Pinging around the universe, hoping for a host

The Girls
by Emma Cline

I had heard mixed reviews of this huge bestseller, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. However, from page one it was clear that this was an impressive book by an author with a masterful grasp of language.

The story is narrated by Evie, a middle-aged woman who is reminded by the intrusion of a teenage couple into her life of the summer of 1969, when she was 14. She was a typically insecure girl, lusting after her best friend Connie’s brother, feeling generally invisible. Then she saw the girls, or more specifically, she saw Suzanne. Suzanne is unwashed, wearing ill-fitting ragged clothes, but she exudes confidence and young Evie is transfixed.

Evie follows her new obsession to a remote ranch where she finds a cult led by a man called Russell. Over her summer holiday she spends more and more time at the ranch, exposed to drugs, sex and other behaviours Russell’s followers think of as adult. Evie clocks right away that Russell has magnetic appeal and that all the girls are sleeping with him, but for her the attraction is still Suzanne.

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What might have happened

The Uses of Enchantment
by Heidi Julavits

Once again this is a book I read about on a book blog and liked the sound of but can no longer where it was I read about it. I must come up with a better system! But more to the point, was I right that it was my sort of book? Well, yes and no.

I have never studied psychology or psychoanalysis, nor have I any strong interest in it, but it seems to crop up so often in my reading that I’m beginning to think I should take a course or something. This book picks apart the psyche so thoroughly there is no clear line between the “real” of the story and the imagined. Which is the whole point. I think. That and something about teenage girls and sexuality.

Mary disappeared for a few weeks when she was 16 years old. At first she said she could not remember what happened, though she thinks that she had been kidnapped and sexually abused. Months later, following analysis, she agreed with her psychologist that she had made it all up, and subsequently became a minor local celebrity. Years later she returns to the family home in a Boston suburb for her mother’s funeral and finally faces up to the family tensions that she has been hiding from. But which version of the past is true? Does she even know herself?

If her psychologist is right, Mary is precociously bright, though she has managed to hide it from everyone else. Woven into her changing stories are details from Freud’s Dora, from the case of Bettina Spencer – another girl from her prep school who disappeared under similar circumstances years earlier – and witches condemned to death in nearby Salem. She certainly has issues related to her distant, Puritanical mother and her own sexual urges, but is she in control of what she is doing in response to those issues? Is this all, as she claims at one point, a highly original method of completing a school assignment on Dora?

The story is told in three threads – the present day, starting with Mary’s mother’s funeral, the notes of her first psychologist, Dr Hammer, and a series of chapters titled “What might have happened”. Details from one thread crop up again in another in a way that doesn’t make sense unless at least one of these threads isn’t the whole truth.

It’s a fascinating premise and told well enough to keep me reading hungrily, but there was something awry. The language made me disengage at times. Julavits is one of those writers who use a lot of unusual words. Perhaps they are the most precisely correct word but using a word that is not in common usage will make most readers stumble, I think. There was also a slightly troubling treatment of teenage girls who claim sexual abuse and psychologists who help them – not exactly mockery or disbelief, but a definite hint that teenage girls will lie about such things given the chance and adults should know better than to believe them. But perhaps I have misinterpreted on that point. Perhaps it is more of a statement about uptight New England rich white people and their attitudes to sex. Certainly Mary says more than once that her mother wants desperately for her to be proved a liar because she would rather have a liar for a daughter than a rape victim.

I think maybe my difficulty with truly enjoying this book is that it touches on some big issues but, for all its deep knowledge of psychoanalysis, it doesn’t feel like it really truly explored those issues. All I feel I have explored is the human (and in particular the teenage girl’s) capacity to imagine.

There were some touches that I loved. Speech marks were only used in the present day sections of the book, and not in all of those. Was that a clue to what was real? There are some objects discovered early on in the present day narrative that seem significant but do not get their reveal until near the end of the book, and it took me a moment to notice the key difference between the two versions of the objects. If trustworthy, this difference is a clue to the truth. Or to part of the truth.

First published 2006 by Anchor Books.

Secrets and gangs

20 Years Later
by E J Newman

The synopsis of this book greatly appealed to me – a story for young adults about people trying to survive in London 20 years after a mysterious event has destroyed humanity as we know it – so I jumped at the chance to get an advance copy. I may also have been attracted by the fact that one of the rival gangs in the story is called the Gardners. Sadly they turned out to be nasty nasty people. Darn.

Newman does a good job of eking out the details, both of what happened in the past and of what is happening now. The central characters are all 15 years old (or thereabouts, they don’t really know; they don’t bother with such things in this version of the year 2032) and therefore never knew the world before “It” happened, though there are older people around who occasionally drop a fact or two.

The story starts with Zane, a boy living with his mother Miri in an uneasy truce with two of the neighbouring gangs – the Bloomsbury Boys and the Red Lady’s Gang. They are unusual for not being part of a gang themselves and are often caught in the middle of vicious animosities. Zane’s longing to belong makes gang membership seem attractive but he is aware that he is not like other boys – he has an instinctual hatred for violence.

When Titus and his sister Lyssa stray unknowingly into Bloomsbury Boys territory a chain of events begins that leads Zane to the truth behind everything – including the fact that he is different from other people in more than just his attitude to violence.

I am reluctant to reveal much more than that, though the publisher’s blurb on the back cover gives away almost everything. I hate that. But it didn’t stop me enjoying the story. Actually, I raced through it, eager to know what happened next. A lot is packed into just over 300 pages and there are sequels in the works, so there were questions left unanswered and story threads left hanging.

One thing that stood out was that these 15 year olds are very different from the teenagers I have ever known, but this is a clear authorial decision. These characters are fighting for their lives, literally. They have no formal education, no early years of being carefree children; their intellect is dedicated to self-preservation, mastering weapons and early-warning systems. Most of the boys have never met a girl (aside from Miri) and so have never faced that side of being a teenager. Which makes them oddly childish; in fact one adult character in the book remarks on how young Zane is, compared with when he was a teenager, back before It happened. It makes the characters an odd combination of capable and self-reliant beyond almost anyone I know, and shockingly but sweetly naïve.

If you’re thinking that the author’s name seems familiar, why yes this is the same “E Newman” of the Split Worlds project. You see, a couple of months ago, I saw a Tweet from a local author about something called BristolCon, which sounded fun (and indeed was) and also that she would have copies of her new book there for reviewers. So I went along and I picked up a copy and then it was NaNoWriMo so I didn’t do a whole lot of reading for a month but I did interact with @EmApocalyptic and read a bunch of her short stories (and indeed featured one on this website). I am glad that I finally had time for her novel and look forward to the sequels.

Published 2011 by Dystopia Press.

Boys will be boys

by Nick Hornby

I’ve read Nick Hornby books before and I’m reasonably certain that I liked them. So I was a bit disappointed to find that I was so, well, disappointed with this one.

The story is narrated by Sam, a teenage boy, which was the first thing that grated. Not that it was done badly. In fact it was probably the realism of the narrative voiced that made it so irritating. This is not a smart or interesting kid. It’s a slightly dumb, largely boring, typical teenage boy. I don’t usually mind disliking a main character but I think I still need to be interested in them. This kid skateboards, talks to his Tony Hawk poster, is a little clueless about girls but still somehow pulls the first pretty girl he tells us about, rarely sees the couple of friends he names and doesn’t have a lot to say about school, except that he likes art and is apparently good enough to stand a chance of going to art college. So he’s either dull or not very well fleshed out. I suspect it’s mostly the former but a little bit of the latter too.

I know that sounds harsh. And maybe if you’re a young guy you’ll totally relate to Sam. But even if I don’t relate to a character I usually feel that I have learned something by being in their shoes for the length of a book. I didn’t learn anything here. I mean, who couldn’t figure out for themselves that teen pregnancy is hard?

Yup, that’s the subject matter. It’s hinted at for a while before it’s said outright but I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say it here. And I suspect this is a realistic portrayal in many respects, but it doesn’t get into many of the issues surrounding the subject, really. Mostly it’s a boy whining about how shit it is that he got his girlfriend pregnant even though they used a condom. And if it had been written differently I might have sympathised, but I really didn’t. The writing was easygoing enough that I read on but the entire book was predictable and the end was irritatingly nicey nice.

But the worst bit was the time travel. Yes, you read that right. Possibly in a bid to make the book actually interesting, Hornby has his main character travel into the future randomly, without warning. The first time it happens, you can maybe write it off as a dream, or rather a nightmare of the “oh my god I have an exam and I haven’t revised at all and I may have forgotten how to write my name” variety. But no, we’re supposed to accept that this actually happens, with no explanation or scientificness of any nature. It’s just weird and out of place and made me dislike a book I was already dubious about.

First published 2007 by Penguin.