Are you angry? Is it justifiable anger? And when is it appropriate to express it? This is an even harder question when you’re a woman. Just ask Serena Williams.
It was difficult to listen to the radio interview with Sally Challen a couple of weeks ago, the wife jailed for her husband’s murder and subsequently released after it was established she had suffered from coercive control. Emotional abuse is often hidden in plain sight.
For a child, it is even worse – how can children distinguish correct behaviours in relationships if they have only ever experienced the bad? In a time of fake news and half-truths, of increasing polarisation and threatening language, it’s more important than ever that young adults can dissect the truth, can learn to trust their instincts, and can distinguish between right and wrong, between whom to believe and whom not to believe.
Fifteen-year-old Lexi has always been told she has a problem with anger. In fact, if she just learned to control it, apparently, all would be well. Lexi lives with her mother, her mother’s fiancé John, and younger half-sister Iris. As her mother’s wedding draws near, Lexi can’t seem to help erupting, especially in scenarios involving her soon-to-be stepdad.
And then it spills over at school, at first in small incidents, and then culminating in violence. When she throws a chair through a window at school, she realises that her rage is out of control, and quite probably misdirected.
Of course, this isn’t her only preoccupation. There’s school, and romantic interests. At school, Lexi auditions for The Tempest, and Downham weaves an intelligent dissection of the play and its characters into her novel, as well as exploring the interactions between staff and pupils. Lexi’s romantic issue is more complicated, seeing as she has confusing feelings for John’s son from his first marriage. This is handled with great sensitivity in the novel, Lexi to-ing and fro-ing on whether feelings are returned, and Downham evokes a lush confusion from both parties as to what they feel when.
And all the time, threaded neatly throughout the story, is the slowly dawning realisation for the reader, and also more slowly for Lexi, that Lexi herself isn’t the problem in the family dynamic, John is. This is abuse, albeit not physical, just a slow grinding-down of self-awareness, confidence and trust.
Each piece of dialogue feels authentic, from the manipulative language John uses, to the timidity of Lexi’s mother, depending on whom she is speaking to, and the dialogue of all the youth, which feels fresh, spikey and young. Where Downham excels is in the gaps between the words – the pauses and silences, the loud unspoken.
Beautifully observed, this is particularly established in how the novel captures the confusing metamorphosis as the fifteen year olds morph from innocence to sexual beings, both in how they view themselves, and also in how they are viewed. In a party scene, Downham captures the essence of this with deep understanding in its complexity – exploring the scents of the bar, nitrous oxide, the whiff of sexual power, particularly in that although sexual allure leaks from the girls, they often don’t understand it themselves. And therefore it’s even harder to avoid it being abused.
This is a masterfully written novel, as one would expect from Downham. The sort of YA that the industry should be aiming for – with depth and nuance, and still holding extraordinary pacing, as well as pulsing with energetic prose. There is an intense subtlety in the slow deterioration of Lexi’s sense of self, made even more compelling as the reader discovers that not even everything Lexi says can be trusted – she may be narrating the story, but she’s not entirely reliable.
There are some lovely periphery characters, especially well-meaning adults, who also feel conflicted and don’t have all the answers, from John’s ex-wife to Lexi’s mum’s friend.
In the end, Lexi uses her anger as a force for good, and sees what’s really important in a family dynamic – as does the reader.
At times this is an uncomfortable read. Lexi makes bad decisions time and time again, and the people around her don’t help. But by the end, there is immense growth and understanding. For those who want more nuanced YA, and a better grasp of what constitutes a healthy relationship, this is an excellent and dynamic read.
With thanks to David Fickling Books for the early review copy. You can buy it here.