Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Books – Am I Normal Yet? by Holly Bourne

It’s taken me a while to write a review of Am I Normal Yet? It’s one of those books confused, unsettled and interested me all at once – and even now, a month after I finished it, I’m not entirely certain what I think of it. I liked the beginning, but from the middle grew increasingly unsettled and frustrated by the arguments it felt like Holly Bourne was putting forward – only to be pleasantly surprised by the ending. So I admired the ending, but whether I found the rest of the novel effective is another question.

Am I Normal Yet? is a Young Adult contemporary novel. Its central character, Evie, is a sixteen-year-old girl who suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The novel begins with Evie beginning sixth-form college, looking for a fresh start, and follows her in her attempts to become “normal”. Being “normal” for Evie means having friends, going to parties, hiding her illness from everybody and, more than anything, having a boyfriend. She becomes effectively fixated with the idea of having a boyfriend. She starts believing that this is the only thing that will make her “normal again”, and so most of the book deals with Evie’s romantic relationships, and the three boys she is interested in.

There are some aspects of book’s writing style that I definitely did enjoy. It is a very easy read in terms of the writing, if not always in the subject matter, and I certainly sped through it. I especially liked the ways Bourne plays with form at times. We have Evie’s “Recovery/Normality Diary”, where she documents her medication, thoughts, feelings, and the homework she sets herself to become normal. Bourne also breaks the form for Evie’s “Bad thoughts” and “Good thoughts” in a way I think is very effective. It was another interesting way for Bourne to explain Evie’s illness.

I thought the issues of mental health were dealt with very well in this novel. I wasn’t quite as impressed with it as I was with The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness – which also has a teenage central character who suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. However, I still thought it was done well. There are times which are certainly difficult to read, but this is because it is a very brutal and raw depiction of what Evie is suffering. The significant moments where Evie relapses are, I think, some of the best-written passages in the book, and the ways in which she endeavours to hide her illness from her friends are both believable and very moving. When Bourne is dealing with Evie’s illness the book is at its strongest.

What I didn’t find quite so effective was how the books deals with feminism. I think I understand what the book is trying to do, and whatever it is trying to do, I can see that the ending is very significant to its overall message. Nonetheless, I still felt uncomfortable reading quite a lot of the book, and I can’t quite get over that. Evie and two of her friends, Amber and Lottie, form a group called “The Spinsters”, where they decide they will talk about feminism. The discussions they have are interesting, and I suppose would provide a good introduction to feminist terms to someone new to the topic, even if they are a bit heavy-handed. However, throughout most of the novel, feminism is something that is talked about, and until the very end doesn’t seem to be reflected in the actual content of the book. For a book that actively references the Bechdel Test, it spends most of the book not passing it. And perhaps Bourne is trying to say that she thinks the test is arbitrary, but nonetheless, passages such as this frustrated me:

“But we’ve just spend half an hour discussing the best way to eat eggs. And before that, we argued about which song from a musical best sums up our lives. And just yesterday, you were explaining The Female Eunuch to me… so, surely we’ve earned the right to discuss your new boyfriend?”

“Ahh, yes,” said Lottie… “But if we were in a movie, then they wouldn’t show any of that. They would just cut straight to this breakfast, to the moment you guys ask me about Tim.”

Which is, in fact, exactly what Bourne herself does. So she is clearly aware of what she’s doing, and either she’s making fun of the Bechdel Test or trying to play with the idea in some way. Or she’s showing what Evie thinks are the most important bits of the conversation. Regardless, this sums up the tone of a lot of the book, and I did find it quite frustrating. It’s not that I think feminism so infallible and holy that it can never be mocked – it just seems a very strange choice for a writer who identifies as a feminist. I don’t think it’s effective to have a book that simultaneously discusses and at times dismisses feminism. It is not enough for Bourne to put across a sort of feminism ideology at the very end of the book after she has spent so much of the novel presenting it as basically irrelevant.

I grew increasingly concerned about the way Bourne was handling feminism as I read on. Amber, Lottie and Evie – and, indeed Bourne – devote some of the book to discussing how teenage girls can make feminism relevant to their own experiences, how they can work the ideals of feminism into their lives. Bourne makes a very good and important point that it is perfectly okay to be a feminist and have a boyfriend – but sometimes it felt like she was making that point so loudly that she forgets to make the point that it’s also perfectly okay to be a feminist and not have a boyfriend.

Moreover, I found Lottie and Jane a bit stereotyped, and Guy and Ethan too felt like incredibly unflattering and shallow stereotypes of teenage boys. I understand that this is a book about girls, and about the struggles girls face in their teens, but that still doesn’t make it okay to present teenage boys as flat and uncomplicated characters. Indeed, at times, Evie felt like the only fleshed out character in the book, and even then her personality is so bound up with her illness that it’s hard to see a fully formed character beneath. Amber interested me, but we don’t really spend that much time with her, because the book spends more time with Evie and the multiple guys she likes.

The ending does change things. As I say I was pleasantly surprised by the ending. Bourne does make it clear, I think, near the end, that Evie’s desperate desire for a boyfriend is bound up with her illness, with her fixation on being “normal”.  Evie thinks that having a boyfriend with fix everything, will fix her, and Bourne does make it clear that this is certainly not the answer. I thought the ending was the right ending, and the last fifty pages was my favourite section in the book. The ending is the first time in the novel that feminism seems to come into it as more than a talking point. But still, I’m not sure I can quite forgive Bourne for the rest of the novel.

All in all, I hardly know what to say about Am I Normal Yet? I’m not sure that writing this review has entirely helped me resolve my opinions. I know that Holly Bourne is a feminist, and at times in the book I got flashes of what she was trying to do – but for most of the novel, it felt like she was trying to write a book about feminism and mental health issues and accidentally wrote a book about having crushes on boys. Maybe I missed the point, but despite the ending, I still left the book feeling rather unsettled.

Greatest strength: The easy fluid writing style, and the strength of writing with which Evie’s mental health issues are discussed.

Greatest weakness: As I said, I found myself quite frustrated by the way feminism was dealt with in this book.

Let’s finish on a quote: ‘We were supposed to be talking about feminism but we ended up just whinging about boys not calling us.’
Next week: Something a little more Austen…

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