Continuing this week’s theme, I can’t quite manage to review this one in the normal sense. It’s a book that I loved deeply and that I felt deeply, but which I’m having trouble talking about. I spent the entire time I was reading it on the verge of tears and yet I couldn’t say exactly why. If you want a really good actual review, I’ll point you to Brandy’s, which does a great job of capturing the book’s strengths.
E.K. Johnston is at this point one of my favorite authors and one I’ll pretty much automatically read. This is her fourth published book, and it’s a bit different in that it’s within the contemporary and realistic genre, rather than the fantasy she’s published to date. And yet, as she’s said, this is perhaps the most fantasy book she’s written.
Part of the difficulty of talking about this book for me is that it’s just so complex. How can you do justice to this story when you’re pulling out different threads? Saying that it’s a Shakespearean retelling, or a cheerleading story, or even a story about friendship doesn’t capture it. And while it’s true that this is a book about the aftermath of rape, it’s doing something a little different from books like Speak or All the Rage (which are wonderful!).
Perhaps the reason I kept wanting to cry is the distance between what Johnston shows us and what we normally see, not only in fiction but in real life. Two weeks after this book came out, Jian Ghomeshi was acquitted of all charges and the judge basically put the victims on trial instead. The ongoing legal battle to free Kesha from being forced to work with the man who raped her also reappeared just after this book was published. Every personal story of sexual assault that I’ve been trusted with has had people doubting accounts, dismissing concerns.
Johnston gives us something different here: a story where something terrible happens, and then people react the way they should. By giving us a version of the world where Hermione is believed, where she is treated well by the adults in charge, where she is given space to remain herself, Johnston asks us to consider that our current reality need not be this way. There are certainly unkind people in this book (LEO, UGH) but they are exceptions. And Hermione refuses to lose herself: her love of cheerleading, her friendships, her identity. She refuses to become “that raped girl.” I appreciated that she is level-headed about this, and also that it’s a process that’s slow, hard, and ultimately hopeful.
I read this book feeling, as I’m feeling now, a strange mix of anger, sorrow, hope, and determination. It challenges us to make our world closer to this one, to make our reactions to terrible situations the kind that will foster belief, support, and healing.