YA book review: “The Nowhere Girls” by Amy Reed

The Nowhere Girls imgThis is a very hard-hitting YA novel for older teens. It is an important book, dealing with a very current issue, misogyny, sexual violence and rape, but as a parent I found it extremely challenging to read. The story is set in Prescott, Oregon, a medium sized-town in the northwest United States. It centres on a group of three girls in high school (so about 17 or 18 years old) Grace, Erin and Rosina. Grace has moved to Prescott after her mother (an evangelical preacher) was forced out of her position in their previous home in the southern US because of hostility from the congregation towards her views. Grace finds, in her bedroom in their new home, some cryptic words scratched into the woodwork. She discovers that the previous occupant of the room was a girl called Lucy who alleged that she was raped by fellow students. No charges were brought and Lucy and her family left the town.

Grace struggles to make friends in her new school, because of her southern accent and her newness, but eventually connects up with Erin and Rosina, relative misfits in the school community. Erin has Asperger’s and her mother is over-protective and a zealous moderator of various social media groups and forums. Her obsession with this activity and her over-anxious concern to do all the right things, inhibits her from having a truly meaningful relationship with her daughter. Rosina comes from a large extended South American immigrant family and has a tempestuous relationship with her mother and her other relatives for whom she has to work for little or no pay, babysitting and waitressing.

The three girls are thrown together and Grace learns about what happened to Lucy, the author of the words scratched into the woodwork. Like her mother, Grace is earnest and a campaigner and she vows to do something about this unresolved issue. She sets up a secret group, calling it The Nowhere Girls, with a view to the young women at the school sharing their experiences and, Grace hopes, banding together to do something about the widespread misogyny. The group takes off in ways that none of its three founders could have anticipated; their secret meetings, held after dark in abandoned or remote locations, are well-attended and the young women share stories of widespread rape, and violent or coercive sexual encounters. The girls decide to go on a sex strike, to teach the boys a lesson, and as news of this spreads, the school authorities become increasingly angered and concerned about the reputation of the school and about the effect it is having on the stability of the school community.

As the book progresses events take on increasingly sinister turns. As the meetings of the Nowhere Girls expand it becomes clear that whilst misogyny and taking girls’ sexual availability for granted are widespread, the worst offences seem to have been committed by a small group of boys. Also, the Principal of the school becomes ever more extreme in her determination to stamp out the disruption caused by the Nowhere Girls, engaging in the kinds of blackmail and threats and that are effectively colluding with the perpetrators of the sexual crimes. The book is hinting at a wider social acceptance of rape and sexual violence as inevitable and quietly endorsed by those with vested interests in a storm not being created.

Once I had got past my initial doubts about the book’s basic premise, I found it a real page-turner. As a parent of teenagers I also found it a useful insight into a world I no longer know, not the sexual violence side of things, but the feelings of young women about their relationships with their parents, their relationships with each other and their hopes and desires around romantic partners. Coming back to the book’s premise, that rape and sexual violence are pretty common in high schools, accuse me of living under a rock if you like, but I found this difficult to accept as a phenomenon. Remember this is set in the US, so things may be different over there, but it painted a much more extreme view of a middle class high school community than was familiar to me. Perhaps I’m out of touch, but…

There are some sub-plots in the book, which help to lighten the load, for example, the relationships all three central characters have with their mothers, and the rather nicer romantic attachments they develop, including, in Rosina’s case, an exploration of her burgeoning homosexuality. But there is no doubt the book is at times graphic and disturbing, and therefore, I would suggest, suitable for older teens only. I think there are many important issues handled here, and they are sensitively done, but I would suggest it should be read by parents first before handing to under 18s. It may also form a useful basis for discussing these sorts of issues with your teens.

Do you think parents should ‘vet’ books before their teens read them?

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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at the Lowry

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I was lucky to get a ticket for this performance at The Lowry in Salford last week. The play  has been a huge success for the National Theatre company in London and is currently on tour. You will  no doubt have heard of the book by Mark Haddon, which was published in 2003, and was a Costa Book of the Year and winner of the Guardian’s children’s fiction prize. Ostensibly written for a YA readership, it’s nonetheless a powerful read for adults.

The central character, Christopher Boone, has Asperger’s Syndrome, which means he operates at a very logical, ordered and predictable level. He struggles to make sense of emotion, finds social relationships very challenging and interprets his world in a very literal way. At the start of the story Christopher lives with his father and we are told that his mother has died of a heart attack. The dog of the title belongs to Christopher’s neighbour, Mrs Shears, and when the dog is found dead one morning, stabbed with a garden fork, he sets out to uncover the identity of the dog’s killer. His research does not generate the hoped-for answers but instead raises more questions for both Christopher and the audience. It also causes tension between Christopher and his father, who plainly wants him to cease his investigation. Christopher is completely incapable of interpreting the possible causes of his father’s stress and backing off from the task of finding the dog’s killer, but we as the audience, begin to see that there is more to this incident than meets the eye, and that people (Christopher’s father, the neighbours) are hiding something.

Eventually, Christopher searches his father’s bedroom and finds a stack of letters addressed to him from his mother, who is not in fact dead, but alive and living in London. Feeling that he can no longer trust his father he decides his only option is to go and find her and to live with her in London. What both the book and the stage play do so brilliantly is to convey the sense that logic and intelligence alone are not sufficient to navigate your way in the world. Christopher is a brilliant mathematician (he is doing his Mathematics ‘A’ level at his specialist school at 16) but getting from Swindon to London on a train, and then using the Underground to travel to north-west London, is a near-impossible task. For someone with Christopher’s condition, the noise, the crowds, the proximity of people to one another, are overwhelming. The stage direction is brilliant at conveying the sensory overload and also the extent to which the day to day humdrum interactions that most of us take for granted are utterly baffling to someone whose brain works at an entirely logical level; figurative language is hard for him to comprehend, and some of the most basic instructions and conventions cause him enormous confusion and therefore distress.

I had forgotten elements of the plot when I went to see the play, which was nice because it kept a bit of the dramatic tension for me. It would still have been highly enjoyable even if I had recalled the ending, however. The staging is superb, demonstrating cleverly how Christopher can only function in an ordered, boundaried environment where there is certainty and dependability. The dialogue and acting were also tremendous, with elements of humour, and there is great empathy for Christopher. His condition is dealt with not just sensitively, but triumphantly – it is the ‘normal’ adults around him whose shortcomings are exposed.

I went alone, but really wished I’d taken my 16 year-old son (who has read the book) and/or my 12 year-old daughter, both of whom would have enjoyed it. I think younger teenagers will be able to identify more readily than adults with the confusion of modern life, the challenges inherent in just getting from A to B when you have no experience of it, and the incomprehensibility of the codes that adults use to communicate with one another when they are afraid to use more direct language. The recommended age is 11+.

The run at the Lowry was short, just a week, but the production remains at the Gielgud Theatre in London and is on a UK tour until the end of September. Catch it if you can, it’s fantastic.