'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.' - author Jackie French

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Review: Head of the River

Gifted athletes Leni and Cristian Popescu are set to row in the most elite school sporting event in the country. Competing in different divisions, they will contest the Head of the River race, covering two kilometres of river with their crews to gain the prize.

The twins are the offspring of Olympic medallists and they have a lot to live up to. With six months until the Head of the River, they are both on track to become champions.  The pressure is high and they will be put to the test physically, mentally and emotionally. Can they remain focused or will they falter mere months before they achieve their goal?

Despite my complete ignorance about the sport of rowing, Head of the River drew me in and held my attention from cover to cover. I was completely engaged by Leni and Cristian and their struggle to manage the many challenges they faced in their pursuit of sporting excellence.

Author Pip Harry’s own experience with rowing in general and the Head of the River regatta in particular comes through in both the detailed descriptions of the students preparation and training and the authenticity of the characters.

Head of the River raises some very real social issues pertaining to the pressure experience by athletes, particularly younger athletes, to excel. Cristian and his team mates are exposed to the use of anabolic steroids and performance enhancing drugs. The consequences of taking these drugs and the way their use comes to light raises some very relevant and topical questions about sporting culture and the detection of drug cheats as well as the pressure placed on athletes to perform at elite levels from a young age.

What makes the book so engaging for readers, even those with no knowledge of rowing, are the themes that go beyond the Head of the River race itself. This is a novel about teenage pressures – the overt and implied expectations of parents, teachers and peers, the blurred lines between who you are perceived to be by those same people and who you really are, the turmoil of hormones and sexual attraction, and the way immaturity and inexperience can see one bad decision snowball into something truly disastrous.

Head of the River is not just a novel about sport, it is about friendship, family, coming of age, relationships, identity, anxiety and how easy it is to lose your way when you are confused or insecure. As I read, my heart broke for Leni and Cristian and for their parents. The story took me behind the hype of chanting fans and trophies to share the struggles and motivations of those who strive to excel in the sporting arena.

I was incredibly touched by this story and will definitely return to read it again in the future.

There are teachers' notes available for this novel, which is ideal for high school classroom study and discussion.

Title: Head of the River
Author: Pip Harry 
Publisher: UQP, $19.99 RRP
Publication Date: 25 June 2014
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 9780702253263
For ages: 14+
Type: Young Adult Fiction

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