Author creates credible teen character

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April 15, 2013

The New Normal
By Ashley Little
Orca Book Publishers,  222 pages, $12.95
Reviewed by Marcie Gray

Alberta writer Ashley Little really knows how to make an entrance.

Her first novel for young adults, The New Normal, jumps right into the crisis at hand: the main character, Tamar, is shedding. She’s 16 and is losing her hair–and not just the hair on her head. It’s falling out everywhere, from her private parts to her eyelashes. I say “private parts,” but she uses more graphic language. The first page is a bit of a shock for me, a mother who is thinking about whether this book is something I’d like my daughter to read when she hits her teens. I’m used to the softer, safer language of leading female characters in books like The Hunger Games and Twilight. Bella would never talk about her pubic hair. Hell, her relationship with the gentleman vampire Edward is so sanitized that even now I can’t visualize them naked.

Little has no problem exposing her character, but she doesn’t spend much time exploring why Tamar is becoming a “chrome dome.” It might be a rare disease. It might be from stress, as Tamar’s younger sisters recently died in a car crash, leaving her parents devastated.  The story isn’t about the mystery of the hair loss; rather, it’s about how Tamar deals with it. This quest broadens as she finds herself trying to make peace with her dead sisters and make whole her family once again.

The writing is clean and conversational; the book reads like a diary, as we listen to Tamar confessing her story in first person. At times the logic is a bit faulty, and the author, perhaps trying to show just how tenacious Tamar is, gives her an extra challenge–an unnecessary challenge, I think. But otherwise there’s not much to trim, as Little weaves tight, spare pictures. In one chapter, the writing is so vivid and piercing that you are in the room, having an acupuncture needle pulled out of your back with a “sharp sucking sound.”  No surprise that this visit to a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine began as a short story; the author later expanded it into the current novel. It shows that with close editing, Little’s writing truly shines.

Ultimately, I ask myself whether this book is one I’d pass on to my daughter, and there’s no doubt I would. Tamar shows incredible resilience, and that’s the one quality I think our kids need today as they enter the sometimes scary and always challenging world of high school. Although Tamar is, at times, too resilient to be believable (I just can’t buy the scene where she’s ready to skip the wig and go bald to the prom), she still comes across as an authentic character. She is a teen who tries, risks, fails, succeeds, and yes, swears. For a role model, I’d pick her over Bella any day.

Marcie Gray acquired her appreciation for spare, conversational writing as a reporter and producer for CBC Radio. Today she’s at work on her own young adult novel.


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