Sunday, October 13, 2013

Review: Heart-Shaped Bruise by Tanya Byrne

A compelling, brutal and heart-breaking story about identity, infamy and revenge, from debut author Tanya Byrne. Shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger 2012.

They say I'm evil. 

The police. The newspapers. The girls from school who sigh on the six o'clock news and say they always knew there was something not quite right about me. 

And everyone believes it. Including you. 

But you don't know. You don't know who I used to be. Who I could have been.

Sometimes I wonder if I'll ever shake off my mistakes or if I'll just carry them around with me forever like a bunch of red balloons

Awaiting trial at Archway Young Offenders Institution, Emily Koll is going to tell her side of the story for the first time.

I said it once and I'll say it again - UK novels need more limelight. Is it the air here? For some reason or another nearly all stories from UK authors have managed to captivate me and hold my interest until the last page. And then I want to start on them again.

"Heart-Shaped Bruise" is Tanya Byrne's debut novel, and it has a fairly interesting story behind it, one which I had the pleasure of hearing at the Bath Children's Literature Festival. In my experience of writing and revising (and a lot of other people's, according to the Internet), a story undergoes a complete overhaul from first draft to print copy. In this case, however, the story remained the same. The thing that changed was the protagonist.

Emily Koll is not a very lovable person. She doesn't think of herself as very lovable, nor does she feel like she deserves to be loved. Over the course of the book, you may come to agree with her, or you may find yourself completely enthralled.

The latter happened to me. (Apparently, I'm not the only one either.)

Spoilers ahead.

Emily is in a Young Offenders facility, awaiting trial in a psychiatric unit. The story, told in journal entries (and yes, it is a journal, Emily, even if you don't see it that way) alternates between present day and past, so the story and Emily unravel together. 

So this is something I discovered in the past year or so, but apparently, I love out-of-order stories. It's a structure that has a lot of merit, especially in books where the point-of-view character is as deeply in denial as Emily is (for another excellent example, see Marian Keyes' "Rachel's Holiday".) Oftentimes, people don't appreciate the depth of a situation while they're experiencing it, and even afterwards, their biased point of view tends to color things. Fiction that doesn't acknowledge that tends to feel detached and sterile; or else, it can go in the other direction and go all stream-of-consciousness, (see: Sister Assassin,) which can honestly feel distracting. 

"Heart-Shaped Bruise" strikes that perfect balance of realistic bias and budding realization which is both true-to-life and enticing. It's both a mystery and a coming-of-age novel (best way I could describe it, really,) and Emily is both the villain and your best friend. For exactly the same reason. 

How is that possible?

Emily's father is a gangster, but Emily herself didn't know until he was arrested for killing the detective who was on his case. The detective's daughter, Juliet, heard the whole thing, stabbed Emily's father, and then was sent to witness protection. 

The arrest and subsequent fallout throw Emily entirely off balance. She is lost, scared, and without guidance; and she directs her anger at Juliet. She finds Juliet (now Nancy), befriends her with the intention of destroying her life, and then... then things get complicated.

That's the thing - with a few minor changes of circumstance, Emily can easily be anyone. Both her fury and her vulnerability are believable, because they both come from an essential character flaw that we, as readers, can easily identify as part of ourselves. We all have our beliefs - in a way, our identity is closely tied to what we believe is right or wrong. Those beliefs are installed by our surrounding environment, especially our parents, and one of the biggest shocks of adulthood is when you realize your parents are not always right.

And the way it is handled in this book is just... mind-blowingly on the spot.

Another thing which really works here is the fact that the other characters are equally well-rounded and believable. (Wouldn't have been as interesting otherwise.) Juliet in particular is an interesting antithesis to Emily - equally overwhelmed by the situation, completely different reactions in some cases, completely the same in others. In another book, she would have been the sainted victim and that would have been it; but she too has an ugly side, and the fact that the story shows it is something I respect.

What else? Two thumbs up and strongly recommended!

Note: Image via BookLikes. Synopsis via Amazon.

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