Book Review: As Fast as I Can by Penny Tangey

As Fast as I Can, Penny Tangey, University of Queensland Press, 2020

 

From the publisher: One girl. One dream. A few hurdles.

Ten-year-old Vivian is determined to win a medal at the Olympic Games one day. Problem is, she hasn’t found a sport she’s any good at yet. But everyone says if you work hard enough you can achieve anything, right? So when Vivian discovers she has a talent for cross country running, finally, her Olympic dream might actually come true.

But then a family illness is uncovered and all of Vivian’s plans begin to unravel. Can she keep her dream alive? Or will she be stopped in her tracks?

A funny, heartfelt novel about resilience, acceptance and dreaming big.

 

2020 was supposed to be an Olympic year.

In everything that’s happened – all the grief and loss and heartache and uncertainty – I feel like many people have forgotten about this fact. And, sure, there are (as many of us say, now, on a daily basis), “bigger things to worry about”, but the loss of an Olympic Games still feels like a small, nagging tragedy in the back of my mind.

I am not a sports fan. It is, I think, one of the great regrets in my dad’s life that he never turned me on to cricket (sorry, Dad, but I will never get it. It just sounds so … made up and silly. What is a sticky wicket? A googly? And why are there ducks?). I do like football but that’s more because of nostalgia and family tradition than anything else.

I have always, however, inexplicably, loved an Olympic Games.

The first one I can remember properly is Barcelona. I was ten – the same age as Vivian in this book – and I was completely caught up in the magic of it. I watched every event I could. I cheered. I cried. I sang along with Jose And Sarah (but preferred the Norman and Effie version – I am currently listening to it as I write this and singing along again. My daughter is rolling her eyes at me). I wished I was there.

Not as an athlete, mind. I knew the limits of my own capabilities (which mostly extended to hiding out on the edge of the oval, making really epic daisy chains). Maybe a back-up dancer in the opening ceremony? I knew all of Effie’s dance moves, after all.

I felt bereft, when it was over, like a hole had opened up in my existence.

I can’t even imagine how Vivian, the protagonist from Penny Tangey’s new book, As Fast as I Can is feeling about this year.

For Vivian, the Olympics are everything – they represent her quest for self-discovery, a purpose, a future and a place to exist in the world. While Vivian’s search for her perfect sport is laugh-out-loud funny in places, it also felt so true to the struggles many kids face at this time in their lives. There is so much pressure on children to state, unequivocally, what they want to be “when they grow up”, that children can feel lost if they haven’t yet found it. Vivian latches on to the idea of being an Olympic athlete as a way to find a home and a way to name herself. She also uses her Olympic dream as a way to solidify and make exclusive her friendship with Olivia, who also seems to derive meaning from the arrangement – as long as she is the one who is winning. When Vivian begins to excel at long-distance running, Olivia feels threatened and pulls away from the tight unit of “Team Olivian”.

The structure of Vivian’s imagined future begins to fall apart when she and her mother are diagnosed with a rare, hereditary medical condition – one that could make competing in sports not only dangerous but life-threatening. Vivian has finally found a sport that brings her joy – and one that she’s good at. She has finally found a place to belong and to shine. And since she doesn’t feel sick, the reality of her illness feels intangible – and like maybe the risks of running are outweighed by the joy of competing and winning. Maybe a dream is more important than some diagnosis that doesn’t even feel real.

It’s obvious that Tangey is a comedian. Her books are genuinely funny, but her real talent lies in her ability to combine laughter with genuine, heart-punching realness. This book made me laugh many times. It also made me cry. And it made me think of all those young athletes whose 2020 Olympic dreams have been quashed, just as Vivian’s dreams have been. We should be talking more about that, and how the cancellation of the Olympics will affect the mental health of those – predominantly very young – people. Reading As Fast as I Can against the backdrop of 2020, definitely added poignancy to what was already a very moving read.

I’m sure that the cancellation of the Olympics was also a blow to Penny Tangey – she would have timed this book to coincide perfectly with “Olympic Fever”. I hope this book still finds readers. It is a delightful, funny, heartbreaking read, full of characters who feel real and real, deep truths about the pressures put on young people today.

When the next Olympics finally does roll around, I will be looking at all of the young people competing and I will be thinking of Vivian, hoping she is there, somewhere.

In the meantime, I need to make do with YouTube and Jose and Sarah and my kid’s mortified eye-rolls. And I’ll remember every time I rolled my eyes when my dad talked about googlies. And I’ll tell her to enjoy being a kid, while she can, and not try and put herself in a box. Not yet. To run just because she loves it. To never let so-called friends dim her joy. And that things will get better. 2020 won’t last forever. Life is long and dreams are many and joy and hope will come again.

And after I’ve finished saying all that, she’ll roll her eyes again.

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