Welcome to a Read-it-if review for a book that has been on my Netgalley shelf for months and months and months that I’ve only just managed to get to. Hyacinth Girls by Lauren Frankel, like The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma, is one that I put off and put off because its publication date was so far off, only to find that I should have picked it up sooner because it is well worth chatting about.
Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:
Thirteen year old Callie is accused of bullying at school, but Rebecca knows the gentle girl she’s raised must be innocent. After Callie is exonerated, she begins to receive threatening notes from the girl who accused her, and as these notes become desperate, Rebecca feels compelled to intervene. As she tries to save this unbalanced girl, Rebecca remembers her own intense betrayals and best-friendships as a teenager, when her failure to understand those closest to her led to tragedy. She’ll do anything to make this story end differently. But Rebecca doesn’t understand what’s happening or who is truly a victim, and now Callie is in terrible danger.
This raw and beautiful story about the intensity of adolescent emotions and the complex identity of a teenage girl looks unflinchingly at how cruelty exists in all of us, and how our worst impulses can estrange us from ourselves – or even save us.
Read it if:
*you’ve ever been given a demeaning nickname
*you like adult fiction that is cleverly disguised as young adult fiction
*you’ve been clamouring for a book featuring young people and bullying, in which the characters are more than stereotypical, paper-thin, mean girls, and the adults have backstories too
Right off the bat, I have to acknowledge how unexpectedly noteworthy I found this story to be. When I flicked back to the blurb and found out that this was a “teen bullying” story I was preparing myself for the run-of-the-mill, mean girls scenario with cliques and rich bitches and everything we’ve seen before in a thousand movies and books. While the blurb gives the indication that this is a YA book, I think that this is actually properly realised adult fiction that features young characters and bullying, but focuses on deeper explorations of the characters, their motivations and relationships. [Interjection: Yes, I realise YA is “proper fiction” too, so no need to send the hate mail just yet]. I suspect that adult readers will get just as much out of this, if not more, than their teenaged counterparts and that is the mark of a good book all-round.
Hyacinth Girls is told in alternating points of view, beginning with that of Rebecca, who has become the guardian of teenager Callie after her mother, Joyce (Rebecca’s childhood best friend), was killed in an accident and her father committed suicide. The early parts of the story focus on Rebecca’s shock and denial when informed that Callie has been involved in serious bullying of a classmate. The story moves back and forth between the present day, as Rebecca tries her darnedest to clear Callie’s name, and Rebecca’s childhood with Joyce, her older cousin and his girlfriend.
About halfway through the book, the story switches to Callie’s point of view and the reader becomes privy to the “other side of the story” as it were. It isn’t too hard to see that Rebecca suffers from a sort of functional blindness toward Callie’s alleged behaviour and sharp readers will be pleased to note that their suspicions are confirmed in Callie’s telling of the story. Toward the end of the book, the perspectives change again as events come to a head and secrets and lies come back to haunt all the characters.
What I most appreciated about this story is that the characters are all deeply fleshed out. Each character has flaws and a back story and motives that are understandable and familiar, but not stereotypical. The book really explores the concepts of error and redemption through characters who are judged outwardly by their actions and characters for whom the judgement (and damnation) is self-wrought and internal. Hyacinth Girls manages to set itself apart from the crowd of “seen-it-all-before” books on bullying to really explore the people who engage in it, the people who fight against it and the people who unwittingly support it. I particularly appreciated the realistic fallout (or lack thereof) at the very end of the book, when the reader gets to reflect on the tumultuous events of the story and their impact on the lives of the characters in the context of a wider society of those who don’t have a personal stake in the lives of these particular young people.
Overall I think that aside from being a “bullying” book, Hyacinth Girls is just a really absorbing read.
Until next time,