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REVIEW: First Year by Kristina Ross

Review by Freya Bennett

Reading First Year by Kristina Ross immediately transported me back to 2007 when I began my music degree at the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA). Set in the drama school at VCA, First Year vividly captures the surrounding environment I remember, despite being in a different department. This connection made reading Ross’s book a uniquely nostalgic experience.

Known affectionately within the music school as ‘The Licorice Allsorts Building,’ Ross’s novel unfolds in the Drama department, following 17-year-old Maeve’s journey from sunny Queensland to frigid Melbourne upon her acceptance into VCA. Immediately immersed in her coursework, Maeve confronts exhaustion and learns quickly of the staff’s high expectations, witnessing classmates repeating years or dropping out. Amidst this, Maeve navigates both romantic and platonic relationships with as much drama behind the scenes as in the school. Faculty members cross boundaries and Maeve learns that while some teachers mentor with dedication and honour, others wield authority for personal gain, pushing students to perilous limits.

Winner of the Australian/Vogel Literary Award, First Year is a book that seemingly centres on “nothing”—a genre I love. Much like Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney, Cleopatra and Frankenstein by Coco Mellors, and Good Material by Dolly Alderton, First Year follows its character through a period of her life. It takes a special kind of genius to craft an engaging narrative without a major plot, relying instead on the rich tapestry of daily life to intrigue the reader.

Looking back at my time at VCA through the lens of this book, I feel there was a missed opportunity to collaborate with other departments (and for those who attended, the “Centre for Ideas” was a woeful failure at achieving this integration). There is such beauty in collaboration, but we were all hiding in our streams and sticking, rather incestuously, to our own. Reading First Year makes me reflect on how beneficial it would have been for both students and teachers alike to collaborate.

An intelligent, insightful, and well-written debut novel, offering an inside scoop into life in a drama school (news flash: there’s a lot of drama).

This book is for the people watchers and the eavesdroppers.

I can’t wait to read more by this author!

Freya Bennett

Freya Bennett is the Co-Founder and Director of Ramona Magazine. She is a writer and editor from Dja Dja Wurrung Country who loves grey days, libraries and dandelion tea. You can follow her on Instagram @freya___bennett

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