as between her parents. Furthermore, the capitalist agenda is similarly reinforced. Over the course of the summer, Jacklin and two friends set about restoring the town’s decrepit drive-in cinema. Although it initially starts as ‘something to do … with other people who had nothing to do but kill time’ (ibid.: 204), they soon ‘have a premiere’ (ibid.: 245) and charge admission. Ultimately, they end up running the drive-in as a business. Jacklin also pursues a relationship with a former schoolmate who has left Mobius to study at university. Although Jacklin’s mother encourages her to take a risk and ‘make it up as you go along’ (ibid.: 343), clearly Jacklin’s future self is still aligned with the goal of growth towards the capitalist ideal.


All I Ever Wanted

In All I Ever Wanted, Mim is ‘a skinny, sixteen-going-on-seventeen girl with an awful name, bad breeding and a dubious future’ (Wakefield 2011: 182). This reflects her spectral status, haunted by both the growth imperative and the fact that, impoverished and with a reputation for drug-dealing and violence, her family already occupies a tenuous position in the capitalist economy. Mim responds to these circumstances by developing a rigid code of behaviour intended to prevent her from following in the footsteps of her single mother and incarcerated brothers: ‘I will finish school. I will not take drugs. I will not get tattoos … How not to be. If I’m ever going to get out, be different, more than, other’ (ibid.: 33-34). Despite this, Mim’s future self seems increasingly out of reach as she finds herself breaking her precious rules. ‘I don’t need to study the rules; I know them, I live by them. Except I did a drug deal yesterday’ (ibid.: 34). Compelled by her mother to collect what she believes is drugs, Mim fixates on the package now hidden in her garden shed, a haunting reminder of succumbing to her family’s criminal tendencies, and thus a psychic phantom that indelibly shapes her self-concept as ghostly. Her mother describes life with her as ‘living with a shadow’ (ibid.: 196) and when a friend gets a tattoo of a ‘wispy wraith with hollow eyes and wings that look too small to fly’, Mim thinks ‘it would probably suit me far more’ (ibid.: 97). In this way, Mim is characterised as ghostlike, simultaneously haunting and haunted by her family dynamics. The package operates as a cryptic symbol of the traumas Mim suffers at her inability to participate successfully in the legitimate capitalist economy due to her family’s dysfunction.

As well as the growth imperative, Mim is haunted by the discourse of the ideal family. Her number one rule is ‘I will not turn out like my mother’ (ibid.: 34), a single woman with two sons in jail, an addiction to daytime television and intermittent responsibility for various illegitimate grandchildren. Mim cannot hide her shame and disgust—‘I can’t let myself be like these people’ (ibid.) she decides—believing that her unsophisticated family and their precarious finances may prevent her from escaping her marginal position: ‘It’s easy to turn out like I’m supposed to. Pregnant and unemployed and living in a half-house. That’s easy ... It’s fucking hard doing what I’m doing. It’s hard’ (ibid.: 89). As a result, Mim lives a ghostly existence, haunted by but also haunting her family. Her desire to be rid of her family legacy becomes an open source of conflict with her mother, who questions, ‘You think it’s that simple? Do the exact opposite of everyone around you and that’s your ticket [out of your circumstances]?’ (ibid.: 195). In All I Ever Wanted, the two social structures of family and the growth imperative to enculturate into the capitalist agenda are closely tied. More than anything, Mim desires to be an agentic subject, unrestricted by her impoverished circumstances and unsophisticated family. A clear link, then, is established between agency and economics; a clear alignment with the growth schema and its typical endpoint of participation in the capitalist economy.

Mim’s spectral condition is reinforced by the space she occupies on the fringe of society, ‘in a lost street in a forgotten suburb, the city an hour away’ (ibid.: 13). This spectral space is emphasised in the uncanniness of Mim’s homeplace; her street ‘looks like it’s the set of a ghost town’ (ibid.: 16). She lives in a duplex, ‘a mirror-image’ of the other half (ibid.: 15), haunted by the spectral presence of her seventeen-year-old neighbour, Lola, who ‘lives like a ghost’ (ibid.). Lola operates a phone sex line for income and represents—to Mim—a ghostly, other, self, should she not escape her limited circumstances. Significantly, behind the house runs a train line, which clearly symbolises Chia Sui Lee’s articulation of spectral space as a space of fluidity or transience without destination. Mim hangs out in the abandoned signal tower, noting the tracks ‘go for miles, east to west, tapering away to nothing. There are two ways out of here, but here I am. Still stuck’ (ibid.: 36). This represents Mim’s uncanny stasis within the linear growth imperative, trapped between looking backwards to her past, and forwards to her future. The uncanny fluidity of this setting, and its location at an unorientable position along the tracks, highlights Mim’s lack of anchoring in her own identity (Lee 2016: 26), ashamed of her family and their circumstances and desperate to move beyond them.

As with Inbetween Days, Wakefield again suggests the key to overcoming the spectral condition is to confront the cryptic secrets which generate it. The spectral package, hidden in the back shed for the entirety of the novel, turns out not to be a symbol of Mim’s inherited criminality. Mim finally confronts her mother, who is shocked to find that Mim would believe such things. Instead, it is her seventeenth birthday gift: a passport application and travel necessities for an exchange year in France, realising her daughter’s dream of traveling beyond the borders of her town. As Peeren notes, the power of the ghost is in demanding attention through its haunting of others (2014: 8). Mim’s ghostly condition has been noticed by her mother who, through scrimping and rallying friends and neighbours, has provided the opportunity for Mim to materialise her future self. Tackling the cryptic package also shatters both Mim’s and dominant society’s conceptualising of the family, revealing that its most important values—unconditional love and community—are equally abundant outside of the nuclear ideal:

‘You already had your ticket, babe. Your people, that’s your ticket. Because you can fly all you want, but if you’ve got nowhere to land, you’re fucked. And you’ve always had somewhere to land. That’s your salvation. Good and bad, drunks, witches, tarts and drug dealers. We are your people’ (Wakefield 2011: 195).


Friday Brown

A spectral family history also haunts the subjectivity of Liliane ‘Friday’ Brown, who has lived an itinerant life with her mother, Vivienne, since childhood. She has no relationship with her extended family: her grandmother is dead and her grandfather exists only as a spectral presence in their lives, Lilliane noting ‘[t]he way she’d spoken about him, like he was a ghost of the past, I’d assumed he was dead’ (Wakefield 2012: 69).  Furthermore, she has grown up half believing that she won’t make adulthood, as the women of her family seem cursed to die by drowning on a Saturday—Vivienne regularly recites a litany of ancestral women, detailing the gruesome ways they drowned. Nicknamed Friday as a result, these stories subsume Liliane’s identity: ‘[a]nd so I came to know myself—through the telling and retelling. They became a part of me as much as blood and bone’ (ibid.: 10), discursively rendering Friday’s subjectivity within a spectral family history. However, Friday later discovers that these accounts are fictions masking the psychic phantom of Vivienne’s own trauma, revealed only when, succumbing to cancer, she reluctantly returns to the family home from which she was cast out. Vivienne’s own trauma, arising from the death of her mother and her eviction as a pregnant teen by her father, is cryptically buried—or in this case, drowned—and transmitted via her grotesque fictionalised history: ‘I saw Vivienne’s invisible wires, the smoke and mirrors, her sleight of hand’ (ibid.: 230). The secrets that have informed Friday’s subjective development and their exposure as fiction leaves her in a liminal state: ‘I hated her for leaving, for leaving me half done ... I was nothing, and it was her fault’ (ibid.). Friday’s preoccupation with her drowned antecedents represents her ‘fantasies of the reason(s) for the parent's absence as well as of reparation of the parent's damaged part’ (Yassa 2013: 83). Rather than interrogate the real reasons for their itinerant lifestyle and lack of extended family, Friday sweeps this all into an impenetrable crypt disguised by the narrative of her ancestors’ exotic drownings.

‘What haunts are not the dead, but the gaps left within us by the secrets of others,’ writes Abraham (1987: 287). Unable to prise open the crypt and reconcile Vivienne’s secrets through therapeutic dialogue, Friday seems doomed to repeat her traumatic history. She turns to the streets and joins a band of homeless teenagers, a social group that clearly fulfils Peeren’s conditions of the living ghost as ‘a figuration of marginality’ that points to ‘a lack of visibility and impact in the social realm’ (2014: 8). They are an example of failed social structures of family and growth towards participation in the capitalist economy. Despite this, the group seeks to replicate these social structures. ‘We’re not a gang’ Arden insists, ‘We’re family’ (Wakefield 2012: 65). They look up to the charismatic Arden and her boyfriend Malik as parental figures, and, in a simulacrum of the capitalist economy, engage in criminal ‘work’ (ibid.: 58) to generate enough capital to leave the city streets for a new home. Seeing in Arden the spectre of Vivienne, Friday feels herself ‘coming back, like a ghost materialising’ (ibid.: 132), a clear indication of her own haunting of the family ideal.

In Friday Brown, the outback town that situates the second half of the novel is clearly a spectral space which operates as a metaphor to highlight the haunted condition of its new inhabitants. It is ‘a town left behind’ (ibid.: 203), rendered uncanny in its unsettling emptiness, a space that obviously once thrived as a community that is now eerily empty. Arden insists that it is the ideal location in which they might live as a family, despite it being a ‘ghost town’ that ‘nobody else wants’ (ibid.: 204), a parallel for the characters themselves. This choice of setting calls attention to the failure of the family as a social structure in reflecting the lived experience of the orphaned and abused. The group—refugees from traumatic childhoods—still attempt to recreate the idealised nuclear family structure, highlighting the pervasive extent of the ‘unexamined ideological representation of normative family life’ (Alston 2008: 5). Furthermore, the river which floods the town and washes away their attempts at building a new life also adds to its uncanny-ness; the river does not respect boundaries, overflowing its banks and turning hard land into raging rapids. In its destructive fluidity, the river embodies the illusory nature of the social structure of family which shapes adolescent life.



One of the most significant aspects of the spectral metaphor is its revenant quality. In returning to haunt the living, it demands attention and reparation. Agency is ‘conditional on being noticed’ (Peeren 2014: 16), and Wakefield’s choice to bring spectralised characters to the foreground, focalising her narratives through their subject positions, highlights their very existence. In doing so, Wakefield affords them the power ‘to call attention to … the social practices of marginalisation and erasure’ (ibid.: 12) experienced by those whose lived experience does not correlate with the social structures of the family or the growth schema. As advocates of the adolescent other, Friday, Mim and Jacklin ‘should be heeded and respected’ (ibid.: 18) and ‘instead of being negated or assimilated, welcomed as other’ (ibid.).

Wakefield acknowledges the discourse of the ideal family that haunts young adults, both in reality and in the literature which represents them. In foregrounding characters whose lived experience is far from the nuclear ideal, she calls attention to the spectralising effects of interstitial existence. The spectral metaphor works to destabilise and interrogate this ideal, questioning its discursive application to structure western society when it no longer represents the norm. The three protagonists explored here are haunted by phantoms, the ‘burial of unspeakable fact’ (Abraham 1987: 288) regarding the failure of the nuclear ideal: Mim is haunted by the threat of single motherhood, Jacklin by the fracturing of her nuclear family and Friday by her mother’s experience of rejection over a pregnancy out of wedlock. Symbols such as the submerged car and the hidden package symbolise, in terms of Abraham and Torok, the crypts in which such unspeakable phantoms are introjected. However, following Abraham and Torok’s psychoanalytical intent, all three protagonists are forced to confront these phantoms to overcome them. Across the three novels, the spectral metaphor becomes evidence of wider cultural encryptment, the unwillingness to acknowledge the necessity of a new model of family in these postmodern times. While therapeutic dialogue results in the restoration of the nuclear ideal within Inbetween Days, the other two novels encourage a validation of the non-normative family through their protagonists’ acceptance of their difference. Rather than the narrow nuclear ideal, family are ‘the people who come looking for you when you’re lost’ (Wakefield 2012: 342) or who give you ‘somewhere to land’ (Wakefield 2011: 195).

The extent to which Wakefield interrogates the growth imperative and its ‘privileged narratological position’ (Trites 2014: 144) in youth literature is less radical, however. All three protagonists are clearly driven by their perception that adolescence is a subject position to be vacated as quickly as possible and all attempt, in their own ways, to perform the conditions of adulthood that represent participation in the capitalist economy. This imperative reflects ‘the hegemony of growth as a historical script’ (ibid.: 143) which posits adolescence as a temporary condition, and its spectral inhabitants an ‘easy target for dismissal’ (ibid.: 134). Inbetween Days, arguably the most traditional of the three novels, sees Jacklin pursue the capitalist agenda of gainful employment and a monogamous relationship. Mim fares somewhat better, deferring her active participation in the capitalist economy via the student exchange program, but her acceptance of its accoutrements suggests that submission to its imperative has already been made. Friday Brown comes to the realisation that ‘where you’ve been isn’t as important as where you are headed’ (Wakefield 2012: 325), suggesting an acceptance of the forward-looking linearity of growth. However, she does return to live with her parents, suggesting an abandonment of her former independence. While Wakefield may not dismantle the growth imperative entirely, she does moderate its haste, valorising the interstitial space of adolescence as a valid subjectivity to be recognised and accorded presence.

Over the three novels, Wakefield’s characters come to ‘exploit the spectral metaphor and its manifold associations’ (Peeren 2014: 16) in their development of agency. Wakefield acknowledges that social structures of the family and the growth imperative can and do inscribe adolescence as spectral, but that there is a subversive potential available to those who embrace it. This spectral agency ‘potentially enables one to renegotiate one’s social position and identity’ (ibid.: 15) through the subversive power of haunting. Friday exploits the fascination of the media for her ghostliness in order to bring to light the story of her homeless friends, ushering them out of the shadows and into the foreground of public imagination. Mim embraces the freedom her liminality affords, realising her dream of travel. Even Jacklin is encouraged to be less impatient to reach adulthood and simply ‘make it up’ (Wakefield 2015: 343) as she goes along. Spectrality is thus associated ‘not only with challenging forms of authority’ that seek to reinscribe traditional understandings of the adolescent condition, but with a concomitant ‘acceptance of risk, uncertainty and doubt’ (Peeren 2014: 10). To some extent, then, this destabilises the linear imperative of growth by emphasising the fluid potential of liminality.

In Wakefield’s novels, we observe how the spectral metaphor can be applied to the adolescent subject. Her protagonists both haunt and are haunted by the social structures shaping their worlds, and fall into the interstitial spaces identified by Avery Gordon, their lived experience failing to correlate with the idealised structures of the family or the growth imperative typical of the Bildungsroman. The characters’ spectral condition is underscored by Wakefield’s use of spectral places—ghost towns, suicide forests and railway sidings—which shape their lived experience, metaphorically representing the failure of Enlightenment ideals within the postmodern world. However, by focalising her novels through spectral characters, Wakefield affords them a position of agency. Her characters, and thus her readers, are forced to confront the ghostliness of their conditions, but are simultaneously given a voice to speak through from the interstices, as well as encouragement to exploit the potential of their liminality. In these ‘ghost worlds of adolescence’ (Thurschwell 2010: 299), the spectral metaphor is not just an aesthetic flourish, but a ‘social phenomenon of great import’ (Gordon 2008: 7). In reckoning with ghosts, Wakefield calls attention to a cryptic cultural phantom: that of the failure of the social structures of family and the Bildungsroman schema to represent the lived experience of the postmodern adolescent. Coming to understand its agentic potential, Wakefield’s adolescent subjects learn to embrace their spectral condition, realising that it is not automatically an effacement of their subjectivity. The final word belongs to Jacklin, protagonist of Inbetween Days: ‘I’m not worried about the ghosts … People only disappear in Mobius if they want to’ (Wakefield 2012: 317).



1. Peeren draws on the work of Jacques Derrida, whose Specters of Marx (1993) acknowledges those social groups rendered spectral by liberal-democrat capitalism, such as the unemployed and homeless.


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