Lauraine Povey’s The Veil of Anonymity, published last year, is a novel about bullying – particularly cyberbullying. The novel focuses on one year ten boy as he takes out his frustrations and jealousy on Marcus James, another boy in his school. The bully sends him threatening texts and facebook messages, stalks him and hacks into his online accounts – all of which, we are told from the very beginning, will ultimately result in Marcus’s death.
There are some really clever ideas here. For one it’s always interesting to see a story about bullying from the perspective of the bully, turning it on its head. We’re not only watching the victim’s life fall apart, but we’re also watching the downward spiral of the bully, as he slowly loses control. I love that he is always referred to as ‘the bully’, so that he’s hiding in anonymity not only online but in the very pages of the novel. The ambiguous narrative voice is also a great touch. Having this bitter and intriguing first person voice intruding every now and then on the otherwise third person narration really builds suspense.
And this is a really gripping book. I got very into the story, especially in the second half. The structure is key here, for in a way we know the end long before we get to it. The very first sentences of the novel tells us that ‘Marcus James is dead. Killed by a bully.’ We read the book then not to find out what happens so much as to find out how and why things went so far. (I should say too that, impressively, the ending still managed to surprise me.) This structure and beginning sets up an atmosphere of impending tragedy; you literally know something dreadful is about to happen – it’s just a matter of when. There’s something kind of Shakespearian about this. It’s brilliantly ironic that the bully keeps on getting detention for not doing his essay on Macbeth, for in a way the novel takes elements of Macbeth (or perhaps more accurately of Othello). Told from the end as the story is, tragedy is inevitable. And because it has already happened, there is little chance of redemption for the bully.
The actual bullying itself is told well. There are a couple of scenes in the later section of the novel which I found a little hard to believe, but the most part the bullying he does is credible, convincing and genuinely creepy. Even though you’re reading it from the bully’s perspective, you still do get a sense of how unsettled and miserable it must make Marcus. I for one I am never going to sign off a text :) x again.
The characterisation is fairly strong. Povey makes it clear on the first page that these are just ‘normal teenage’ boys. I think this certainly comes across, especially in the relationship between the bully and his friend Sam, and in his crush on Jess at the start. Marcus too feels real, and I quite like how although Povey never lets us see into Marcus’s head, we still get a sense of what he’s feeling. For much of the novel, especially in the scenes set in the school, we’re witnessing the slightly messy lives of ordinary teenagers. Except that there’s something much more sinister going on behind this. The bully’s schoolboy crush on Jess becomes complete obsession, as does his hatred and jealousy of Marcus. And because of the isolation and invisibility computers and phones allow, no one really notices as the bully completely loses grip on what he’s doing. This loss of control, the bully’s completely inability to stop himself, is very cleverly written.
The main weakness of this novel was for me that sometimes things are a bit over the top, feelings or actions overdone when they could have been described in a much more subtle way. I think it might have been more effective if the hatred and anger of the bully had been more understated, or shown through his behaviour instead of directly reporting his feelings, especially nearer the beginning of the book. At times The Veil of Anonymity does risk making an important and relevant issue such as bullying or cyberbullying seem a little melodramatic. This is perhaps partially because of the age group the book is intended for; and while I do read a fair bit of Young Adult fiction, those I tend to read are books aimed at the older end of the YA spectrum. Nonetheless, I still think the novel might have been a little more effective if at times the themes and the bully’s motivations had been less overstated – though I fully acknowledge I’m not the ideal target reader.
In short, I do recommend this, but I think mainly for under 16s. Povey’s dealing with a very important issue here, especially for teenagers of that age. It’s easy to feel, perhaps as the bully does, that words texted or typed on the internet aren’t quite real. Povey deals with this issue well, and insightfully describes how people can lose sight of the effects of their actions on others. So many YA novels these days focus on love stories, seeming to be about just how important it is to get the girl/guy of your dreams. It’s refreshing and interesting to see a YA novel that deconstructs this trend. The bully wants Jess, and Marcus is in the way – and the manner in which he deals with it is shown to be absolutely not worth it.
Greatest strength: The premise and the narrative structure.
Greatest weakness: As I said, I did find some parts a little over the top.
Let’s finish on a quote: Kids can be cruel.
I think that kind of sums up the book
Next week: The Dynamite Room, by Jason Hewitt