Sam has been in prison plenty of times to see her mother who has spent large periods of Sam’s childhood behind bars. As the book opens, Sam and her mother are once again meeting in prison, and Sam decides it’s time to tell her mom her own story: the story of the rebel, bully, geek and pariah and how these four most unlikely of allies were forced together.
I absolutely loved the concept of bringing these four archetypal teen characters together and it was one of the attractions for me in reading this book. However, it was the subplot of the book that actually proved to be the highlight: the story of Sam and her mother. And to some extent I felt disappointed that this wasn’t the main impetus of the novel and that the other storyline here detracted from exploring this relationship and the history further. Indeed, it was hugely refreshing to offer a candid exploration of a mother’s addiction, imprisonment and struggle, and the way this impacted on her daughter.
In contrast I found the central story about the four teens overly dramatic and all a bit Hollywood and the sincerity and honesty of the subplot only served to show up the weaknesses in the main storyline. I think the main story also fell short in terms of characterisation. The four archetypes were not as defined as I’d imagined, and whilst the rebel and the pariah, both of the female characters, were fairly well drawn, I was not at all convinced by the bully or the geek.
Admittedly part of Lange’s intention in the novel seems to be to challenge the easy stereotypes with which we label others, especially as teens, yet all the same I felt the characterisation was a little undercooked. And as for the geek, I found him to be more of a brat, impossible to connect or empathise with, but Rebel, Bully, Brat, Pariah doesn’t have such a ring to it. I think the fact that the novel is written entirely from Sam’s perspective perhaps contributes to the problem with characterisation, as it doesn’t allow the reader the same opportunity to get to know each character intimately or hear their stories.
This may well have been a book that would have benefitted from multiple viewpoints. Nonetheless it is clearly Sam’s story as the framing device of the prison attests. And I loved what Lange does with this and the way she makes the whole scenario very ambiguous and fluid, bearing out the truth of Sam’s declaration that ‘things aren’t always what they seem’ – arguably something of a motto for the book.
Only in the final chapter does the situation become clear. It sets up an interesting conclusion to the novel, but whilst I appreciated the decision the author made on how to end the story, it would have been interesting to see it played out differently, the way it was heading before the final denouement. For me, this rather sums up the book: the contrast between what I would have liked to have seen happen and what actually did happen. Inevitably, books don’t always do what you’d like or what you’d expect nor is that the author’s prerogative, so it’s just a matter of my personal preference here and I suspect teens will enjoy the action and themes of the main storyline and the way this offsets the mother-daughter story.
Rebel Bully Geek Pariah by Erin Lange
9780571314560|Faber & Faber pbk Mar 2016
The Willow Tree by Bekki Pate