Books featuring a sibling with a mental illness

Book Review: Shauna’s Great Expectations

Author: Kathleen Loughnan
Publisher: Allen and Unwin (2019)
Genre: Bildungsroman/coming of age (for a YA readership)

Content warning: references to racism, pregnancy, abortion

Image source
ID: Pink background, a drawing of an Aboriginal girl in the bottom right corner. She is wearing a white shirt and her hair is plaited, draped over one shoulder. The Eiffel Tower is behind her.

Shauna is in her final year at an elite private school and has great expectations. She holds an Indigenous scholarship and is determined to be the first member of her family to go to university, no matter what. The year is off to an excellent start, and she and her friends are dreaming big about life after school and a trip to Paris.

But suddenly she’s faced with a choice that threatens to throw all her plans into disarray. As pressure builds from every corner of her world, Shauna wonders what she’ll have to sacrifice to keep hold of her dreams… Can she fulfil her own promise and still keep her promises to others? Will all her expectations be ripped away? 

This novel was part of my attempt to read more Indigenous literature, and it’s one of only a handful of young adult fiction I can think of featuring an Indigenous protagonist. I read a review that compared it to Looking for Alibrandi, and there are similarities. However,  Shauna has a greater (and quite timely) focus on feminism.

Shauna was a trailblazer in many ways: the first person in her family hoping to go to university, the first recipient of the Indigenous scholarship to graduate high school. However, when she discovered she was pregnant and fought to continue her education despite the racism and low expectations of her teachers, she inadvertently became an activist. This was cleverly foreshadowed by the opening scene, with Shauna and her cousin at an Invasion Day protest, choosing to leave early in favour of seafood at Circular Quay.  

The novel was also a reflection on the dangers of judging others too harshly and quickly. Shauna made snap judgements about the new scholarship student, Olivia, and Nathan, the boy she slept with, which were both proven incorrect. Similarly, Shauna gave her friend Jenny the cold shoulder when Jenny told the school administration about Shauna’s pregnancy. However, Shauna came to realise that there was equal benefit to a friend like Jenny, a “challenging friend,” who “stood up to [me] when she thought I was wrong.” Jenny was a contrast to Shauna’s other friends, and became a vehicle for Shauna to see her situation in a new light. As a non-Indigenous reader, I thought a lot about the idea of being ‘passable’ and how it impacted Shauna’s perception of Olivia. As Shauna pointed out, “people take one look at me and they make up their minds. People take one look at you and think you’re one of them.” Shauna’s comments were an indictment of the often implicit and unconscious racism that Indigenous and other people of colour deal with every day. But there were moments of hope to balance out the bleak reality.

For instance, my favourite line was Shauna’s reflection late in the novel:

“It’s easy to forget that often people do the right thing, the brave thing, without being forced or even asked. Not to prove anything but just to be good.”

A novel with a strong voice and a memorable protagonist, I would recommend Shauna’s Great Expectations to teenagers and adults alike.

You can buy a copy of Shauna’s Great Expectations from Readings online bookstore.

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