Sunday, October 12, 2014

Review: Every Ugly Word - Aimee L. Salter

*I received this book as an ARC through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. 

‘…each wound was unique, but all left you bleeding’

Aimee Salter’s bold debut Every Ugly Word delves deep into the dark depths of high school bullying. Seventeen year old Ashley Watson has been brutally bullied for four years all because of one little lie which changed everything and revealed the dormant cruelty that lay in her peers. Secretly in love with her only remaining friend (Matt) and chastised and lamented by her own mother, Ashley’s story is one of heart-breaking loneliness eased only by a curious truth: when she looks in the mirror, her twenty three year old self looks back. As she relays the story of her darkest days to her psychiatrist she must re-think the relationships she held most dear – above all, the one with her very self.
Salter brilliantly captures the way the effects of bullying don’t end when you leave school, the scars are for life unless you are lucky enough to find healing. I found the book an intriguing, if occasionally flawed, negotiation of how someone can come to love themselves.

The flaws I refer to are really just me nit-picking and it’s only in relation to the logistics of the Older Me and Younger Me dynamic which might just require a suspension of disbelief rather than a full blown investigation into the space-time continuum and what not. (Questions that those interested in the sci-fi element might ask: is Ashley’s life on some kind of loop? How did her Older Me have an Older Me too? What are the repercussions for this after the final events? What merits an Older Me? Are their lives separate? Is it some kind of parallel universe where Younger Ashley’s actions don’t affect her Older Self’s circumstances? Is her Older Self just a projection? Does any of this actually matter?)

Ultimately I don’t think these issues destabilise the narrative or message too much.
I find it is best to look at it like this: often in therapy they speak about how the patient must develop a compassionate attitude towards themselves, and my theory is that Older Ashley is literal manifestation of something like this. Ultimately the patient must save themselves, and again this is literalised in Salter’s novel.

When Older Ashley sacrifices herself and crashes through the mirror to catch her younger self, she has made the ultimate sacrifice and demonstrated how much she values and has come to love younger Ashley. This changes her future and is undoubtedly the most important relationship in the novel for the reasons I have mentioned.

Aimee Salter
The book’s great strength is that it can prompt this kind of thinking and different interpretations. Matt, rather than just being the best friend/love interest/jerk, is a believable human being who is equally flawed and not a knight-in-shining-armour in any sense. As Older Ashley wisely says: ‘There has to be more to your life than Matt’. This is one of the few Young Adult books I have read recently in which I think the ‘love interest/arc’ is successful and not a weakness. By the end your feelings towards Matt will be extremely confused but he won’t be the most important relationship in Ashley’s life whatever happens, and that’s important. Salter remains true to her ‘heroine’ (probably not the right word because Ashley herself acknowledges she is not a hero).

It was with great relief that I read the lines: ‘Matt sits forward in his chair as if he might rise. But there is fear on his face and I am reminded that he has never fully believed in me. Never. Even our good days were underlined with doubt’. I felt relieved because Ashley is not dependent on him or what he thinks any longer, she recognises who he is and that she can never rely on him or any other person. She makes a rational assessment and it allows her to really take a grasp of her own character and face the tasks ahead. She doesn’t give it all up for a belief in a happy ending. That’s not to say she doesn’t love him and can’t be with him, just that she must always put herself first in order to grow. It’s a subtle but quite revolutionary shift for a young woman in a YA novel.

In terms of structure, I think the book is framed quite well even though the psychiatrist situation is slightly cliché. The pace is set by these two parallel timelines which are working to the point where they converge. She must reach the end of her story and session with her psychiatrist and reach and confront the darkest day of her life in the past. The alternating sections ensure there is a driving force which, particularly in the latter stages, makes this book a real page-turner.

There is something really authentic and sincere about this book which makes it endearing. It’s clear, as Salter has said, that parts of it are inspired by experience and that it very sincerely wants to be something that people can relate to and learn from. The bit where I really admired how serious it was was when Ashley’s psychiatrist asked her if she wanted to die that day and she responds – ‘I wished I was dead… it’s not the same thing’. There is a tremendous amount of insight in that sentence alone.

So this is not a light read, and some readers may get frustrated with the relentlessness of the descent into everything getting worse, and with Ashley often making what we can recognise as harmful decisions but it encourages and fosters understanding. The unapologetic authenticity of the struggle and how it is told demands respect and the result is a thought-provoking and heart-wrenching story which I’m sure many will find solace in.

1 comment:

  1. I need your help. I cannot remember how this book ends, and it is driving me nuts. I remember her crashing through the mirror to save her Younger Self, but then what? She and Matt (whose name, for some reason, I remembered as Mark) are NOT together romantically, right? I remember how conflicted I was about him. I wanted to like him, but he didn't seem willing to sacrifice anything truly important to him for her, and I do think he was more aware of what was happening to her than he wanted to admit. Admitting it would mean he'd have to do something about it.

    Anyway. If you can help me recall the ending, I'd be so grateful.

    Thank you!