Originally published: 10.01.16
I’ve never really read YA, not even when I was a YA myself. Except A Little Love Song by Michelle Magorian, proving there is always an exception to any rule.
So it was a real treat for my first proper YA experience to be the fantastic Beautiful Broken Things by my very clever friend Sara Barnard, published by Macmillan.
There’s the disclosure: Sara is a friend of mine but I would be writing the following glowing review whether I knew her or not. Because this book merits it.
The novel is told in the voice of Caddy, a teenager living in Brighton. Like most teens, she’s concerned with schoolwork, exams, parents and, of course, boys. But, in a refreshing twist from a lot of fiction aimed at teenage girls, boys are not the primary pre-occupation of this book. Female friendship is.
Caddy’s best friend is Rosie. Although they don’t attend the same school, the pair are inseparable – doing everything together and calling or texting each other every evening to update on the day’s events. However, when the beautiful, cool and mysterious Suzanne starts at Rosie’s school, Caddy is worried that their close bond is under threat.
The exploration of this friendship triangle is the first reason why I love this book. Beautiful Broken Things is chiefly a wonderful and insightful portrayal into the complexities of female friendship during adolescence.
After all, when you’re in your teenage years, boys may come and go but your first real romance, the most intense relationship you have at that age, is with your best girl friend (hi Emily!). She’s the person you spend your spare hours with, the person you giggle hectically at nothing with, the person you curl up on the sofa watching movies with, the person you share every secret, insecure, sad and happy thought with. The best friend relationship between girls is such an intense and fairly universal experience that most girls share, and yet its importance is so often neglected on our cultural landscape (think how many books and films and TV shows are about the bond between young men. Not so many for girls, hence why Girls itself generated so many thinkpieces). I think this was one of the reasons why My Brilliant Friend by Ferrante was such a hit (and why we women know it could never have been written by a man!) – so many women were able to relate to the complex, messy and rewarding friendship between Lila and Lenu (reviewed here).
In Beautiful Broken Things, Barnard has written a similarly beautiful portrayal of female friendship that will be instantly recognisable in all its loving, messy, resentful, difficult and ultimately sisterly complexity.
Barnard cleverly portrays the seductiveness of Suzanne’s mad, wild recklessness to Caddy who is herself feeling fed up of being seen as the sensible ‘good’ girl who always gets her homework in on time and never skips class. She explores how difficult those teenage negotiations of identity can be, as we try and work out who we are, how we want to be and how we want to be seen. Through her friendship with Suzanne, Caddy gets to flirt with her more daring and dangerous side; she gets to try and stymie everyone’s expectations of her. That’s a highly intoxicating thing when you’re a teen – hell, it’s a fairly intoxicating thing now.
Barnard’s exploration into these questions of identity and friendship are sensitively handled. She shows the highs of those moments of pushing our own boundaries, and pushing against the boundaries imposed upon us by school and parents – as well as the devastating lows when those experiments come crashing down, and the satisfaction of finding some kind of balance and resolution, of finding a way to be.
The interactions between Suzanne, Rosie and Caddy are wonderfully and genuinely written. Barnard has captured the love and warmth the protagonists feel for one another – from the silly jokes and teasing about school and boys, to the genuine and moving demonstrations of care for a friend in trouble or in need. Her characters are multi-faceted – Caddy is quite straight and sensible with a desperate desire to do more than what people expect of her; Rosie is confident and brash and yet has very real feelings of insecurity; Suzanne is mad, bad and dangerous to know but she’s also full of warmth, heart and love for her friends.
Because the characters are so very three-dimensional, the chats they have feel real – from the text message gossiping to the longer, more thoughtful and revealing conversations Suzanne and Caddy share when they sneak out to the beach and enjoy an illicit drink. Barnard is such a deft and skilful writer when it comes to portraying the lived experiences of teenage girls – she is never patronising, never talks down to her readers, and is fully emotionally invested in their world. It’s a skill that will ensure she has a dedicated and generous readership who will be thrilled to see their own inner-lives and emotional narratives reflected back to them.
There is a second key theme running through Beautiful Broken Things and that is male violence and the aftermath of abuse – abuse suffered by Suzanne in her life previous to meeting Caddy and Rosie.
And it’s that word ‘aftermath’ that matters here. So many books, from ‘misery memoirs’ to teen fiction, deal with the happening of abuse. Sometimes this is done in a respectful and educational way that seeks to reveal the horror and impact abuse can have on a young person (Once in a House on Fire springs to mind). Others linger on the wrong side of sensationalism. Few however, focus on what happens after the abuse – how one copes away from the abuser, how one integrates into a new life, a new setting, and how one deals with the lasting and often ever-present impact of that abuse.
In Beautiful Broken Things, Barnard sensitively explores life after abuse. Through Suzanne, she shows the complexities of survival – the difficulties of finding new friends, relating to new carers, keeping a terrible secret, dealing with basic triggers, and the challenge of trying to create a new future where you are not defined by the trauma and horror of the past.
Importantly as well, Barnard looks at how the impact of abuse plays out on the people around the survivor. By making the novel Caddy’s story, she explores the ripple effect of abuse – how the hurt done to Suzanne affects her friends and friendships, as well as her relationships to the adults in her life and to boys too. It’s so powerful to see the aftermath of abuse portrayed as it really is – abuse doesn’t end with a ‘rescue’ and the survivor riding into the sunset, it moves into a new phase of the survivor negotiating the past and the future and her relationships.
There’s an honesty in showing how the happy ending just isn’t that simple; how the future is more complex than that moment of freedom, and that pain and abuse reach out and touch the lives of those around the survivor in frightening and in loving ways.
This is a vital book for young women to read – and for those of us who remember what it was like to be a teenage girl, in love with the most important girls in your life.