Poker Face by Josie Barnard

Allie was convinced that she would be top of the class. Her classmates had made up stories, embellished the truth, but her account of “My Summer Holiday” was completely honest, completely true.

“Bugger this for a lark,” our mum said. “I’ve had enough.”

Yes. This is satisfactory. It is printed in my best hand, in my orange Junior School exercise book. I am pleased.

It is my turn to read out to the class …”

Allie wasn’t top of the class. She won no plaudits at all. Instead she was swiftly shushed by her teacher, and then sent home with her younger brother and sister.

At the age of eleven Allie was learning that life wasn’t fair, and that she had to fight using all the means at her disposal.

That’s what her mother did. She walked out on her husband and her children, never to return.

Three children in a remote Yorkshire farmhouse, with a father who struggled to cope. He cared, he tried, but he just couldn’t cope, practically or emotionally. No wonder his children were insecure, all fighting for time and attention.

Allie shows a wonderful mixture of bravado and vulnerability as she tries to keep her fractious siblings in order, avoid the attention of the school bully, and see off the very real threat posed by her father’s women friends.

Her story is honest, horribly sad, and at the same time horribly funny.

The battle continues as Allie moves on to Big School. She adopts a new, subversive strategy.

“I am reconstructed.

There were stages that had to be gone through. They took me months. First there were these glasses – brown tortoiseshell with an extraordinary large number of dark swirls in them, so they actually do look black, except under close scrutiny. and nobody will be getting close enough to do that.

My new glasses are pleasantly heavy on the bridge of my nose. They distract all attention from the wishy-washy colour of my eyes. By everyone’s standard, they are extremely ugly.

If the worst comment I get is “speccy four eyes” I will be disappointed.

It is my first day at Big School. It is vital that the immediate impression I make is as I planned.

My fringe is grown long enough to touch nearly all along the top edge of my new glasses. It’s like the fringe and the plastic frame are fused together, a mask that can be slotted on and off for complete disguise.

I wriggle my neck inside the stranglingly tight collar and tie. I certainly got that right, my degree of prissiness. My navy and sky blue tie knot is practically pea-sized. Most pupils haven’t even got theirs on yet, or they’re busy lassoing themselves with pre-knotted ones as they go.

The reconstruction is successful.”

Yes, Allie is bright, bolshy, self-possessed and, extraordinarily strong-willed. But she is also immature and quite unable to see the effect she has on others, or to see herself as others do.

Her strategy has unexpected consequences. The face she presents to the world is so distinctive, so remarkable that the school bully is captivated. She takes Allie under her wing.

And so a line is crossed. Allie is no longer fighting for survival, she has become one of the bullies. At school and at home. And she is doing so much damage, to her family and to herself.

There are no easy answers.

But there is truth, about the pain of a damaged family, about the dark side of childhood, about the difficulties of growing up, and about how you survive day by day.

Truth told in a voice that has wit, pathos, emotion. And the power to draw you in, to make you care.

Poker Face is a very little book, but it says an awful lot.

4 responses

  1. Those extracts sound very good. I’ve just been reading Siri Husvedt’s The Summer Without Men which also examines adolescent angst and bullying. Interesting theme.

  2. I like the sound of this one, my son will be going to “big” school in September the prospect of which makes me a quivering wreck! Will add this to the wishlist. 🙂

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