Skylarks starts off with a scene where Joni’s family are out for a special celebratory dinner. It’s clear from the start that this is something they don’t often do: Joni’s family are poor and this is a big treat for them. We also get to see how Joni feels about the way her family are treated by some rich people in the restaurant and this sets the tone for the rest of the novel.
This is partly a story about wealth and the privilege which comes from having money. The poverty that Joni’s family experience is really well-written; Karen emphasises it at small moments, like when Kelly offers to stand Joni’s round of drinks at the pub because she knows Joni doesn’t have a lot of cash. Although her family have no money, Joni is surrounded by love and support. The family really pull together to make sure everyone is okay. Joni even starts to take on extra shifts at the library she works in to help her brother go on a school trip, remembering how difficult it was for her to be the one in her class not going on that same trip.
Enter Annabel, a girl from a wealthy family looking for some volunteer work. Joni takes an instant dislike to Annabel because of her wealth, assuming that Annabel buying things for the library is a dig at her or suggesting the library isn’t good enough. One of the things I loved most about this book was how all the characters have preconceived ideas about others and make snap judgements based on how much money someone has. Joni is particularly judgemental of Annabel at first, believing that Annabel has no right to be unhappy when she has so much money:
“I mean, you’ve got to wonder what Annabel’s really got to be unhappy about. That it was a bit chilly for her at her posh boarding school? Or maybe her Audi isn’t the latest model. If my family was as rich as hers, we’d be laughing.”
Joni’s views towards Annabel start to change and the two fall for each other. The female-female romance in this book was so beautifully written. They had all the awkwardness of first kisses and not knowing how to act. I loved the way that they grew from instant dislike, through awkward friendship, and into real love. I could not help rooting for them to be together. I loved the scene where Joni catches Annabel singing loudly (and badly) in the library and they both laugh about it. They have a lot of fun together.
It’s clear from the start though that there are hurdles in their relationship. Jodi feels awkward when Annabel buys a really expensive picnic for them without even considering the cost. Annabel isn’t ready to come out to her parents and hides her relationship with Joni. There’s some major awkwardness when Joni invites Annabel to dinner. Joni is very conscious of how poor her family are, so inviting someone into her home like this is a big deal to her. Then the oven breaks meaning there’s nothing to eat. Annabel handles the situation wonderfully, but in a way that makes Joni and some of her family really uncomfortable.
Annabel is a really conflicted character. She has a lot of money, but her family are distant, and she is deeply unhappy. She envies Joni and can’t believe that Joni doesn’t understand this:
“You’re so focused on the external things I have – the money, the house, the school. Don’t you see I’d swap them all in a heartbeat for a family like yours?”
Her parents, particularly her father, are very distant and disapproving of Annabel. He dad can be quite nasty at times, and gives off the air of being someone who is used to getting his own way because he has money. This idea of being cash rich, but poorly loved could so easily become a cliché, but it doesn’t here, which is testament to Karen’s wonderful writing.
Alongside their budding relationship, is a very political storyline. The social housing that Joni’s family live in is being sold to a company who want to increase the rent and ultimately force out families like Joni’s who can’t afford to stay in the houses at that cost. Jamie, Joni’s older brother, is particularly angry about this. His friend, Dealo, has a lot of ideas for dealing with it. Jamie wants everyone on board, but his family are reluctant at first. I loved how there was so much political awareness and engagement amongst the younger people in this book and the way they came together to protect their homes. It also showed some of the pitfalls and how easily demonstrations can escalate in a bad way.
Skylarks is a great book about wealth, privilege and has a great female-female relationship at the centre of it. It is well worth reading, so if you haven’t read it yet, you should really get on with that.