Monday 15 July 2013

Review: The First Third by Will Kostakis

Mollin' manicure for my readalong with Eleanor, Mandee, Mel and Melanie.

When I was little - I think about seven or eight - I spent my pocket money on a key ring with a little book attached, for a Mother's Day gift for my mum. On the front was a picture of a mumma cat with her two kittens. Inside, I wrote a story about a mum who got angry with her two kids and then felt bad about it. I was totally creative (or so I thought) and gave my characters names that were one or two letters off my own family's. I proudly showed my gran - my mum's mum.

"Why did you change the names?" she exclaimed. "It's bleedin' obvious it's you."

I was a teensy bit crushed. But she was right. It was bleedin' obvious it was us.

Which is pretty much how I feel about The First Third.

Will (short for William) Kostakis is a Sydneysider with Greek heritage. He grew up with his mum and two brothers (according to the acknowledgements of The First Third - which also suggest his mum is looking for love). As he mentioned at the Penguin Teen Live (PTL) event I attended a few weeks ago, he has an absent father, which contributed to making him incredibly close to his grandparents - his yiayia in particular. Judging by the story he told at PTL that inspired The First Third, he finds his grandmother's poor English skills and attempts to interact with unsuspecting retail workers hilarious. He also has a gay best friend with cerebral palsy. People confuse him with another Greek Australian writer, Christos Tsiolkas.

Bill (presumably William) Tsiolkas is a Sydneysider of Greek heritage. He grew up with his mum and two brothers. His mum is looking for love. He has an absent father, and has grown up incredibly close to his grandparents - his yiayia in particular. He finds his grandmother's poor English skills and attempts to interact with unsuspecting retail workers hilarious. He has a gay best friend with cerebral palsy. His surname is Tsiolkas.

I know they say to write what you know, but this just seems a bit much to me. I felt uncomfortable reading this with the knowledge that it was so heavily autobiographical. Like the author was somehow taking advantage of the people in his life. Now, they might not feel that way at all, but it's just the impression I was left with.

This was especially troublesome in regards to the treatment of his mother and grandmother. They were frequently the butt of  WBill's jokes - with his mother's looks in particular subject to demeaning remarks, such as she looked like a "reanimated corpse" after a night at the hospital, or that in her underwear "her body frowned". I don't think the writer intended to be sexist - in fact, there's a nice speech in there on feminism by Sticks, the main character's best friend. But it oddly came in response to another character's mention of "dropping" a girl. Apparently, that's misogynistic. Now, unless there's some history to being "dropped" that I'm not aware of, it's really not sexist. It's slang for breaking up with someone and can be (and is) applied to both sexes. It's not a gendered term. Repeatedly disparaging the female body, however? Pretty damn offensive. So while it was nice to see an explicit, positive discussion of feminism in a Young Adult book, this was seriously undermined by the problematic undercurrent of much of the novel's humour.

On the subject of humour, a lot of it was just plain unfunny. Early on in the book, Bill and Sticks head to Melbourne, and Sticks comments about the city, "I get the feeling that it's trying too hard to make me love it." I couldn't have said it better myself. The comedy in this book felt forced in many places, like the author was trying way too hard.

Kostakis was actually at his best when he forgot about attempting to be funny and just let his story flow. At its heart, this is a touching tale that centres around something I think pretty much everyone can relate to - the fear of losing loved ones. I know it got me all weepy just thinking about it. The importance of family, and the unbearable idea that they might not be around forever, is an admirable theme and was one of my favourite parts of The First Third.

I also loved that Kostakis featured multiple gay characters and a character with a disability and treated them with respect. There was no tokenism and they weren't just there for added drama. They were well-rounded and important parts of the story. If only I could say the same for the treatment of the female characters.

The First Third is a good book, but for me it was not great. The potential was there, and if certain parts of the novel were stripped back - especially the forced humour - it could have lived up to it and been amazing. As it is, I'll be interested to see what Kostakis does next.

Rating: 3/5

Fine Print
Published: July 2013, Penguin
Source: I received a review copy from the publishers.
Get It: Bookworld


  1. Belle, you've reviewed this so, so well. There were some great moments in this book, it was just a shame about the elements that got in the way.

  2. I also went to PTA Live and I'm a bit hesitant to read my copy as it doesn't sound like my sort of thing and my TBR pile is just to big these days. I don't think I would like the forced humour nor would I like the comments about females. Shame this wasn't great as it seems like it had potential.

    - Sunny @ A Sunny Spot Blog

    1. I wasn't going to read it to be honest but thought it might be fun as a readalong with the other girls. We all pretty much had similar reactions! There are some great aspects of the book but it was hard to get past other parts.

  3. I really liked your review, but I'm just curious: Did you dislike how this author portrayed his story or do you not care for fictionalised biographies in general?

    Both you and Mandee have made reference in your reviews to the fact that it's quite clearly based on his life and I was just wondering if you disliked that because it's got some particularly awful moments or if it was just a style that didn't work for you as a reader.

    PS. I must let you know I love your Beauty and Beast theme and am itching to watch the movie again.

    1. I don't think I've really read any other fictionalised biographies so I've got nothing to compare it to. But it did make the elements I didn't like about it more... uncomfortable, knowing it was probably based on reality.

  4. ahhh sweet! You know I used to spend my lunch money on books...because my mom was so weird she said I read too much and that I was damaging my eyes and so they wouldn't buy me books anymore - isn't that NUTS???

    1. Aw! That's why libraries are so great :)