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Forbidden

Forbidden - Tabitha Suzuma So, About Taboo Subjects in YA LiteratureOr: Do Teenagers Really Use the Word “Ensconced”?Somewhere deep in the world of technical things I don’t really understand, there is an algorithm that persisted in listing Forbidden in almost every shelf of personalised recommendations. Based on my previous reading and shelving habits, it insisted that I should read this book. But I dug my heels in: “Stop trying to make Forbidden happen, Goodreads. It’s Not. Going. To. Happen.” (Because I have a pretty good idea of my own tastes, and sometimes I talk to inanimate objects like that). I guess I could have just clicked that helpful “Not Interested” button. But perversely, I wanted to see how long Goodreads would continue to push Forbidden on me as I carried on updating my shelves.And the inevitable happened. I decided to read it. There was always the possibility my gut had misinformed me, right? It’s happened before. And thus, after much thought, I have Things To Say about this book. The Things are not going to be overly positive. Hence, if you loved this book – and I know and respect many who do (hi, friends!) – you may not wish to proceed with reading this review. I will make it clear upfront: I did not like this book. And while I apologise in advance to anyone who finds my comments in any way offensive, I do not make apologies for disliking it. Part of my employment history directly relates to child protection. The sexual, physical and emotional abuse of children was on my radar on a daily basis. No doubt that colours my response to this book to some extent. I freely admit that this affected the way I approached it, read it and am able to process it. I spent a lot of time arguing with myself upon completion: was I simply having a knee-jerk reaction to the subject matter? Why was I responding this way to this particular issue? Was I a hypocrite because I had a different response to other books which contained, arguably, equally controversial subject matter? My answer, which may not satisfy all, is that it’s not the subject matter I object to. I am not unfamiliar with incest in works of fiction. Rather, I take issue with the manner in which it was handled in the case of Forbidden. I would like to believe that this book is a stroke of literary genius in which the author masterfully makes use of unreliable, self-deceived narrators to thrust us into and examine their solipsistic minds, subverting the usual use of sympathetic and unsympathetic characters to powerful effect. However, I suspect that this is not the case.It’s clear to me that Suzuma’s heavily introspective, densely descriptive writing style will appeal to many. But personally, I found the prose distastefully soapy and melodramatic. The viewpoints of Lochan and Maya were strikingly similar and also ridden with language that felt awkward, so I was never fully convinced that this was a story narrated by teenagers. What little action takes place in the book is interspersed with long, ponderous interludes of the characters’ angsting over their mutual attraction and subsequent horror as they consider the ramifications of it. This is a book largely dependent on the tension (especially sexual) between the characters in order to balance the long internal ruminations which were, even for me, tedious. However, I was always conscious of Suzuma’s presence behind the scenes, pulling the characters’ strings. This is especially evident in some of the dialogue, where Lochan and Maya muse on the outside world’s hypothetical response to their relationship, to the judgement they would be subjected to should they be found out. At this point, Lochan and Maya ceased to be characters and sounded more like mouthpieces, which bothered me immensely. I am capable of reaching my own opinions and making up my own mind. I do not appreciate being clunked over the head with poorly veiled commentary. I won’t go so far as to say that I think there was a particular agenda being pushed - I don’t know that, after all. But in these sections the dialogue felt out of place and laboured, in a bald-faced effort to make the reader question, and ultimately sympathise with their predicament. Similarly, the characters’ (Maya in particular) preoccupation with how their love transcends sibling bonds also felt like a manipulative reach for sympathy. I can’t help but think this novel would have been all the more powerful had it not relied so heavily upon insistence that the characters don’t perceive each other as “brother” and “sister”, but rather as “soulmates”. Instead of being brutally realistic, straight-talking and heartbreaking, this pushed things into the realms of PNR-style tropes and creepy wish fulfilment for me. And on the topic of “creepy”: Lochan. While I sympathised with his emotional and mental struggles, and I think his experience with anxiety was portrayed with a great deal of insight, I hated the manner in which his mental illness was used as a plot device. I hated the fact that he engaged in sexual activity with a girl who, sister or not, had just suffered a head injury. I hated this book’s fixation on his sexual gratification. I have no strong comments on the explicitness of the intimate scenes, that’s up to each reader’s personal taste. However I objected to the romanticised tone – it’s all exploding suns and ecstasy and oh-so-wonderful and it has me wondering what exactly the intention is? To make readers believe in their connection? To simply be honest? To shock? And a plain fact of the matter is – even if these two were not related by blood – I still would not be shipping them, on the basis of Lochan’s propensity for violence and jealousy alone. Again, I do not take issue with the portrayal of dysfunctional relationships in fiction, whatsoever. This is simply, sadly, reality for many. But I do feel that care needs to be taken with the subtext that is being communicated. I thought the characterisation of the younger siblings was well done, and although Kit occasionally read a little older than his thirteen years, I did sympathise with him. Their interactions and responses to their home situation felt realistic to me, especially the way Willa and Tiffin’s awareness of their neglect occasionally seeped through. This, in my opinion, was the most heartbreaking part of the book – the fact that while not fully understanding why, they were cognizant of their abandonment and the fact that their lives were different. While Lochan and Maya have, for all intents and purposes, taken on the parental roles, their inherent immaturity was highlighted by the way their need to get into each other’s pants gradually took precedence over everything else. Which is realistic, of course, but felt at odds with the way I thought the story was trying to present them as an object of tragedy. I have spoken in a previous review about my strong feelings on the commercialisation of grief, and how I deeply resent anything I perceive to be a grab for an emotional reaction. Which is why the ending and epilogue of Forbidden made me sick to my stomach. It felt gratuitous and tear-jerky in the most literal sense, a lunge for a strong reader response, the literary equivalent of going for the jugular. I strongly dislike seeing suicide used this way. As mentioned earlier, I don’t want my rating to be misinterpreted, or taken as a statement that I don’t believe these kind of subjects have a place in literature, young adult or otherwise - because that is simply not the case. I just did not care for this approach – which I felt was exploitative, calculated and overwrought. Obviously, many will disagree. Some will see this as the tragedy of neglect and abuse. Or a thought-provoking challenge to the parameters we put around “acceptable” love. Or a heartbreaking examination of society failing its young people. Or just a love story. There are plenty of excellent reviews that discuss these interpretations. But I’m afraid this book simply didn’t prove groundbreaking or revelatory to me. What I wanted to be complex and respectful felt melodramatic and toxic, a serious subject sacrificed on the altar of “edginess”.