This is my first post on this blog. So please be gentle.
It's a review of Bella Bathurst's 2002 book, Special.
A group of adolescent schoolgirls, accompanied by two teachers, are in the Forest of Dean to have an 'activity break' between the end of their exams and the end of term. Drink, drugs, sex, hate and anorexia are the order of the day.
I have a very fickle mind, and I get bored with things very easily. Reading has been my OTJ (One True Joy) ever since I clapped eyes on the immortal words 'A is for Apple', but I do sometimes get bored of reading too. And at such times, I need a book that is a revelation, that gets me excited about reading again. A book that is, as Stephen King might put it, boss. And as you might have guessed, this is one of those books.
Special is an honest, brutal, disturbing, and at the same time perfectly-pitched, story of teenage angst, and it is one of those books that actually manage to make sense of it. Angst no longer seems an indulgence. Special reminds us why it happens, how it happens. And along the road it deals with sexuality, self-obsession, self-loathing, lapses in logic, lost virginities, intimacy and self-destructive behaviour – all the expected clichés.
The basic focus is on three girls, Jules, the outgoing 'average' one, Hen, the withdrawn one, Ali, the loner, and a fourth girl, Caz, the 'perfect' one, who wanders in the background for the whole book before coming into focus at the end. Each one has problems. Some are big, some aren't, but they exist, and Bathurst analyses them wonderfully, almost tenderly, before letting us make up our minds about them.
But the best things about the book are the little things which might be (very mistakenly) easily ignored. The first of these is the writing. Bathurst's writing is my favourite kind of writing – extremely readable, but rich in unusual description and detail which actually makes up the meat of the book without in any way drawing away from the characters. Her skills of pointing out idiosyncratic truths are developed to an almost frightening extent, with every observation ringing true. The second is the manner in which the pace has been built – moving from one character to another smoothly, without being chaotic, and while retaining the individual tensions of each character. These tensions are such that I found myself turning the pages with trembling hands in a way I hadn't done since around ten years ago when I was a horror junkie.
I do have a few grouses against the book, some fairly objective, and some personal. The ending, in particular, strikes me as overdramatic, and, more important, needlessly overdramatic. Apart from that, my personal complaint is that the book is cynical and depressing. I can't bring myself to believe that the teenage world has become so ... gruesome. I can live with the fact that the happier (and therefore less interesting) characters aren't dealt with, but I feel that they should at least be implied. This book, if intended to serve as a microcosm, should have included those characters. But if you personally feel that this isn't a flaw, feel free to forget this paragraph.
In conclusion, you have to read this book. You might not agree with it, but it has a point, and it makes it beautifully. It is, indeed, special. (Okay, I promised myself I would not say that, but sometimes you can't help it.)