Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Self mutilation in YA fiction: Bates' Crossing the Line

This search for the plastic brain within YA fiction can be a pain, especially as I've been finding it a bit of a hard slog working my way through Scott Westerfield's Uglies series. But I'm trying to perservere because, although I haven't come across Westerfield using the term brain plasticity in the novels, when his characters are able to rewire their brains around the 'lesions' caused by the 'pretty operation' that's what's happening. So that's interesting to me because he's incorprating brain plasticity into the narrative of his YA novel. Unfortunately, his writing doesn't hold my interest, mainly because I simply don't care about his self-obsessed characters. Not one bit.

Luckily I've had Di Bates' Crossing the Line to keep my reading list chugging along. Bates isn't a particularly high profile name in young adult writing but she is a veteran author of more than 30 books and a skilled and empathetic storyteller. Crossing the Line deals with the difficult issue of self harm. Sophie, the narrator, is now 17 and has lived in foster homes since she was around 12. The Department has recently allowed her to try living in a share house with a couple of other young people, Amy and Matt, to try and transition into life post-foster care. But although Sophie enjoys living independently, she is too fragile to cope and deals with her pain the only way she knows how - by cutting herself.

On the surface of it, cutting as a form of self-harm would seem to be an ultimate act of self-absorption, particularly in a teenager. But Bates' skillful writing draws you into Sophie's world, allowing you as the reader to empathise with Sophie's pain while seeing how her cutting only takes her deeper into despair. Throughout her journey, which takes her into a psychiatric ward and to regular sessions with a psychologist, Sophie struggles with finding her place in a world where natural love is denied to her. In telling the story, Bates' writing is compelling and fast paced without being frantic and the climax and resolution are satisfying to the story's heart while offering hope for Sophie's future. I cared about this character and her story a lot, despite some quibbles with the long-suffering and possibly a little too-good-to-be-true Matt.

Of course, Crossing the Line and the Uglies series are two different genres. But they're both genres I enjoy, so I don't think that's the issue. For me, when examining these books as possible inclusions in my thesis, the Uglies series is on the surface more aligned with the type of manuscript I propose to write. However, it's Bates' writing I'll draw inspiration from when it comes to writing rounded characters with real heart.