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This is actually four books - Alex (which I think was sold as In Lane Three, Alex Archer in the US, or something equally determined to declare THIS IS A BOOK ABOUT A SWIMMER), Alex in Winter, Alessandra: Alex in Rome, and Songs for Alex. They are about a teenaged female swimmer living in Auckland in the late 50s to early 60s, and you may have one guess at what her name is.

They are almost flawless.

I'm not going to give big spoilers here, but I want to give you an idea - the first book is Alex striving with rather-nice rival Maggie Benton and her not-at-all-nice mother for selection into the Olympic team. The second is Alex struggling through a very hard winter in the aftermath of tragedy and the grim, banal evils of that period's pernicious sexism. The third is her time at the Rome Olympics, where she also meets young opera singing trainee and fellow Kiwi Tomas Alexander. The fourth, which is my total favourite, is her return to New Zealand and her participation in a university production of Shaw's Saint Joan. OH HEY TOM HAS COME HOME TOO. AND IS ALSO IN THE PLAY. LET US HAVE TENSION LIKE WHOA.

(Alex's middle name is Beatrice, by the way, and Tom's is Benedict, and this is hilariously apropos because they spend most of the final book yelling at each other over hideous misunderstandings while being gloriously and obviously Meant To Be.)

So far you're going, "Um, okay, so it's books about a swimmer?" But imagine this. Imagine you're a twelve-year-old girl, and you pick up a book, and you meet a fierce, brilliant, fifteen-year-old girl, with so much talent she doesn't know what to do with herself, who makes frequent mistakes, who gets into trouble every time she opens her mouth, who is often sullen and reckless, who cries and feels and hurts at injustice done to her and others but is also, when she is her truest self, incandescent. A girl who says, in a period when girls didn't say this: "I'm going to be a lawyer. I'm going to be a sportswoman. I am going to be everything." A girl who does the right thing, and not the glorious right thing, but the kind of right thing that could and does get her in ugly, dull difficulties. And she's not noble and pious about it! Frequently she's just plain pissed off!

Tessa Duder sat down and wrote entertaining, finely crafted, perfectly paced and not at all didactic books about a girl swimmer that tackled institutionalised sexism and racism, and competitiveness, and pushy parents, and shotgun weddings, and sexual assault, and women wanting to be doctors and lawyers when they should have wanted to be nurses and secretaries, and high school drama, and university drama, and national identity. And dreams, disappointed and fulfilled. And ambition, pure and blazing.

Alex Archer walked into my head when I was twelve years old, and she never went away.

Which is why, when I was twelve years old, and Tessa Duder judged the short story I had written for a competition the best in my age group, and I met her, I stammered something incomprehensible and awestruck, instead of, Thank you so much for giving that to me.

And then I grew up and went to university, and directed plays, and taught overseas, and helped run a feminist comics website, and am going for my PhD, and my first novel is coming out in April. I'm not saying I couldn't have done any of that without Alex, because I had love and support and privilege and other role models, real and fictional. But she looms so large in my mind.

And... okay, I'm going to cut this, because it's a spoiler, sort of, but those of you who finished Songs for Alex might like the reminder - you flip the last page of the last book, where Alex is sixteen and triumphant, and you see this:

ARCHER, Alexandra Beatrice, O.B.E., LLB (hons), B.Litt (Oxford). Pioneer New Zealand television presenter and producer; b Oct 28, 1944, Auckland; d. of James Archer and Helena Young; m. Tomas Alexander (q.v.) 1966, two d. one s; Epsom Girls' Gramma School, Auckland University College (pres. NZ Students' Assn, 1963-65), Somerville College, Oxford University (member, Oxford Union); New Zealand champion, swimming, 100m, 200m freestyle 1960, Swimmer of the Year 1961; bronze medal, w 100m freestyle, Olympic Games, Rome, 1960. Freelance swimming commentator, radio and television, NZBS, 1961-65; production assistant BBC TV 1969-1974; producer, London-based until 1979, NZ-based, 1990-. Documentary film maker, esp of sporting, social, cultural issues; international award-winning documentaries on the 1972 Olympics at Munich, women at the Olympics, New Zealand's rugby politics and Olympic movement. Director/producer, 1986-, of the Bow and Arrow company, producing documentary video programmes on social, political, and cultural topics for use in schools; from 1990 television drama, film development. International columnist columnist and media commentator, visiting lecturer on broadcast communications and mass media, contributor to academic journals, media studies conferences. Member NZ Hillary Commission, 1985-88, trustee, National Library of New Zealand, 1987-, Member, NZ Film Commission, 1989-1992. Recreational interests: riding, music, reading, theatre.

I love this so much. It always makes me cry. Alex didn't stop when the story did, this says - Alex went on and is still going, living her big, expressive life. Dear reader, it says, do you want a life like this?

Yes, I do! I can see I do!

Thank you so much for giving that to me.


( 13 — comment )
Oct. 23rd, 2009 01:40 pm (UTC)
These are some of my most falling-apart books. The bio at the end always makes me well up, too.
Oct. 23rd, 2009 01:48 pm (UTC)
Hey, I read the first one as a kid! It was cool.
Oct. 23rd, 2009 01:58 pm (UTC)
You may borrow the others!
Oct. 23rd, 2009 02:55 pm (UTC)
That Who's Who listing is the BOMB... I haven't even read the books (yet) and I am getting all teary. Also, same college as Harriet Vane Wimsey, how cool is that?
Oct. 24th, 2009 01:02 pm (UTC)
Actually, no! Same college as Dorothy L Sayers. Harriet went to the fictional Shrewesbury.
Oct. 25th, 2009 02:27 am (UTC)
Drat, I knew that! (I wonder if Tessa Duder got the idea of the Who's Who bios from Sayers, though...)
Oct. 23rd, 2009 05:49 pm (UTC)
I only read the first one (and yeah, the U.S. title was In Lane Three, Alex Archer), but have clung close to it since I was ten. I really need to track down the rest, now that I know they exist...
Oct. 23rd, 2009 06:44 pm (UTC)
MY COPY OF SONGS FOR ALEX DOESN'T HAVE THAT BIO!!!! (I have an omnibus - The Alex Quartet - and although I might have read individual volumes something like fifteen years ago, I never knew there even WAS a bio. It's wonderful!)

I re-read all the Alex books this year, and loved them so much. I think when I was a teenager I found some of Alex in Winter and Songs for Alex a bit boring, or something, because I don't remember them as top-of-my-list reads. But re-reading them was absolutely wonderful.

(I also re-read the Tiggie Tompson books and Mercury Beach. <3333)
Oct. 23rd, 2009 06:46 pm (UTC)
I also have a fond memory of a sleepover party I had for one of my birthdays in my early teens, where we were watching the movie. We all knew how the story would end, but I remember during the last race having all of us cheering and jumping up and down and just dying for Alex to win.)
Oct. 23rd, 2009 09:49 pm (UTC)
I adore the Tiggie Tompson books.
Oct. 24th, 2009 12:13 am (UTC)
There's one for Tom too! It lists all the operas he sang and conducted and all the books he wrote.
Oct. 24th, 2009 01:44 am (UTC)
They spend most of the final book yelling at each other over hideous misunderstandings while being gloriously and obviously Meant To Be.

And now I am sold.
Oct. 25th, 2009 04:23 pm (UTC)
Oh, wow. These sound AWESOME!
( 13 — comment )