Having previously read Entangled, I was aware that Cat Clarke is unafraid to take readers to very difficult places in her confronting, intense novels. I knew that Torn would be an emotionally complicated book. But perhaps I wasn’t quite prepared for what a position of discomfort it was about to place me in, or the deeply disturbing implications it would force me to contemplate. In Torn, Clarke skilfully taps into the emotional cesspit that accompanies guilt: the consuming dread, self-loathing and anxiety. By burdening the reader early on with a dark secret, Clarke effectively forces them into the position of her protagonist, caught between guilt and the instinct for self-preservation. This sense of complicity with the main character is a powerful tool, and it makes her mental and emotional unravelling all the more compelling as the story unfolds. It would be easy to label Torn as a book about bullying and the terrible consequences, but it’s far less clear-cut than simply documenting the actions of perpetrators and victims, or a case of cruelty and revenge. The story is about the complex dynamic between the central characters, and it is made abundantly clear that black and white labels cannot be applied to each individual. Almost all of the characters do horrible things, and the roots of their issues go deep. While the results of their actions may be extreme, the inciting incidents aren’t. The tensions and conflict between the girls are all too familiar and believable, and they are all culpable in some way for its escalation. This is possibly the strongest element of the novel – that while none of the girls are really “likeable” characters (nor do I require this in a book), they’re still compelling. Clarke manages to take a group of people who engage in unsympathetic behaviour, and still make their story emotionally engaging. As each of these flawed characters are more fully revealed, the truth of the situation becomes more muddied, and attributing blame a more complicated exercise. In a way, Torn breaks down the stereotypical concept of the ‘mean girl’, implying rather sinisterly that the capacity for cruelty exists within everyone. This is a difficult book to read. I’ve deliberately avoided discussing the plot, but I can tell you that I felt deeply unsettled throughout, even occasionally nauseous, as I was drawn into the story. While I never fully sympathised with Alice, the protagonist, the vicarious experience of her story was intense. Clarke has an exceptional ability to take disturbing situations, and force the reader to consider the viewpoints of her characters, whether we personally believe them to be right or wrong. It’s almost a feeling of being manipulated, though in an effective, thought-provoking manner, forcing the reader to question everything. Even themselves. In some ways, this reading experience is reminiscent of Stolen, especially its atmosphere of mounting anxiety and moral ambiguity. It’s uncomfortable and challenging, a powerful examination of the destructive nature of guilt.