I have been enjoying reading and reviewing a few Caribbean young adult novels over the past year or two. As the summer begins in earnest, this would be a worthy addition to your teen’s bookshelf. If you look back through my blog, you will find a few other YA novels that I have reviewed over the past year or two. This was published recently by Papillote Press, who kindly sent me a review copy.
This story begins with a panic attack.
A teenage girl (whose name we don’t discover until the very last page of the book) is struggling to find her bearings on a windy highway in Edmonton, Alberta. Trucks roar past her, “like huge devils.” On the other end of the girl’s smartphone is her best friend Akilah, outside a small church in Trinidad, who simultaneously empathizes, calms and distracts her from her fears. Can she find her bus stop?
This slim novel (just 90 pages) skilfully creates the world of a young woman dealing as best she can with many of the usual adolescent trials – in addition to anxiety and depression. She experiences confusion, mixed emotions, and flashes of clarity and understanding. The book is also an accurate portrayal of mental illness from a fourteen-year-old girl’s perspective. After a particularly acute crisis, she is sent by her mother in Trinidad to stay with her aunt Jillian and her partner Julie in Canada, in hopes that she would get over it (the concept of “getting over it” doesn’t work with depression, of course).
“I’m a Caribbean hermit in exile in Edmonton,” she observes ironically (she’s good at self-deprecating humour).
The details of our heroine’s mental health issues are persuasive and vivid: her anxious folding and unfolding of the bus schedule inside her the pocket of her old-fashioned, but comforting velveteen coat; her fear of formal social events – restaurants and parties; the yawning hole in her stomach that sometimes threatens to engulf her; the “terror of the world outside my bed”; and the physical symptoms that always manifest themselves at completely the wrong moment (for example, when she meets “the most gorgeous guy I’d ever seen”!)
The book gently touches on quite a range of contemporary issues that young people have to wrap their heads around: identity, family (dysfunctional or otherwise), migration, prejudice, racism, stigma, abortion, tolerance, alcoholism, and LGBT issues. Although this sounds like a formidable array for such a short book, it is indeed a light touch. Our young woman takes it all as it comes, in small doses; for example, while she has many questions for her lesbian aunt, she is quite happy just to sit in the kitchen with her, sipping juice – for the time being.
Then there is “home home.” There are two homes. One is that of the girl’s mother in Trinidad. Steeped in the values of an older generation, she is unable to figure out her daughter’s illness, taking it more or less as an affront to her person. Her daughter’s odd behaviour is embarrassing, shameful even. Caribbean readers will recognize this Caribbean mother. She means well, she has worked hard for their family and she loves her children deeply. However, her response to others’ problems is: “Deal with it.” Life is hard, so be it.
Like most young men and women of her age, our heroine is simply “trying to figure things out.” Like any teenager, she is preoccupied with friendship and school, not sure about boys, conscious of her appearance, interested in music, making awkward jokes, wanting to impress, adept with social media. Every now and then things disintegrate a little, but the book makes it clear that there are several avenues towards healing mental health problems and that they often combine.
It’s all a work in progress.
When you reach the end, you will get the sense that she will pull through. And oh, how you want her to! It’s her tentative new relationships in Canada that appear to show a way forward; at least, for now.
Oh, and her name is Kayla, we finally learn – no longer “muffin” or “sugar,” as her nurturing guardians have called her. She has a name!
Where there is love and understanding, there is something called hope. Even for a “tall, skinny dark girl” from Trinidad, who never expected to be called pretty.
“Home Home” was the third-prize winner in the Burt Prize for Caribbean Young Adult Caribbean Literature in 2017. It is one of two young adult titles released by Papillote Press on May 31, 2018. Lisa Allen-Agostini is a widely published novelist, journalist and poet from Trinidad and Tobago. Her first young adult work, The Chalice Project, was a sci-fi novel set in the Caribbean. She writes primarily about the Caribbean, its people and its culture. She lives in Trinidad with her family.