CM . . .
. Volume XV Number 22. . . .June 26, 2009
Victoria, BC: Orca, 2009.
229 pp., pbk., $12.95.
Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.
Review by Naomi Hamer.
Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.
The next day, I look for the girl when I get to school. I don't really expect to see her, but there she is, standing outside wearing a thick multi-colored sweater and tight jeans.
I walk over to her. "Hi."
She grins at me. "Hi."
Up close, her eyes are pale blue. Sled-dog eyes. "So." I feel off balance all of a sudden. "I was just wondering……"
"Wondering's good." She's holding a stack of papers and she peels one off to hand to me. Lime green. Two identical buildings are roughly sketched on it and underneath, in all caps, it says: HIGH SCHOOL. JAIL. CAN YOU SPOT THE DIFFERENCE?
I raise my eyebrows. "That's a bit extreme, don't you think?"
She grins again. She has skinny cheeks and a mouth that is too big for her face and those weird pale eyes, but there's something about her face that is hard to look away from.
Robin Stevenson's newest teen novel, Inferno, is narrated by 16-year-old Dante "Emily" Griffin as she begins her second year as a self-defined outsider at a suburban high school. Her only friend at school, Beth (with whom she had a secret romantic relationship), has moved away and cut off all contact. Dante's parents are well-intentioned in their attempts to deal with their daughter's loner tendencies but seem unable to truly understand her struggles with identity and sexuality. Moreover, despite Dante's intense interest in classic literature, including Dante's Divine Comedy, she is constantly bullied by her English teacher for being different and outspoken. She has even legally changed her name from Emily to 'Dante' over the summer, but her parents and teachers refuse to acknowledge this. Things change quickly for Dante when she meets an unusual girl named Parker, a high school dropout, who has come by her school with flyers inspiring students to protest. Dante's evolving friendship with Parker and her small circle of social activist friends becomes the central focus of the narrative. But as the group's plans unfold, Dante becomes conflicted about how far she will go to protest against her school. In addition, as she increasingly becomes infatuated with Parker, she discovers that her new friend may not be as confident as she appears on the surface, having left a difficult family situation to move in with an abusive boyfriend.
The strength of Inferno lies in Stevenson's engaging dialogue. The author skillfully captures interactions between adolescents as well as with their parents, teachers and counsellors in an authentic manner. Moreover, Stevenson accurately depicts Dante's strong desire for reinvention, freedom and change that often characterizes adolescent experience. She draws the reader into the story through her portrayal of both the excitement and internal conflict around breaking rules, meeting new alternative friends and engaging in potentially dangerous acts.
Dante, as the central character and narrator, also provides a strong, distinctive and queer female protagonist for young adult readers. Moreover, she is not only opinionated and disruptive but also highly intelligent and academically successful. Parker's character also provides a number of different layers that are revealed as the story progresses. Yet, while these two characters are interesting and engaging on their own, the developing flirtation and relationship between them is never fully explored, written off as a homosexual crush on the part of Dante by the conclusion of the book. Outside of Parker, Dante's parents, teachers, friends, and fellow participants in her self-esteem group, are represented as interesting characters but do not evolve into nuanced individuals. Dante's parents are sporadically described in terms of their personal histories and quirky interests, but then there are few opportunities in the narrative to explore their parental perspective outside of Dante's point-of-view.
There are also a number of contradictions in the contemporary setting of the narrative which may seem inaccurate or contradictory to media savvy young adult readers. While Dante is often described as going on the social networking site Facebook from her own computer to spy on her estranged friend Beth's status updates and profile pictures, other plot developments are dependent upon teenagers using their parents' landlines for personal phone calls with their friends. Presumably, most 16-year-olds in this unnamed affluent North American suburb would have their own cell phones, blackberries or iphones in addition to their own home computers.
Stevenson's novel addresses a number of complex personal and social issues including gay identity and adolescent sexuality, difficult parental and student-teacher relationships, abusive relationships as well as social activism. While all of these issues are significant to highlight in a young adult novel, the reader's focus is often pulled between too many issues and relationships for one story. Nevertheless, Inferno offers an interesting and strong female teen protagonist whose struggles with identity and sexuality are represented in an uniquely non-preachy tone.
Robin Stevenson began writing for young people while on maternity leave from her work as a social worker and counsellor. She has written six novels for teen readers, including A Thousand Shades of Blue, a finalist for the Sheila A. Egoff children's literature prize (2009).
Recommended with reservations.
Naomi Hamer is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Research on Children, Youth and Media, Institute of Education, University of London, UK. She also has an MA in Children's Literature from the University of British Columbia and has worked extensively as a drama and creative writing instructor with children and teens in schools, libraries and recreational programs.
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