Gemma, the teenage anti-heroine of Lisa Murphy-Lamb’s debut novel, belongs in the pantheon of great YA protagonists. Part Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye, part Margaret Simon from Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret—but mostly a wonderfully weird, jaded and vulnerable person in her own right—Gemma is both easy to empathize with and thoroughly entertaining. Abandoned by her mother, Angie, when she was 10, Gemma has forged a unique (and hilarious) relationship with her father, Nathaniel, but has no other friends. Anorexic, anti-social and apathetic, 17-year-old Gemma is taking life one day at a time. Then Angie’s cousin Rachel Lane shows up and offers to reunite Gemma with her mother if she comes to stay with the Lanes over the summer.
Set in Calgary in 1984, Jesus on the Dashboard hits all the right notes of a coming-of-age story. Murphy-Lamb perfectly captures the banal drama of high-school students: drinking and skinny-dipping at the reservoir, spreading idle gossip and exchanging what they think is clever flirtation. The Lanes are a religious family, and Murphy-Lamb shows an outsider’s perspective on the Christian faith—Gemma’s skepticism and curiosity—without making a mockery of their beliefs. Unlike Stranger Things or Stephen King’s It, which bask in ’80s nostalgia and use pop-culture references as a storytelling crutch, Jesus on the Dashboard sprinkles recognizably ’80s details throughout without getting in the way of the main character’s story. And Gemma’s character development throughout the novel—as she meets many different types of mothers and learns more about her own—feels organic and real.
Unfortunately, some of the things that make Jesus on the Dashboard feel so real are also the things that make it work less well as a novel. There are too many minor characters to keep track of who don’t matter to Gemma’s story, too many plots that at first seem significant but don’t go anywhere. Gemma is confused and often so are we. Murphy-Lamb’s decision to cut away from a climactic scene (where Gemma and her cousin Penelope confront Rachel and demand answers) in the middle of the action and jump ahead to the aftermath doesn’t help with this confusion.
Despite these flaws, Gemma is such a compelling protagonist (and Murphy-Lamb writes her main character’s voice so captivatingly) that following her journey to its conclusion proves very satisfying. Ultimately, reading Jesus on the Dashboard is like reading the real diary of a young woman—at times achingly sad, at times bitingly funny, at times confusing and messy, but always honest.
—Bruce Cinnamon is an Edmonton-based writer.