I may be 33, but that doesn’t stop me from revisiting loved books of my childhood. One book I loved when I was younger was Chartbreak by Gillian Cross, of Demon Headmaster Fame.
Published in 1986, Finch, our protagonist, is an angst-ridden 17-year-old with troubles at home. After a chance meeting with a band in a service station, she runs away to join them as their vocalist. It’s easy to dismiss this book as a rags to riches story, but it also highlights how success doesn’t come easily and even when it does, it isn’t without sacrifices, difficult decisions, and even regret.
Finch is a flawed character. Janis to her mother and stepfather to be, she’s not doing well at school. She’s a teenage rebel with angst. She used to be so good, but storming out to a service station in the rain, she runs into a band in the cafe and dazzles them with her singing voice. She runs off with the band to join them for a gig and ends up being dropped home later, drunk.
It turns out she’s the missing piece in the aspiring band, the perfect frontwoman to complement Christie, the cold and controlled frontman. She steals from her mum and runs away to London to join them. And this is where the story really starts.
Along the way, the band gig, they find a manager, they tour, they even hit the top of the charts. But Finch experiences heartbreak along the way after the loss of her mum, experiencing guilt and regret for her actions. She clashes with Christie, their relationship skating that thin line between love and hate. Finch ultimately becomes the reason for the band’s success, no longer playing the character of Finch but starting to become her. The book culminates with a performance on Top of the Pops.
Is the book a typical rags to riches story, showing that success doesn’t always come easily? Well, yes, but it’s Gillian Cross’s storytelling which makes it so good and how cleverly she has created the characters. Lines such as “I was feeling as tough as a cornflake in the rain” as Finch describes inside her head, and “Rollo, Job, and Dave erupted into the cafe like a trio of parrots, shrieking at a joke and vibrating with colour” allows the reader to vividly imagine the characters created. Reading the book in my thirties, I can see how complex the cast of characters are and how Christie has forced Janis Mary into the role of Finch by abusing her.
The punch in the face he gives her, forcing her into having her hair cut, manipulating the media to show up at her mother’s funeral, pushing her almost to breaking point, to make sure that she lives up to the sparky girl he met in the service station.
It’s manipulative. It’s abuse. It’s horrible and uncomfortable reading this character as an adult.
Yet, on some level, Finch seems to understand him better than anyone else has ever known him.
Chartbreak is out of print and has been for some time, but can be easily found second hand on Amazon and eBay. As a nolstagic read, it’s still up there as one of my favourites, with a strong cast of characters and a look into 1980s popular culture.
Smash Hits magazine, anyone?