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Careless by Kirsty Capes

Dr Dee Michell reflects on Careless, the new novel from Kirsty Capes

It was wonderful to read Careless by Kirsty Capes. I’d had the book on pre-order for ages and was delighted when it finally arrived. It’s a beautifully written novel, one of those where I’m immediately immersed in the story, and I love that.

Careless is the tale of 15 year old Bess who is in foster care, has had a relationship – if you can call it that – with a hapless 19 year old called Boy who stacks shelves in a supermarket, and we journey with Bess as she decides what to do next.

Friendship, the state care system, and a girl’s right to decide how to live her life are central themes in the novel.

There’s the friendship between Bess and her school friend, Eshal, and the later friendship that develops between Bess and Boy’s sister, Keris, and between Bess and her foster sister, 10 year old Clarissa. I was glad when Keris finally took a stand against Boy and stood up for and supported Bess. For much of the book I was concerned no one was talking about statutory rape, but then no one apart from Keris knows who the ‘father’ is. At the other end of the age scale, there is an offering of friendship with the woman who runs the knitting group at the church; at least Bess knows there are women who are non-judgmental and accepting in the local community.

The friendship with Eshal was heartwarming (even if the account of the hot bath and gin is horrific). There’s a bit where Bess recognises the difficulties Esh faces – ongoing racism, the threat of forced marriage—and she understands she’s not the only one who has life tough. But the lovingness of Esh’s family toward Esh, and toward Bess, is both a contrast with Bess’ life with Lisa, her foster mum, and a blessing for Bess in that at least there is somewhere she encounters unconditional positive regard.

It’s probably not only foster kids who experience love bounded by strict rules. “As long as you live in my house you live by my rules” sort of thing. When Lisa finds out Bess is pregnant, she is happy to keep Bess on, as long as Bess does what Lisa wants. I felt angry and disgusted with Lisa—would she have behaved similarly with her biological daughter? Perhaps she would have, but there are indications otherwise, like the abundance of presents Clarissa receives compared to the sparsity of those for Bess.

I related to the story in a number of ways, despite being 50 years older than Bess and in foster care in Australia. Like Bess, I was in the one long term ‘placement’ from the age of 4. When it came to Bess knowing about Lisa being paid to care for the girl, it’s not until Bess objects to Lisa flashing around receipts for reimbursement that Lisa becomes more discreet with collecting evidence of what she has spent. I recall feeling shocked that my mum was paid for 15 years to look after me. I didn’t find that out until I read my files when I was in my 30s and yet I have vague memories of writing to the relevant government agency for funding for extracurricular items, like going on a school trip interstate (request rejected), and I understood mum didn’t cover the cost of high school uniforms because we’d go somewhere other than a shop for those (an agency run store or warehouse?). Still, at some deep level I didn’t understand that allexpenses were covered by the state.

On the one hand, I think carers should be paid for their work, although I doubt my mum was paid for her time. I want to say she definitely wasn’t paid to do any emotional labour, but such a term is anachronistic and she shouldn’t have been anyway as I remember her as emotional neglectful and verbally abusive, always finding fault, rather like Lisa picking on Bess relentlessly. On the other hand, and like Bess, kids can feel like commodities if money is all there is about caring for them.

The commentary on the different types of social workers was thought-provoking. Henry appeared to be only minimally interested in Bess and was on Lisa’s side when ‘trouble’ loomed. Shelly, however, was emphatically on Bess’ side, encouraging Bess in her idea of becoming a film maker and later supporting her practically to get the requisite skills. I don’t recall social workers being as actively involved in my life as either Henry or Shelley, but given a choice I would have wanted Shelly.

I felt quite conflicted through much of the novel. On the one hand I wanted Bess to live life as she wants to, even if that means keeping the baby, and Keris is a positive representation of a young single mum who is doing a good enough job with her child. On the other hand, I didn’t want Bess to keep the baby, I wanted her to do what she’s always wanted to do, learn how to make films. She could have done both, and there are advantages in having babies early, but I didn’t want that for Bess.

That internal conflict I felt, my reaction toward Lisa (and even Rory who reminded me a bit of my foster father, hovering benevolently in the background while mum ruled, as Lisa does), my fondness for Eshal, and wish that Bess lives her best life unencumbered by others’ expectations is a measure of Kirsty Capes’ storytelling and writing skills. 5/5 stars from me.

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