I went to the library today, promising myself that I wouldn’t borrow any books because, with several overdue and costing me money until I get around to reading and returning them, I don’t need to add anything to my to-read pile. But this one stood out at me when I walked casually past the YA section, and I couldn’t resist. I told myself that since I read it within the day, it doesn’t count. I like lying to myself like that.
The book stood out to me primarily because the title’s the same as a Kaiser Chief’s song, which I first heard on a playlist of “songs to overthrow oppressive regimes to” (for all your revolutionary playlist needs), but it also had a fairly striking cover. I love unusual covers, and this paper cut-out look reminds me of the book trailers Maggie Stiefvater makes for her books.
I firmly believe that YA books are for everyone, not just teenagers, but at the same time I’m beginning to feel that I’m edging towards the upper age limit of the genre’s target audience. In most cases, you can determine the target age by the age of the characters, and if that’s the case, I’m nearly five years too old for this one, since the narrator was fourteen. But it didn’t feel immature, and she’s certainly a lot smarter than I was at that age.
Police brutality. Racism. They’re far too familiar in our world today. Partially inspired by the London riots of 2011 (which the author dates to 2012 in the acknowledgements, but I’m 99% sure they were 2011), the book rings with the kind of authenticity you get when you base something on truth. Anyone who remembers watching that kind of thing on the news will find this book an insight into the tensions and prejudices that cause those kinds of protests.
And of course, in the light of the events in Ferguson at the moment and over the past month, it’s a very familiar picture.
It’s set in London. Now, as far as the internet is concerned, I live in London, because that’s easier than saying, “I live right on the edge of Greater London so all our post comes through a Kent sorting office but we have a London phone number and it’s technically a London borough.” The fact is, despite my Londoner credentials, I don’t actually know the city itself particularly well: I live in the suburbs. (Trust me, this is relevant to the book review.)
My school was very multicultural. From the ages of eleven to sixteen, I was in a form group where less than half of the 32 students were white. As far as I could figure out, there were no racial tensions within that environment, therefore racism wasn’t a problem where I was, right? Nobody even thought about that kind of stuff. I didn’t get what the big deal was.
So a couple of years back, when a black classmate described getting randomly searched by the police on the way to school — a road I walked along regularly — I was taken aback. I saw the police quite often on my way to and from school, near the bus stops or on the high streets, and never once had any of them so much as spoken to me.
Now, you can think of all sorts of explanations. I’m female, small, quiet, walk with a limp some of the time (not always the same limp, due to the inherent changeability of my health), dress in oversized clothing, and generally don’t look like I could hurt a fly. He was a lot bigger and stronger than me, and probably managed to make his school uniform look more disreputable. But there were days when I felt strong and I’d go striding down those streets on my way to ballet with a ripped-up t-shirt over my leotard and worn-out jeans, headphones in, sometimes wearing a leather jacket, and no one ever stopped me.
I guess it’s not so surprising, because I’m white.
Maggie, the narrator of this novel, is in the exact position I was in. Privileged and naive, she’s taken aback when her new friend Tokes is stopped and searched for no apparent reason, but the police don’t seem to care about her at all, despite her heavy boots and multi-coloured hair. The idea of this happening in her presence is completely alien. It was very easy to put myself in Maggie’s shoes, because in many ways we were alike.
However, I also liked her in her own right. She’s an amateur film-maker. She views her life through the lens of a camera, because things are easier to deal with that way and she can make them into stories. This aspect of her personality was never a gimmick or an extra. It was a very real part of her life, informing her narration at every turn. She saw people’s faces and worked out how they’d look on camera; she heard people talking and thought about how it would work as dialogue.
For that reason, I loved the narration. It took me a while to get into, because it wasn’t a smooth storytelling voice. It was fairly authentically teenaged, actually, which is always a bonus — the author is a teacher, which makes sense. In terms of ‘voice’, the use of slang (mainly by one of the other characters, Pea) only seemed cheesy for the first chapter or so, until I got into the story, and then I hardly noticed it. My school experiences made it fairly easy to understand, though I don’t know whether it would have been harder for people without that background — I imagine it wouldn’t be too difficult, and what with the internet etc, slang is a lot more universal than it used to be.
The story itself is fairly exciting. I felt my enjoyment was marred because I’m so used to fantasy etc where there’s so much more. This story is real, and brutal, and it’s the kind of thing you can see in the newspapers except here it’s got all the emotions added in, and the names have faces and lives and interests. So maybe I was never entirely as shocked by characters’ backstories as I could have been, because I’m used to immortal mass-murderers, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t interesting. I just don’t read enough contemporary fiction.
It’s got its fair share of tragedy. Its moments of humour are played off against angst and struggling, providing a nice contrast, just like the one between the rich, privileged protagonist and the poverty of her best friend’s situation. And while there was a hint of romance, it remained a hint, which I felt was appropriate for the age of the characters.
I thought perhaps I would have enjoyed this book more if I’d been about fifteen when I read it, but I’m not sure I would. I was only beginning to think about politics and to understand the impact of racism etc on modern society, so I probably wouldn’t have appreciated the true aspects of the book.
And I loved the ending, so it’s getting four stars from me, even if I was afraid from the opening that it would be more like a three-star read.