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Do you want to talk about it?: An appointment with traumatised characters

Saradha Koirala reviews two teen novels which both deal with girls who have “survived something horrific at the hands of a male classmate”. 

I will talk literature with anyone who’ll listen. Most recently the ones listening have been clinical psychologists. And yes, I’m sure it’s all very Freudian that my mum and my partner share such a specialised career, but I really don’t want to go into that right now.

Let me talk instead about teen fiction. Other people’s childhoods. Analysing characters is always easier than examining oneself and teen characters in particular lend themselves to this kind of analysis when they experience traumatic events and the literature serves to empower or provide an example for young people dealing with difficult situations. Of course, reading itself is often seen as therapy.

Sylvie the Second and Underwater both follow teenage protagonists dealing with trauma. Both main characters are female, both have survived something horrific at the hands of a male classmate. I admire aspects of each of these debut works – the authenticity of teenage voice and friendships – and the fact that the authors are telling these stories is brave and important. Sylvie was a finalist in two categories at the recent NZ Post Children’s Book Awards, including the Children’s Choice Award. They should be good starting points for family discussions around tough topics.

Both characters are suffering from PTSD and while Reichardt’s Morgan still shows signs of this months after the traumatic event, Baker’s Sylvie has a more worrying response.

The metaphor of being underwater in Reichhardt’s novel is a good – if not fully explored – one for the static state Morgan is in after a school shooting incident. She is unable to leave her family’s apartment and has cut off most of her friends. As the novel progresses, we see that Morgan’s sense of responsibility is also playing into this state and she can’t go out, not only because of fear from the violent experience, but also fear that she helped cause it. Her guilt is making her feel she has no right to participate in the world any more.

The novel is a lesson in forgiveness and the character responses are credible. Mum is caring, but quietly exasperated by Morgan’s late nights and inertia, gently suggesting she “do something” while the rest of the family are out. The new boy who moves in next door is motivation for Morgan to come back to a state of ‘normality’ but when she mucks him about and cuts him off too, he understandably gets upset with her. Everyone’s feelings are valid in this novel and the slowly revealed depths of Morgan’s trauma fill her out as a complete character. She regularly sees a dreadlocked psychologist who helps her connect with her absent dad and take baby steps towards leaving the apartment.

The message seems solid: Whatever the traumatic situation, it takes time to process, forgive and accept help to move on and be okay again. There’s no quick fix, there’s no one telling her to just get over it, but they’re not ignoring the problem either and there’s a constant feeling of drive and support from other characters to help her through. Morgan used to be a swimmer so getting literally back underwater is a key step for her finding herself again and getting out of the metaphorical underwater state.

The novel brings to mind the recent release of Sue Klebold’s A Mother’s Reckoning, which in turn brings to mind Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin (in fact any reference to a school shooting will always bring this vividly back to mind for me. Another highly diagnosable character). But Underwater doesn’t try to analyse the mind of the quiet boy at Morgan’s school who one day decided to bring a backpack of firearms to class. It focusses on survival and finding ways to move on.

Survival is the key message of Sylvie the Second too. Unlike Underwater, the traumatic event happens as part of the novel’s action – a bold move from the author – and we see Sylvie in chapter twelve heading naively into a situation that she thinks will help her become popular as she’s sick of “always coming second.” As readers, we know this will go badly, despise the boy she’s trying to impress, and when the scene cuts from Sylvie drunk in a bedroom with him to Sylvie running terrified from the party, we know what’s happened. However, it takes Sylvie until the end of chapter fifteen to be convinced she’s been raped.

It’s true that everyone will react differently to traumatic events and find different ways to cope – or not cope. In Sylvie’s case she seems to just get on with it, falling instantly for the cute pizza guy and not going through any period of mourning, depression or even anxiety about physical intimacy. In fact there’s barely an emotional response to the attack at all. Although this may be typical of numbing and avoidance post-trauma, it’s in no way explored as such in the novel and should be read critically, used as a discussion point, rather than a model of how to cope.

On a literary level I worry about future Sylvie and her ability to get out when dangerous situations present themselves. The ease with which she falls into the arms of the pizza boy suggests a desire for closeness without consideration and I feel she’s likely to continue a pattern of bad decisions based on a need to be noticed. We could blame her parents for this – they have put her sister’s mental health problems ahead of Sylvie’s basic needs of love and protection for years – and it will take time to heal.

On a more serious level I worry about the young women who will read this novel and think that the way to move on from trauma is to ignore it all and find a boyfriend as quickly as possible. Maybe Sylvie was lucky and she did find a nice guy who will care for her and eventually help her through, but this is not convincingly shown. There is a vague message of hope that not everyone in the world is going to turn out bad, but realistically it seems without proper support, Sylvie would continue to be attracted to the kind of person who hurt her initially or find it difficult to trust or get close to anyone for some time.

Morgan will also have a long road ahead and probably enduring trust issues and fear, but having gone through a grieving process and actually acknowledged that what she went through was devastating, she has a more solid grounding on which to rebuild her life. It took her a while, but she was able to open up to the people who care about her and resolve the deep feelings of guilt and responsibility that had been holding her captive.

Eventually and reluctantly Sylvie does press charges against her attacker, but still fails to see the seriousness of it. I only wish she could have talked to Morgan about their shared, but very different, experiences. Perhaps then she would have seen a psychologist, taken time to process it all and told a story that in turn could help other young women deal more effectively with trauma.

Both Underwater and Sylvie the Second are brave and important books. In a world where teenagers are having to deal with more and more stressful situations, having these explored within the safety of fiction and between the covers of a paperback will always provide some kind of support. However, I urge readers to examine the ways in which each character deals with their situation, make critical judgements and discuss these with caring – if not highly qualified – family members. Reading can be therapy, but it can also be avoidance when there are things we need to talk about.


Underwater (Pan Macmillan, $20), by Marisa Reichardt, and Sylvie the Second (Makaro Press NZ, $25)  by Kaeli Baker, are both available at Unity Books.

If the events depicted in this story have been triggering in any way, please consider contacting any of the following organisations:

Rape Crisis

Women’s Refuge

Lifeline

HELP

 

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