Pip Harry’s “Head of the River” tells the story of twins Leni and Cristian Popescu, children of Olympians, they are elite rowers at the prestigious Melbourne College, Harley Grammar. We follow the twins as they prepare for the famous Head of the River race. Told in a cyclical narrative, we are dropped into to the climax of the story in the first chapter before being left hanging whilst time is turned back 6 months. Harry employs a fast paced style of narration which switches smoothly between the brother and sister characters many times within each chapter.
“Head of the River” focuses upon the world of rowing and as such, is one of the better examples of novels exploring sport that I have read in a while. The strength of Harry’s story is its exploration of winning and losing, pressure, body image and eating disorders, cheating and the role that drug and substance abuse can play in sport at this level. To a lesser extent, and in my opinion what makes this book so special, is Harry’s sensitive investigation of broader issues that the majority of teenagers will relate to, including dealing with the loss of a young person, leadership and followership, and the messy stuff that is often teen relationships.
Whilst being well written, edited and absolutely engrossing, Pip Harry’s language does not possess the kind of compelling beauty that makes me really want to teach this as a class text. That said, I have no doubt that it will be lapped up by students in the senior years of secondary and its gutsy themes make it a perfect choice for independent reading tasks. This novel does explore first sexual encounters, and although this is done with impressive sensitivity, it does make this novel unsuitable for students in the primary years.
A word of warning. I did find the cover image a little uninspiring. Whilst having strong appeal for an audience interested in a story about rowing; I felt it belied the fact that Pip Harry has written a novel about so much more. Fortunately, the cover is the only thing I didn’t like about this book. This is a story with broad appeal, dealing with a range of issues that most young people will appreciate. I have not a single iota of interest in sport, or more specifically rowing, yet I loved this story. I was captivated throughout and never once was bored by Harry’s description of the details of rowing, nor with the blow by blow accounts of the races. This is a fast paced story that once picked up will be devoured by readers 14 upwards.
Reviewed by Tanya Grech Welden
**UQP provided me with a free review copy for this book. I have otherwise not been paid for any review or endorsement of this book and my opinions reflect my own unbiased view.**