Saturday, 28 May 2016

Banging Book Club | All the Rage by Courtney Summer

And it's not that she tells him it didn't happen, it's that by the time he asks, she no longer has a language of her own. But that's enough. It always is.
I'm not sure what to say about this book, except read it. I'm wary about overstating how powerful an impact this book had on me since it did so through a subtle and simplistic representation of its protagonists' psyche. To describe Romy as a rape victim is, to me, far too dismissive and limiting a description as, while a victim of others treatment of her as well as her mistreatment of herself, she has a identity which is not defined by being raped.

This is not to dismiss the impact it has on her psyche but it is because the word 'rape' is rarely said that it has such a devastating affect on her life. The audience is privileged enough to know the truth by being in Romy's head, while everyone else, with the exception of her family, shuns her for 'falsely' claiming that one of the most popular boys in town raped her . But even with this support network Romy feels isolated: 'I know I can't win because that's not what I was put on this earth to do'

The book itself is scarred from the event that it depicts in its opening pages although the event itself remains distant with the flashback interrupted by Romy, with a change in font emphasizing that 'I'm not there...I'm not there anymore. That was a long time ago, a year ago, and that girl - I'm not her again. I can't be.' The event haunts the rest of the book but is never fully articulated. Even though we return to it in flashback, there is a constant uncertainty and confusion in the narration as Romy struggles to cope with the memory. When I said the book is scarred, I meant it literally as each chapter begins with scars across its top. This and the change in font provides interesting experimentation with the form without being distracted from its central issue.

It all sounds serious and it is true there is little humour in the book - this is not a joking matter and it is treated seriously. But this is not a worthy book and is always grounded by its protagonist as we follow her living a day-to-day existence. The plot soon kicks in around halfway through as her former best friend dissappears and she contrasts her treatment to 'what happens when a girl befalls a fate no one thinks she deserves.' While this girl prompts television crews and search parties, Romy apparantly got none of that attention. It is in this contrast where the title makes most sense to me, not just because of the anger Romy feels. When I first read the title, I thought of the phase 'all the rage' as in something that is fashionable at the current moment. One could argue that popularity is a key factor to the different responses: the missing girl is a popular kid while Romy is normal, unnoticeable until she brings attention to herself. Her thoughts swing from craving attention and help to hiding herself from such attention and wanting to 'be some nobody girl with nothing to say.' This conflict is perhaps most noticeable in the much-commented image of Romy's application of bright red lipstick and nail polish - it serves to draw attention to her but also an armour to hide herself from the community and their 'soft kind of vicious,' the perfect description of the antagonism Romy continually has to deal with.

There are no caricature sexists for Summers to strawman for the sake of a simplistic argument - even the Sherrif, the most overtly antagonistic character, has dimensions to his character as he has numerus personal investments in Romy and the missing girl (I don't want this to be a spoilery post, hence the vagueness about the plot). Rather than a cutting soical commentary as in Asking For It, Summers presents the political as personal and the psychological impact of sexism. Whether its boys at school like Alek Turner - 'a boy who claimed the world, but it's not his fault; he only took what was offered' - or boys who treat her with kindness (you know, like a normal human being) like Leon who ' is nice. That doesn't mean he's safe,' Romy is unable to trust anyone to be honest around yet still has natural urges and passions towards them. As she tells herself when considering whether to make more of a connection with Leon: 'Is it weak to want to see him? It can't be wrong to want to see someone because you like the person you are when you're around them. That's probably one of the best reasons you could have.' And yet she cannot convince herself to be the person she likes to be - she cannot escape her past and she feels she can't move on even as she is presented with the possibility.

I realise I'm not explaining Romy very well as a character but as I said, the novel is not clearcut in her representation - we are stuck with her in her confused mind trying to cope with everything she is dealing with alongside her. It's not as extreme as stream-of-consiousness but the narration is certainly confused as it demonstrates a difficulty to comprehend what it sees particularly when it is unexpected. The disconnection between the body and the mind is a recurrent theme and probably one that is stated the most with sentences like, 'I wish I didn't have a body, sometimes,' appearing regularly. If the book's scarring of itself  wasn't a big enough clue, appearance is a real concern for Romy. Using make-up as an armour is one of the most positive ways this manifests itself at least when compared to when she fears making any changes to her appearance at all: for example when her mother treats her with a push-up bra, Romy only considers, 'If something happens - I don't want to be wearing it.' She hates having photos taken of her as she explains :
I didn't understand who I was looking at. I could see the beginnings of a takeover, a body turning, growing, changing into something that didn't feel like it belonged to me and every moment since then I've spent trying to hold on to the pieces of myself I still understand.
 When she sees herself 'wasted' at a party, Summers unpicks the phrase brilliantly with Romy's comment that 'The girl in the photo is a waste of a girl.' All Romy can define herself by is how she feels and so leaves herself helpless when she's at her lowest such as when a classmate accuses her, 'Jesus what boy won't you lie about?', she thinks:
My body is an alarm gone off. My body is not my body. My skin tightens enough to suffocate, keeping me in this moment where I stop and she doesn't.
 Perhaps the best example of Romy's disconnection with reality is in the following exchange with Leon:
"That's not what I saw," he says. 
"That's what it felt like."
The novel offers no emotional resolution even though the mystery of the missing girl is answered fairly definitively. That is not to say Romy does not change or is left without hope, indeed the very ending offers a glint of it. But it's only a glint and by no means certain. From a narrator who claims, 'I don't believe in forgiveness. I think if you hurt someone, it becomes a part of you both,'  a lack of a happy ending is perhaps to be expected. But unlike Asking for It where Emma feels like she is trapped within an oppressive system, Romy's story follows from the similar events that close Asking for It and suggests how even if the system can't be changed by one person, that one person can still cling to their identity and can rage, resist, and revitalize themselves into who they want to be.

Well, turns out I had a lot to say even if its just a scattering of thoughts. This is a challenging, thought-provoking book that will linger with me. You'll have noticed I've quoted the book an awful lot in this review for the simple reason that Courtney Summers is a damn good writer. In fact, I think it's best to end this post with her own words about what she thinks of All the Rage:
Sometimes, I think of my novels as letters to their readers.
The difficult, often hard-to-like female protagonists and the particular set of challenges they face may change from book to book, but the underlying message - the heart of the story - is always the same: whatever you’re going through and however you feel, you’re not alone.
One of fiction’s greatest powers is its ability to reveal the parts of ourselves we’re most afraid to show; both the ugly and the beautiful. When a reader sees their secrets on the page, there’s a chance it can make a world of difference for them. It can lessen the weight of those secrets to the point the reader can breathe just a little bit easier and to the point, even, the reader might be able to say their secrets out loud.

Sometimes, saying a secret out loud changes a life.

Sometimes, saying a secret out loud saves it.

I’m not the first person to express this and I won’t be the last: a book can be a lifeline.

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