A compelling, brutal and heart-breaking story about identity, infamy and revenge, from debut author Tanya Byrne. Shortlisted for the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger 2012
They say I'm evil.
The police. The newspapers. The girls from school who sigh on the six o'clock news and say they always knew there was something not quite right about me.
And everyone believes it. Including you.
But you don't know. You don't know who I used to be. Who I could have been.
Sometimes I wonder if I'll ever shake off my mistakes or if I'll just carry them around with me forever like a bunch of red balloons
Awaiting trial at Archway Young Offenders Institution, Emily Koll is going to tell her side of the story for the first time.
Heart-Shaped Bruise is a compulsive and moving novel about infamy, identity and how far a person might go to seek revenge.
I'll be very clear and very honest here - Tanya is a good friend. Last year this time I know how she was a bit panicky about attending the annual SCBWI Agents' Party as she was putting her finishing touches on a manuscript called China House Rules.
The upshot of this is: Tanya came away having made contact with an agent, there were shenanigans, the book was taken on by said agent, more shenanigans, the book got bought by Headline MORE shenanigans and hey presto, we have a book in our hands.
I was worried that when the chance came for me to review it, people would go: yeah, but she's your mate, so of course you're gonna say you like it. I really should never listen to the voices in my head. I should have listened to my gut and I should have trusted Tanya and her agent and her editor. But for the longest time I refused to read the book. I got a manuscript proof copy. I got a hard back copy. Eventually, I read it. Then shortly after that I re-read it. And I kept quiet and smiled dumbly when people spoke to me about it. Then the paperback turned up and I read it again. And I decided to break my silence because I came to realise that if you're a reader of MFB you will know the truth of the thing when I tell it to you, because I'm a pretty shitty liar. So here it is straight:
*cue dramatic music*
And I have FEELINGS about this book. I threw it across the room when I read it - in disgust. HOW can it be THAT GOOD? Damn you, Tanya Byrne!
It made me laugh, it made me cry. It took me by surprise. It made me feel like this girl Tanya I'd come to know is someone else entirely because she had written this book that made me have all these FEELINGS and I expected it...but I didn't expect it to be this much THIS MUCH.
Okay, so enough about ME and my FEELINGS. More about the book, the story and the voice.
Told in a very close voice first person POV we meet Emily who is currently in a Young Offenders Institution. She's supremely sarcastic, sharp, clever, realistic and very much a presence from the get-go. HSB is written as if we are being told confidences by Emily through a notebook she'd found in her room at the Institution. Her descriptions of her thoughts, her day to day interviews and chats with other "inmates" are wildly vivid, charming and shocking. Here's a girl whose voice makes you sit up and take notice. She's a dreamer, but rooted in being realistic, in being a bad girl. She's complex, layered, full of jagged edges and nasty words and sweet smiles. She is as contradictory as I used to be as a teen, as odd and strange as I see my friends' teenage and pre-teen kids being. She rings true, and for me that was the key to the whole story.
We find out that she's done a Bad Thing. For the longest time you think the Bad Thing is an obviously Bad Thing but it's not at all what you think. She quite bravely tells us headlines and google searches will tell you certain things about her, what the media called her, how they demonised her. In the end, what we know for a fact is that she stalked a young woman called Juliet. She made friends with her, inserted herself into every facet of Juliet's life in order to ultimately destroy it and get back to Juliet in this way, for destroying her (Emily's) life.
There is a perverse pleasure in Emily's voice as she admits these things. She walks the fine line between being an unreliable narrator and being so honest about things that your own judgement becomes clouded. As her sessions with Dr. Gillyard, the therapist at the institution, progresses, we see this facade Emily holds up to the world slowly crack and crumble, only to reveal another duplicitous layer. She comes across as super tough, wise, wordly but if you look carefully she is this frail and scared young girl, but you blink and that girl is gone and instead you'll be faced with Emily, The Criminal Bad Girl.
As the story progresses and we come more and more involved with Emily and this world she inhabits we find it easier and easier to see things from her point of view, why she did what she did. She's not necessarily apologetic about her actions, she's very much aware of what she did, but it's a case of things having come so far that when they played out, she almost had no choice left but to hurt the people whom she had grown so close to over a short period of time.
There are parts of HSB that will resonate with readers, some that will chill you to the bone and bits that will make you grin wryly because you understand the humour, the reality of it, and it's a darkness in all of us.
This is Tanya's debut novel and it's strong, and vivid and slightly wild and breathless. It's not a very big book, I'll be fair, but it packs a punch and I doubt that as a reader I would have had the emotional strength (or tears left) to face a longer story.
I know people online have grumbled about the way it ends - saying it ends abruptly but to be honest, I think it ends the way it does in order for the reader to decide what happens next to Emily. There is an anticipation towards those end pages that just blew me away and trust me when I say, it doesn't happen often.
Tanya Byrne really has "burst onto the scene" in a bit of a hurricane. I think we should fasten our YA seatbelts as we're in for a mad ride on her tailcoats.
Find Tanya on twitter at @tanyabyrne and follower her tumblr page here.