Now regular readers may know that I am lucky enough to work in a book shop that I adore. In that bookshop I have a shelf on which I feature 6 of my all time favorite books. I have been working there for 2 years and that shelf has never changed UNTIL NOW! A recent read is about to make an appearance after being so wonderful it basically demanded to be there.
Sara Barnard writes like a dream, and is an absolute delight in person as well (I *tried* not to embarrass myself meeting her after I had read the book but inner me was wanting to squeeze her tight while telling her what an important thing she has done with this piece of young adult* fiction). You would never know this was her first publication as she writes with such confidence you always know you are in safe hands.
We are introduced to the duo Caddy and Rosie, best friends since small and as intertwined as a fishtail plait. They attend separate schools but remain in constant communication by texts sent while hidden in toilet cubicles. A new arrival in Rosie’s school soon threatens to upset the pair, as new girl Suzanne befriends her and the green eyed monster of jealousy causes Caddy to worry that her friend is being taken away. At this point I worried that the book might go along the route of so many others, pitting young women against each other and providing no more depth to them than that, but I was so relieved when it became clear that this was not the case. Rosie works hard to integrate her friends and as Caddy gradually accepts Suzanne, we the reader are with her step by step as she learns more about the new girls past. The circumstances that have brought Suzanne to them are not happy ones and we can only sit and watch through our fingers as the veneer she tries to project of being a happy, confident girl begin to chip away and we see the problems beneath the surface. Caddy and Rosie react to her behaviour in different, but very understandable ways, ways which cause some concern for their families. I found I couldn’t put this book down, as life begins to spiral out of control for these young women I read on holding my breath and hoping all would turn out for the best.
I rate this book highly because of the great writing and the plot which is constantly engaging, but I am so passionate about it for so much more than that. The characters are complex and well drawn, not a 2D stereotype of what girls in school are thought to be like, but relatable voices who are complete individuals. You feel you get to know these three, invest in them and can imagine them living beyond the pages of the book.
Another positive is the way Barnard writes about relationships, be it friendship, romantic or with family members, each approached with nuance and care. As mentioned previously the female friendships do not centre on rivalry but the complex and ever changing emotions that are tied to what can be our most important relationships at one of the most difficult and insecure stages of our life. Romance briefly flickers in and out of this novel but in no way tries to take centre stage or demand that the real story should begin when a man enters the scene. One of the most powerful moments to me is when two of the girls are having to make decisions on how best to help and protect their friend from cruel and forceful male attention, it highlighted that it is still rare to find fiction that will address the moments in which young women can be incredibly vulnerable. Last but not least the girls families play an important roll in this story, with each having different upbringings and support networks, questioning if home always is the safe place it’s assumed to be and finding that sometimes those closest to you just won’t hear you. I think the balance was struck perfectly with the adult figures in the book, as a reader I understood each girls frustrations but then I was also presented with the flip side of the coin, you don’t have to agree with everybody but it leads to a much more rounded reading experience if you can understand where a characters motivation comes from.
Without a shadow of a doubt the most impressive part of what Barnard has produced is the handling of mental health problems . As somebody who has studied and suffered from mental health struggles I was relieved and thankful to see problems of this nature handled in a sensitive but honest way. It is rare to read something that so reflects your experience when that experience is an internal one that is not very well understood and has a stigma attached that silences many. I had the weird experience of reading some upsetting passages but almost wanting to put the book down and shout in glee when I saw that symptoms of PTSD and depression where being shown in their every colour, not the usual ‘sad in bed’ or ‘frightened and crying’, but the lesser known intense irratibiliy that can make somebody hard to deal with or turning to alcohol and out of character sexual behaviour as ways of numbing the pain. I am so happy this book will find its way into so many readers hands, especially young women, as it portrays beautifully how the reason behind a persons behaviour may not be as black and white as you presume. It also shows the wonderful strength and support to be found in female relationships and it is a treasure to see this portrayed so positively.
Grab a copy, give it a read and you’ll quickly understand why I had to try so hard not to fan girl in front of this author!
Beautiful Broken Things by Sara Barnard £7.99 (Macmillan)
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Until next time…
*ALL PEOPLE, ALL AGES FICTION