Red Tears (by Joanna Kenrick)

23 02 2011

OK, I guess it’s something to get through… the teen self-harming books. I mean, I don’t want to belittle self-harmers or anything, but writing a book about a sensitive topic like self-harm is just not an easy thing to do. If you are called Laurie Halse Anderson you can pull it off  and you have found a way for your writing to surpass the mere teenage “my life sucks and I have so many issues to deal with and I can’t cope so please notice me” complaint fiction. Seriously, I’m not belittling self-harmers, but I’m questioning Joanna Kenrick’s ability to stay critical towards her writing subject.

In Red Tears, we meet Emily Bowyer, 15 and from a loving family. She has a couple of close friends and is academically successful. So what’s the big deal, right? You know, those of any “ordinary” teenager: GCSEs and the stress of it all. She basically has to find a way to balance her  friends (they dump her), schoolwork (she can’t keep up) and family (the pressure is on!). And she finds a way to deal with all these issues by cutting herself. What follows is apparently an insight into the mind of a self-harmer. The introduction shows that Kenrick did a lot of research about her topic, and apparently much of it in self-harmers’ online support groups (you should see some of the rave reviews these teens give the book). Anyway,… Emily’s character is intended to be believable (“this is what happens to all of us self-harmers”), but at the same time it should be able to show that this is something that can happen to anyone (careful, Emily was completely ‘normal’ too!).  Kenrick is obviously very sympathetic with her topic and her main character, but for me, this is exactly what makes it all so…well, stereotypical, and samey. For me, this book doesn’t stand out from the crowd and there is very little to lift this novel out of the teenage pit of doom and despair.

Why is that? No idea, really. You could say that it’s because we basically have only Emily’s point of view and she tends to be well, depressed…but then, why is Speak such a powerful novel? Here we also only have Melinda’s mind and she doesn’t even speak!  Is it because of the very rushed ending (no, not a happy ending and no, not a sad ending but you know, something in between, as it should be…).  We spend 95% of the pages on Emily’s self-harm and then the ‘solution’ the book offers is just too rushed. In a matter of a few pages Emily comes to the insight that yes, it’ll be hard to stop cutting but at least after all she’s gone through, and with the right guidance, she has it in her to get better… Or is it again because I have so little in common with the topic at hand? Then, why did Wintergirls make such an incredible impression on me?

Is Red Tears a good book for self-harmers? Hell, what do I know. Kenrick does warn them in the beginning that there are some scenes that might be hard for them to take and that might trigger their errr..urges, so if you’re a self-harmer, put away your blades! Is this is a good book to get an insight into self-harmers? Probably, I mean, Emily’s character is well-developed (oh and Kenrick even makes publicity for teacher packs so it’s all very responsible and everything ). Is this a good piece of literary fiction? Nah, not so much. The line between ‘complaint’ fiction and ‘critical’ fiction really is very fine. At least that is something Red Tears proves.

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2 responses

7 03 2011
Joanna Kenrick

Hi Ringo! Thanks for the review; you make some really interesting comments. I think when you’re writing about a person who is depressed, in first person, it is almost impossible to stay ‘critical’ – or at least I think in the way you mean. It’s sort of meant to be an absorption into that person’s world, rather than as an author to remain outside it enough to comment critically on it.
Sorry you felt the ending was rushed, I wasn’t sure there was anywhere else for the story to go.
You might be surprised to know that the book is roughly divided into equal thirds – Emily doesn’t self-harm until a third of the way through, then the last third focuses on her therapy and gradual recovery. Maybe it just felt like 95% of the book was about self-harm to you! LOL.
Possibly you didn’t connect with the book so much because you’re not very like Emily? The people who write to me to say how much they’ve enjoyed it tend to identify quite strongly with Emily, and I suspect if you don’t have that kind of personality then it might not chime with you.
Anyway, thanks for reading and for writing a review too – the book was published three years ago so it’s nice to see it’s still on people’s radar. Have you tried any of Tabitha Suzuma’s books? She writes about similar issues but you might prefer her style (sorry, haven’t checked your blog for her books). Alternatively you might prefer my second novel Screwed, which is about another self-destructive teenager but this one engages in a lot of promiscuous activity.
Best wishes
Joanna Kenrick

7 03 2011
Ringo the Cat

Hi Ms Kenrick,
Thank you very much for leaving a comment on my review! It’s much appreciated!
You are right to point out that I couldn’t quite identify with Emily, which made it hard for me to get completely absorbed by the story itself.
I’ll be sure to check out both Suzuma’s books and your second one. I try to read as many YA-novels as I can, and I don’t really discriminate against topics, styles, genres, so I’ll make sure to look out for them!
Ringo the cat

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