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Hilary T. Smith
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Story of a Girl

Story of a Girl - Sara Zarr 4.5 starsI know full well how dramatic this is going to sound, but this book broke my heart. Not violently, or loudly, with a single devastating blow; but quietly and slowly, taking it apart piece by painful piece. Whatever emotional sandbagging I’d done in the intervening years proved a poor defence, and in just 192 pages Sara Zarr’s excruciating story had brought me right back to being sixteen again, vulnerable and raw with self-loathing. What strikes me most Sara Zarr’s writing, and Story of a Girl in particular, is its empathy. In telling the story of Deanna Lambert, struggling against the perceptions and repercussions of her past actions, Zarr cuts right to the emotional truth of the situation. Doing away with superfluous drama and paring the story back to the bare bones, Zarr writes from Deanna’s perspective with palpable understanding. I feel like she gets it. And that kind of validation is a powerful and moving thing, particularly for readers who find echoes of their own personal experiences in Deanna’s.Knowing that this was Zarr’s debut novel, I think I had unconsciously tempered my expectations, particularly after recently reading and loving How To Save a Life. It was somewhat humbling, therefore, to realise that this slighter, quieter book, was equally powerful. There are no wasted words. Every scene is layered with significance, down to the small details that (albeit sparsely) flesh them out. The gestures, dialogue, setting, the spare descriptions are imbued with relevance to the overarching themes and characterisation. In few words Zarr paints a sharp and insightful picture of one teenage girl’s experience with shame, judgement and forgiveness.Perception, and its accompanying shades and variances, are subtly examined in Story of Girl. From the wide-spread labelling of Deanna as the “school slut” and the ways in which stories are manipulated, through to Deanna’s perception of herself as unloved by her father, the various lenses Deanna is shown through are tackled without any heavy-handed declarations from Zarr on the rights or wrongs thereof. Nor are the characters cast in clear-cut roles as antagonists and protagonists. It simply is what it is. And I think readers would hard-pressed to say they didn’t know someone, if not themselves, who had been subjected to the perpetuation of a stereotype or label, or on the flipside even participated in doing so. Zarr’s story is a deft and effective deconstruction of the some of the myths surrounding the “slut” tag, and for all its economy with words it packs some intense and thought-provoking subtext. I can understand why some have found Story of a Girl’s ending to feel less than adequately positive. However, coming from a somewhat non-“huggy” family myself, it felt honest to me. Sometimes, it’s as likely for someone to say: “I was wrong and I’m sorry” as it is for them to light themselves on fire. Sometimes shifts in perception, or forgiveness, are not accompanied by declarations or grand gestures. Often they come on gradually, unheralded. And sometimes, when one has forgiven themselves, the same acknowledgement from others is no longer all that necessary anyway. Redemption can be a self-fulfilling thing. To this end, I think Zarr’s conclusion to this book struck the right chord, with small glimpses of hope and change, while remaining in keeping with the gentle character growth throughout.It would be dishonest of me to say that reading Story of A Girl didn’t leave me feeling scraped and bruised and bring me precariously close to an ugly cry in public. For a short book it certainly hit a nerve – it’s not often that I read something that takes me from anger and indignation to intense sadness and beyond. But in the end I didn’t feel like I’d lost anything for reading it. On the contrary, I felt like I’d been given something important and special. Certainly another viewpoint from which to consider things, but more than that, a sense that experiences like Deanna’s have not gone unwitnessed. That they are understood.