A first novel by an Auckland based award-winning short story writer, this is clearly aimed at the Young Adult demographic. I have two daughters who are only recently out of the teenage years, both quite different girls who had quite different experiences of those years. So my review is very clearly tempered and coloured by my own long distant teenage memories, and also the more recent experiences of my daughters.
Aside from the first three years of life which fortunately we don’t retain memory of, I would say the most traumatic time for most people is those teenage years. I have strong memories of hating myself, hating those around me, struggling with friendships, horrible girls, floundering, huge self doubt, complete lack of self-esteem, wishing and hoping I was adopted. Being tall, skinny, with glasses and braces was never going to be a good start to young adulthood, but somehow I made it out of all that.
On the plus side my teenage years weren’t burdened with social media, phones, texting or sexting, easy access to alcohol and drugs. For my girls the teenage experience has been everything as it was for me, plus all those things. I am not at all surprised there are so many unhappy, confused, bewildered teenagers and young people, with spiraling rates of depression, anxiety, thoughts of suicide, compared to 40 years ago.
The relevance of this novel, therefore, to teenagers is undeniable, particularly those of school age. The recent high level media coverage over mental health in young people and the unacceptably high rate of youth suicide in this country makes this novel doubly relevant. Good on the author for tackling such a huge subject as teenage mental and emotional health. This novel tells the story of 15 year old Rebecca who has moved with her parents from Dunedin to North Shore, Auckland. She is not happy, uprooted from her close friend group and everything familiar. So far no surprises. She starts school, finds making new friends difficult and is trying very hard to fit in. She goes to a party one night with a girl from school, only to be lured away by a boy at the party and indecently assaulted.
She is, understandably, quite traumatised by what has taken place. To cope, she begins to cut herself in secret, the bleeding helping her deal with the mental and emotional pain of what has occured. She then meets her next door neighbour, a boy from her school called Cory. Things improve greatly for Rebecca, she makes friends, she settles into school, and her and Cory become very close, sharing a love of reading and writing. Rebecca’s narration is full of the drama and intensity of first love, and very well done too by the writer. So much angst! Intimacy between the two of them however becomes very problematic due to Rebecca’s panic and shame at what happened at the party earlier in the year. At the same time, Cory appears to be having some health issues himself, taking regular sick days, and not being fully engaged with Rebecca. The cutting continues.
Much of this plot line is very relatable for anyone who has ever been a teenager, myself included. Some shocking things happen, but again this is not unusual in the teenage world. And there is certainly plenty in this novel to provoke discussion between teen and their meaningful adult, or for the young person to think on while and after reading this. My younger daughter has not read this, but she and I have talked about it, the issues and outcomes. I always value her opinion, experiences and observations. Am I a lucky parent having such an open relationship with my daughter? I don’t know, but I do know, as with Rebecca and Cory, that teenagers are incredibly secretive, and can fully understand how parents say they didn’t see coming whatever danger or awful situation their child has got themselves into. As happens in this novel.
However, I seriously wonder how true to the average kiwi teenager these two are, how relateable they are. We have two middle-class kids, living with both parents still married to each other, and siblings, in a relatively affluent part of Auckland, and of above average intelligence. They want for nothing. There is one Asian teen, and while Cory is Māori, there are no Pasifika or LBGT teens. I suspect that there are thousands of teenagers in this country whose lives, families, and class rooms bear very little resemblance to the lives of Rebecca and Cory, who probably wish they only had the problems these two have. I find Rebecca’s naivety at fifteen going on sixteen not truly realistic, which makes me wonder if the author’s target audience is the younger teen, rather than the more knowing mid-high school and older teen.
But what I really could not get my head around was how these kids talk to each other. For a start, any parent reading this review will know how the word ‘like’ peppers every single sentence, so much you want to scream. In this novel – none of that. I was expecting more swearing, more rawness in the exchanges these kids have with each other, more real. It was all very sanitised. I remember watching the UK series Skins a few years ago. Now, we don’t want our own teens to be like that, but it was riveting, realistic, not afraid to show what life for many young people is like. My girls, in their sanitised middle-class world, loved it. We ended up buying the whole series. It was frightening, confronting but excellent, and I just don’t feel that there was enough of that in this novel.
Still the fact that this review is so long, shows that the book has got under my skin and that has to be a good thing. If you are a parent of teens or young teens, then this would certainly be a worthwhile book to leave lying around for someone to hopefully pick up, as it covers a lot of very relevant issues to the lives and well being of our young ones. Although how successful it as at resolving problems and issues facing teenagers is debatable, despite the list at the back of support services to contact.
One thing I did really like about this book is the chapter headings. They are all classic book titles, many of which would be studied at school or university, such as Catch 22, The Outsiders, Atonement and many other great novels and authors. Each title had some sort of relevance to what was happening in the chapter – very clever.
I would love for a teen to read and review this book, several teens if possible, just to let us older and out of touch adults know if this novel accurately reflects the average teen life.
Reviewed by Felicity Murray
Pieces of You
by Eileen Merriman
Published by Penguin