Earlier this month we published a short excerpt from Pieces of You, a major new YA novel from a debut Kiwi author. We asked Denis Wright, YA novelist and experienced high school English teacher to give us his verdict.
Let me say from the outset that I am most definitely not the target audience for this YA novel, but any novel I can read in two sittings has to be doing something right – and this one does a lot right.
I will retract a little on not being the target audience, because after almost 40 years of working with teens I think I know a bit about how they think. The main strength of this book is that Merriman clearly demonstrates that she does too. She absolutely nails the 15/16-year-old teenage girl mentality: the obsessive self-consciousness, the mood swings, the narrow focus on this very second of time and the belief that it’s all about them.
Our first person narrator is Rebecca (Becs) McQuillan, who, along with her accountant father and physiotherapist mother, has recently moved from Dunedin to North Shore Auckland. Being very aware of the old writing adage ‘show, don’t tell’ Merriman gives little back story, preferring to plunge us straight into Rebecca’s recently acquired self-harming (cutting) obsession. This disturbing and no-punches-pulled behaviour is a direct result of a sexual assault that occurred after a very well described and fairly typical sounding North Shore booze-fuelled teen party.
Rebecca’s inability to deal with this all-too-familiar-feeling episode is one of the central issues of the book, and for me, one of its main frustrations – but perhaps that is the teacher and parent in me speaking: I want the toe-rag who assaults her brought to justice. I want him to know what consent actually means. Merriman, however, knows all too well that over 90% of sexual assaults suffered by teens in this country are not reported. The cutting and, later on, an oddly jarring spate of arson incidents, are Rebecca’s misguided coping mechanisms for trying to deal with the anger, the confusion, the self-hate and the shame of what has happened to her. This angle alone ensures immediate reader buy-in because Merriman has hit one of the key issues of our time, and neutrality in the face of abuse of this nature is impossible.
But the book is not all ‘woe is me’ and ‘doom and gloom’. The love interest in the story will keep the pages flying for many readers, I imagine. And here, again, Merriman’s acute observation and awareness of teen mentality comes to the fore. It all feels very real and fresh, even for oldies like me for whom teen romance is a light-years distant memory! The boy Becs falls for is Cory Marshall, the classic boy-next-door – literal, in this case – romance.
But the course of true love never runs smooth and this is certainly the case here. Despite his brains and obvious good looks, Cory harbours huge angst and self-doubt, but these two are good for each other and I am sure target audience readers will closely follow the on-again/off-again nature of their relationship very closely. More literary students, and possibly their English teachers, will also enjoy the frequent literary references. Both Rebecca and Cory are budding poets and the poems they write for each other were one of the little highlights of the book for me. I think Merriman enjoyed writing these as well. I want to write more on these two but major spoiler alerts prevent me from doing so.
As you would rightly expect from a novel narrated by a just-turned 16-year-old, we don’t find out too much about minor characters – and this is a shame, because several deserved fleshing out. I particularly liked one of Cory’s mates, Winston Zhang, who is portrayed as his sassy, smart and funny side-kick. I also liked Merriman’s portrayal of Cory’s 13-year-old twin brothers. They were real characters, and I think Merriman enjoyed creating their genuinely funny and sometimes poignant cameos.
Another minor quibble I have is to do with the teens’ language. Don’t teens swear on the North Shore? They certainly do in Wellington, where I live. Some might see it as refreshing to hear teens interacting without the need for frequent expletives, but it did seem a bit sanitised and might ring a little false with some readers – as might the lack of the ubiquitous ‘like’ several times in every sentence.
Merriman does not cover any radically new ground here and in many ways it is a familiar story – new girl in town, she feels out of place, bad stuff goes down, some girls are supportive but several are bitches, girl meets boy, the awkwardness and the joy of sex, etc – but what makes this novel fresh is her focus on the minutia of the teens’ lives and her awareness of teen mentality. I can see it fitting comfortably into an English department’s Level 1 ‘written text’ category.
Pieces of You
By Eileen Merriman
Published by Penguin Random House NZ
Denis Wright is a Wellington-based writer and high school Dean/English teacher. His published YA novels include Violence 101 (Penguin, 2008; Best First Novel, NZ Post Children and Young Adults Book Awards) and Nanotech (Makaro Press, 2014). He appreciates writing that accurately reflect the interesting and complex lives of New Zealand teenagers.