Lessons from a Dead Girl (by Jo Knowles)

7 10 2012

Leah Greene is dead. But there are none of those ‘speak no ill of the dead’ niceties in Jo Knowles’ 2007 debut novel Lessons from a Dead Girl. Instead Knowles recounts the disturbing ‘friendship’ between 18-year-old Laine and Leah up until Leah’s death.

Leah has always been the beautiful, popular girl and Laine never quite understood why she would take an interest in her back in 5th grade. But she does, and a very twisted sort of relationship ensues between Leah and Laine. Leah is definitely a bully and an enforcer, and forces Laine to play secret closet games (“just for practice”) which make Laine feel very confused, embarrassed, and eventually also guilty. Yet, she’s too weak and too meek to speak out and she is being dehumanized by Leah without consciously realizing that this is what is going on.

Knowles sketches the context in which such a friendship  between two girls could arise, and she also convincingly suggests why Laine never said anything to anyone. The role of victim is a very complicated one, and that clearly doesn’t only apply to Laine.

It’s hard, though, to connect with either of the characters, not because of the fact that Laine or Leah are so different from you or me or anyone else, but because of a distinct linguistic aspect of this disturbing portrait of abuse. Knowles uses the present tense as a clear way to put distance between the reader and the protagonists.

Lessons from a Dead Girl addresses many issues that are probably very real in a teenager’s life: how to form friendships, the importance of sexuality, the dynamics of power and control and finally abuse. However, the writing itself isn’t that spectacular and the plot isn’t that fleshed out, and the cat often got the feeling that Knowles was trying to get too much in, in not enough pages. This one is going to be categorized as a good first effort.



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