Monday, January 26, 2015

Talking about a generation: Solitaire by Alice Oseman

I love stumbling upon unique, well-written, relatable YA books (if they must be classed as such) which offer something a little niched. Alice Oseman has written one of these. It captured me instantly and was refreshing, personal and original for nearly the whole thing.

Now I adore narratives such as those in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the Catcher in the Rye etc. so Solitaire greatly appealed. It’s in the vein of being a kind of coming-of-age story dealing with the darker side of growing up in an honest and sometimes darkly humorous way – the troubled, despondent and brutally honest protagonist who exposes the ‘phoney-ness’ of the society around them. 

Tori was a strong, complex lead character and had a modern, relevant and darkly humorous narrative voice. But what was great was that she was surrounded by other developed and engaging characters who were very much on a par with her – such as her brother, Charlie, and new friend, Michael Holden. The story with her brother, in particular, was very affecting and I felt much more invested in his life and the other characters lives even without the mystery blog plotline. These three were equally memorable and individualised characters and everything felt very real – anyone at school today knows a Ben Hope, a Becky etc – but that didn't mean they were two-dimensional in any way.

Michael was a refreshing contrast/counter to Tori. He was kind of zany and unusual – defying all the usual genre conventions of the ‘male opposite to the female lead’. I was genuinely interested in him because he was so different. As a reader you feel hopeful that he’s not just a ‘love interest’ – you genuinely don’t know what role he will come to play in Tori’s life. We find out new, surprising things about him as Tori does – some quirky, some frightening, some lovable. This description nailed it for me:

Very ordinary-looking, not ugly but not hot, miscellaneous boy… I notice that he has one blue eye and one green eye. Heterochromia. He grins violently.’

I love that Oseman describes Michael as ‘miscellaneous’. Weirdly it made me warm to him because it simultaneously suggested he was anything but (in the ways that matter). The heterochromia and violent grin really cement him as this ray of difference in a character-scape of conformity present in so many high-school narratives - as Tori narrates: ‘the large majority of teenagers who attend Higgs are soulless, conformist idiots… sometimes I still feel that I might be the only person with a consciousness, like a video-game protagonist, and the rest are computer-generated extras who have only a select few actions, such as ‘initiate meaningless conversation’ and ‘hug’. I’m sure many can relate to that feeling and it’s brilliantly and succinctly expressed. Tori’s negativity never grated on me as it was always felt honest and was often tainted with humour. In Tori, Oseman has created a character that has very obvious faults but you very much care about and are invested in. She also never really puts any labels relating to mental health on things – not definitively anyway – which means that Tori isn’t a character you can easily push into a box or categorise, she does feel very much like an individual who is trying to work out who she is and where she fits – not having to conform to a type.

Within the first few pages there are some great, simple sentences which express volumes and invite you in straight away:

‘I think you should know that I make up a lot of stuff in my head and then get sad about it.’ (2)

‘Sometimes I hate people. This is probably very bad for my mental health.’ (4)

And this one is particularly endearing and pretty much cemented my desire to read on:

‘Personally, thinking or talking too much about ‘boy issues’ makes me want to shoot myself in the face’ (5)

I don’t think I’ve read those lines before anywhere else. I kind of rejoiced. I’m not dismissing those issues, but it’s not the only part of growing up – there is so much that’s pushed under the rug just to focus on ‘boy issues’ in books, as if romance must be included at all costs with an insistence that all teenagers are in the throes of some hormonal/sexual craze and if they’re not, or not pursuing these experiences, than they’re abnormal. There is no one YA/teen experience – there is no normal, and this is what Oseman really succeeds at showing.
There are some moments in this novel that really stand out and showcase just how naturally talented Alice Oseman is as a writer – and how much more there is to come from her. She captures the essence of things so perfectly at these times and creates some memorable pieces of prose that you wouldn’t be surprised to find in a novel with the cult status of Perks or Catcher in the Rye.

‘I caught a reflection of myself in a Waterstones window and I realised then that most of my face was covered up and who in the name of God would want to talk to me like that and I started to feel all of this hair on my forehead and my cheeks and how it plastered my shoulders and back and I felt it creeping around me like worms, choking me to death. I began to breathe very fast, so I went straight into the nearest hairdresser’s and had it all cut to my shoulders and out of my face.’

You can see just in this excerpt how the writing builds this claustrophobia and sense of panic and crisis by drawing out the sentence, the repeated use of ‘and’ – building and building, increasing to a dramatic climax without you noticing or feeling forced into it – you’re empathising all the way through – as if you’re Tori, suddenly aware of the oppressiveness of the very hair on your head. It’s violent and dark and frightening and just simple but natural and brilliant. There’s a rush of relief and victory when she cuts it away.

The core of the plot negotiates the social media/blogging/tumblr generation – the need for self-promotion, self-expression and a sense of self-importance. A need for some part of the external world to revolve around yourself. With the Solitaire blog, Tori has to experience the world revolving around her, but beyond her control – and how frightening that can be - a possible symptom of the cyber-age where information is accessible and it is easy to lose power and control as quickly as you feel you gain it.

*Spoilers ahead*

The tagline of the novel – ‘this is not a love story’ (made me think of 500 Days of Summer) – is where I felt slightly cheated once I put down the book. It so almost stayed true to this. And if I’m being fair, it wasn’t a love story – at least not primarily. The ‘love’ bit felt incidental at the end – and I think I’d almost have preferred it if Michael and Tori could have had just a strong platonic bond. That was what I came to be invested in, more than any romantic climax in front of the school burning down. Those final events didn’t click for me – I found the ending as a whole, and the resolution of the blog plotline, perhaps too melodramatic and unsubtle. I thought the idea, and the negotiation of the blogging age, was really clever and done in a layered and unbiased way which evoked the positives as well as the negatives, but I can’t quite pin down where it slipped at the end.

These are my only two qualms over Solitaire and by that point the book already had me convinced that I’d be recommending it to readers of all ages in the future. The overriding strength is Tori’s voice coupled with some genuine, diverse and interesting characters and Oseman’s own smart, sharp and relevant writing style. I would definitely read it again and recommend it to anyone growing up in this digital age where our lives are online and we relate to people in different ways. if you’re looking for a refreshing protagonist – a refreshing cast of characters in general – then Tori and Solitaire are it. I’m really looking forward to reading more from Oseman in the future – I can personally relate to so much of what she writes, she depicts that generation so perfectly (plus I respect her for achieving what I once dreamed of and with something of real relevance and value). 

What did you think of Solitaire? Could it become this generation's Perks or Catcher


‘I don’t blog to get more followers or whatever. I’m not Evelyn. It’s just that it’s not socially acceptable to say depressing stuff out loud in the real world because people think that you’re attention-seeking. I hate that. So what I’m saying is that it’s nice to be able to say whatever I want. Even if it is only on the Internet.’

‘I actually think that a lot of people are very beautiful, and maybe even more beautiful when they’re not aware of it themselves. In the end, though, being beautiful doesn’t do much for you as a person apart from raise your ego and give you an increased sense of vanity.’

‘He shakes his head. “You know all the names to books, but you haven’t read a single one. It’s like it’s raining money, but you refuse to catch a single coin.”’

‘Everyone is okay with hurting people. Or maybe they cannot see that they’re hurting people. But I can.’ - the plight of the hyper sensitive

‘I think about the sea of anonymous students who had been so excited to watch this. It reminds me of the people who watched the beating-up of Ben Hope, jeering, laughing at pain. The crowd that had jumped up and down like children at the fireworks at The Clay, while the injured ran, terrified, burning. I close my fist. The piece of wood dissolves into dust.' - Oseman evokes the mob mentality that you can find online, the danger of the mass consciousness where people lose themselves. 

“Thought for the day,” says Michael. He lifts one hand and touches the bandage on my arm, fiddling with the frayed edges at my wrist. “Do you think that, if we were happy for our entire lives, we would die feeling like we’d missed out on something?”

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