I picked this book from a NetGalley email, mostly because I liked the sound of the title and because the cover caught my attention. I know “Never judge a book by its cover” and all that, but seriously, I can’t be the only one that does that, right? And actually, that leads me into one of the major themes of this book: don’t judge everyone based on what you see. In fact, I just spotted this blog post by Sara Barnard, the author, on the cover: Please judge my book by this cover.
I’ve taken today as holiday (thanks to a punctured car tyre with two screws and a thorn in it, awaiting delivery of a new one now) so decided to finish this book. Then I had to write this review immediately. Yes, it is one of those books.
I saw rave reviews of Beautiful Broken Things on Goodreads and crossed my fingers that I would love it as much too. Sometimes books with almost full 5 star reviews turn out to be my favourites and sometimes I strongly dislike them. Fortunately this was a love, and possibly one of my favourite books to date – not only was it a story to love, but its message also made a big impact on me. It’s one I made notes on while reading, and for the first time I used the “highlight” feature in my Kindle to select passages I could come back to and quote in this review.
The tagline for the book is: “I was brave. She was reckless. We were trouble.” And to be honest, this was one thing that very nearly turned me away from reading the book. I knew the storyline was that of a friendship between teenage girls and this tagline gave me the image of the kind of girls I never was or wanted to be friends with, as in, the ones who you’re a little bit scared of when you see a group in town. Luckily I did pick up the book and start reading as that image wasn’t at all what the book claimed to be at all. I was also worried that it would be another of those lighthearted kind of YA books – two teenage girls who are best friends, a new girl arrives, joins their group, she’s trouble, lots of arguments ensue. But again, I was wrong on that one as the book is so much deeper, exploring the intricacies of teenage female relationships beyond the surface of what you usually see in addition to the topics of mental health and abuse.
You’ve got a kind of overarching description of the plot in the paragraph above, but for a little more detail: meet Caddy – she’s a normal teenage girl, getting by in school, has a small group of friends and a best friend, Rosie, who attends another school, but nothing significant has happened in her life, nothing to rock the boat and give her stories to tell. Then a new girl, Suzanne, starts at Rosie’s school. At first Caddy is nervous that she will be replaced by her, a confident and beautiful girl, but slowly, after a couple of false starts and bouts of honesty, a new version of friendship begins to form between the 3 girls. But like I said before, Suzanne is not all she seems on the surface; she carries dark secrets and a difficult past, things that slowly drag dependable Caddy down with her.
As I mentioned, the book doesn’t just touch on the themes of abuse and mental health as well as friendship, but revolves around them. One of the best things about it that it can be hard to find in YA books revolving around the subjects is that it doesn’t romanticise mental health issues in any way whatsoever and makes that very clear:
'I hate when people make sadness all deep and beautiful and, like -' she waved her hands helplessly - 'profound. That's the word. It's not profound. It's not beautiful. It sucks...I think it makes non-sad people feel better. Like, they think it must be a good thing to be sad, because you're getting all this insight into real life and pain or whatever. Like how people say tears are like rain...Tears are just tears and they make your eyes hurt and they won't stop when you want them to.'
Caddy has experienced the touch of mental health issues as she grew up with a sister suffering from bipolar disorder. And many of the words of wisdom in the book on the topic often come from her sister as she so simply and bluntly explains aspects of mental health that can only be seen from the perspective of someone who has gone through them:
'You're steady. And you're nice. You won't understand what that means because you've never needed it yourself. You don't realize how important it is.' With one hand Tarin lifted the bird she'd made into the air so its sharp-cornered wings caught the light. It made me think of the dove on Suzanne's necklace, always around her neck. 'And so you think you're being a good friend by going along with her and not saying, "Stop, you're hurting yourself."'
Also it’s worth noting from the above paragraph the small messages hidden within the story – a couple of things to look out for, Suzanne’s necklace and the meaning behind it as a dove, and both Tarin and Suzanne, the two who suffer from mental health issues, and their references to birds in general (and only after writing this did I notice the birds on the cover!).
'What do you say to someone who's so depressed they're suicidal?' 'Tell them you love them,' Tarin said, like it was nothing. Like it was everything. 'Be supportive. Look, what you need to understand is, you won't be able to single-handedly stop her wishing she was dead, if that's even what she still thinks, which I doubt. What you can do, as her friend, is make sure she knows you're glad she's not.'
It also broaches the topic of misunderstanding of mental health problems, as seen through Caddy’s eyes as she feels it changes the person she knows Suzanne as – a feat that’s quite remarkable based on how sensitive the topic can be, but put in simple terms that leave a lasting message:
It made me feel strange to think of Suzanne being labelled as having 'serious mental-health problems'. Technically I knew it was correct, but it wasn't her. The four words seemed so scary and huge, painting the image I had of my friend in colours I didn't recognize or understand. 'Yeah, it's almost like having mental-health problems doesn't actually change your personality or something,' Tarin said sarcastically when I tried to talk about it with her. 'Ye gads! A clinical diagnosis! She is an entirely different person now.' 'That's not very helpful, Tarin,' Mum said drily. 'Try me tomorrow,' Tarin said. 'I'll probably have changed my mind by then, what with being bipolar and everything.' 'All right, I get it,' I said, rolling my eyes. 'Stereotypes are bad. Mental health is complicated. You can stop now.'
What’s slightly different about this book is that is explores the story of abuse after it’s all over, the lasting effects it has on the person even when they’re away from the situation and in a new, safe environment. Most assume that once this has happened, the person in question will be fine, there’s nothing for them to fear any more. The author, Sara Barnard puts it in her note at the end of the book:
“Many stories about abuse end with the rescue or escape of the victim (a loaded term in itself), because that is the best thing about stories: they end when we want them to end. But in real life a child who escapes a violent home carried that experience with them. With Beautiful Broken Things I wanted to talk about what happens next. Who do you become after trauma, when you are still learning about yourself? How do you tell the people you meet in your new, safe life about past, or do you not tell them at all?”
The fact that we so rarely hear anything about the actual abuse that has happened in the book is telling of this; what we’re seeing are the after effects, how it affects not only the person themself, but those around them. And the fact that the violent side of the abuse isn’t all, in fact, it is implied that the violent side of it is only a minor part, it’s the emotions behind the violence of guilt, blame and responsibility on someone who was only a child when it began. Add in the fact that it is noted several times that the abuser looks just like an ordinary person, not big, not necessarily scary. It brings to the forefront the idea that this could and does happen to anyone.
Then there’s the subject of fronts, faces and everything not being as it seems, Caddy coming to understand that confident and self-assured Suzanne isn’t what she thought, and Suzanne trying to get to know herself without the influence of others that hurt her.
Why did I assume so much about people and their lives? Why did I think that if it didn't happen in front of me it didn't happen at all?
The authenticity of the relationship of female teenagers is what will bring this book so close to the hearts of many young women. As Sarah Barnard says: “Friendship is at the heart of this book. It is a love story without a romance, because there’s no love quite like that shared between teenage girls.”
I’m not sure how I would have approached it reading it at the age of the girls in the book (16), but looking at it from almost 10 years on from that age, it invokes a whole range of emotions, from nostalgia – to the days when exams and your friends seemed to be the only things to worry about – to a sort of sense of more understanding about the themes from a “wiser” perspective than I would have done at a younger age as I would have still been involved with those then. What’s so fantastic about it is that not only are the characters so believable and sympathetic, but the twists and turns of their relationship is too. You really feel what they go through, you live the journey with them and watch their experiences play out in front of you, not realising that the choices they make are sometimes the wrong ones as you’ve been so drawn in with them. And in the end, when the story has reached its climax, the lasting friendship is still there in beautiful but simple phrases like:
It was just a couple of lucky phone calls, and a girl who knew her friend.
Suzanne is convinced she’s broken, and in doing so accidentally pulls Caddy into her downward slide without wanting or meaning to. You see how complicated peer pressure can be in decisions being made under the influence of others. You see the different ways Rosie and Caddy cope with Suzanne, from bluntness and sarcasm, to just being there and listening – both effective in their own ways, and both meaningful to a girl who thought she was beyond help:
I both understood and didn't understand what she was saying. What I did know was that I was the wrong person to hear it.
It’s the story of Caddy who is, as described in by both Suzanne and her sister as “the nice one” coming to realise that world isn’t always so simple, that significant life events do change you as a person and shape who you are, but are so much more complicated than they seem, and that not everything can be solved quite so easily. It’s a mix of happy normal teenagers and sad and complicated ones, then ones that are a bit of both, all combinations of which are relatable. Sara’s blog post in June discusses whether YA is too dark, and this review might appear to make it so, but whether or not people are writing about these topics, these things are still happening to teenagers out there, and maybe books like this will help those that need it.
So let me sum it up for you. If you buy any book next year, buy this one. Seriously. Do it.