It is a great pleasure and privilege to bring to you all today a review of the latest novel by my dear friend Jack Ori. I promise it’ll be an objective review, I would have already met my obligation as a supportive friend by buying and reading the novel if I did not think it worth telling others about. So the fact I’m writing about it is because I would write about it even if the author had been a stranger. I am relating the facts around our long-standing friendship for two reasons: I’d feel weird writing formally about him instead of using the given name like if I talked about a stranger, and because it explains why I read a young adult (YA) novel at the age of 31 when it isn’t really a genre I have read since I was the target audience (and didn’t expect to read until I was vetting books for my own child, if any). The review may contain some general spoilers around themes touched but none that would ruin your enjoyment of the plot.
What I love about this novel is that it sensitively discusses issues that are often taboo and yet many of us have experienced. Jack skillfully created a believable diverse neighbourhood, but I guess that depends on how diverse is the place where you are. For many readers, I expect, it will be the first experience of a place where different races, sexualities, and even economic status live alongside each other rather than in separation. and I think that’s one reason why this book is important for its intended audience. Some feathers will be ruffled by me promoting something that normalises same-sex relationships but the reality is that unless you opt for the Benedict Option our children will be exposed to people who live life in many different ways than us practising Catholics and so I think it’s important that they are exposed to the reality of the world while it can still be an abstract topic of conversation and an occasion for teaching how the radical love we are called to looks like in action.
We’ve just seen the explosion of years of inequalities in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and some of the themes surrounding race and the different ways in which people relate to the police are touched upon in the novel too. We get to have our eyes opened with Hannah to the reality of life as a Black American, when her main concerned going to the police in the aftermath of the key event of the novel (her rape) was whether they’d take the allegations seriously and nothing more. The main story is, of course, that of Hannah’s quest to rebuild her life after someone drugged her and raped her at a party she only went to in order to try and protect a friend, but there is a microcosm of life around her with examples of good and bad relationships, hard friendships, bullying and attempted silencing, complex family dynamics and more. A great deal of the novel revolves around the ever-present shadow of her mother’s bipolar disorder, even though she has it in check and has been living well for years. Part of Hannah’s growth, in my opinion, is due to her awareness of the stories happening all around her, even as she deals with something huge.
One of the key lessons in the novel (for people who are not survivors themselves) is how the trauma is both all-encompassing but not everything that is going on. It’s like a prism through which you look at yourself and, consequently, your life as it carries on as if nothing happened. You still have school (or work) to go to, friends who have their needs and fears, and they don’t necessarily understand yours (especially if you don’t tell them what happened), you still like the boy you liked before but now your insecurities are even more, and nobody can agree on how you should be best treated, not even yourself. You can’t go on like everything is still the same, but you can’t bear the thought of people walking on eggshells around you and treating you like there is something wrong with you, which makes you feel like you can’t overcome it.
Not every character acts perfectly, everyone has their believable faults, but a key theme in the novel (which, as a Catholic, I absolutely love) is the redemption story-arcs. This is evident in a few of the characters and situations, especially the grandmother who was at the centre of the prequel story Mama’s Illness. She knows how to deal with Hannah now because she failed her own daughter then. My favourite character, who happens to have his own redemption story arc too, is the boyfriend, Brad. He shows us that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover or by its prequel. He can relate to Hannah on some level because he had his own moment when everything changed, but also he normalises stuff like going to therapy and brushing off what people say about you because he is also something of a cool kid. Often in YA literature the trope of the good influence boy is the one that would be deemed a loser by the cool kids but here we have someone who isn’t a goody two-shoes, he has a colourful past for which he is redeeming himself, but also which he can never leave behind fully because his maturity comes from it. He is very thoughtful and strikes a good balance between respecting Hannah’s boundaries and pushing her to expand her comfort zone because he is so attentive to her he knows she doesn’t want to be Mouse anymore. Like a fairy godmother he gives her the push she needs without ever putting himself first, and he is ready to do the honourable thing even if he had nothing to do with the party and, in fact, the whole thing would have been avoided if she had accepted his invitation to hang out with him and his friends.
I think he and the other models of masculinity provided are important for girls to know what they should aspire to have in their relationships, and what they should run away from, but also for boys. I know a book around a girl being raped is not exactly something boys are likely to pick up voluntarily, but perhaps they shouldn’t be given a choice. I think it’s also a powerful tale around friendship and how to navigate situations that threaten to end them, a lesson I wish I had learned a lot sooner than when I did (it wasn’t too long ago…). Jack is my second oldest friend I still have contact with, with only one friend from my teens beating him to this record. I’ve lost everyone else along the way.
It’s a gripping story even if it explores themes that don’t sound like they’d be exciting (there are no dragons). I read it in one day, cheering on Hannah as she took steps that were beyond my younger self. The language is easy and appropriate to the target audience while not too young for adults to enjoy this book too, so it could be a good one to read together and discuss in the family or in a group of young people.