The one thing I really love and particularly relish in lesbian/bi young adult fiction is a story with a distinct narrative voice.
Last year I read A LOT of lesbian and bi-themed young adult fiction. Now that I’ve started writing it, I guess I wanted to see what other kinds of books were out there. And like any genre, there is the good, the bad and the maddeningly cliche. And, of course, your opinion on which book fits what fully depends on what you like in a story.
The one thing I really love and particularly relish in lesbian/bi young adult fiction is a story with a distinct narrative voice. I like the narrative to sound at least a little like you know the character would talk or think. It doesn’t mean the book has to be written in the first person, but I want a sense of who this character is in the way that the story is told. I love it when it’s her that describes her world to me, not some omniscient, observing narrative voice.
Giving Claire a distinct and personal voice in the A Story of Now series was particularly important to me. That’s because it felt necessary to give the readers a way to build a relationship of empathy and identification with such a brattty, ascerbic main character. Otherwise you could easily just dislike her. We all know that behind every catty girl is probably someone more fragile and conflicted than she seems, but we can’t feel any sympathy unless we are fully taken inside not just their worlds but their heads. That’s where I had to take the readers.
I think that’s why I felt a sense of achievement recently when I read a recent review of A Story of Now, where a reader said they started out hating Claire, to the point where they weren’t sure they could enjoy the book. But then, bam they said. They suddenly found themselves liking her and caring about her. I guess they had finally spent enough time in her head to feel the necessary empathy you have to feel for a main character to enjoy their story.
And perhaps it’s because its something that I tried so hard to do in my own story, that a strong, engaging voice, is something that always stands out for me in other writers when it’s done well.
Here are some of the books I read this year that I think really masterfully achieved this. Please note they weren’t all published in this last year. I simply read them then. In these books, I got such a strong sense of these girls in their worlds, that it was hard to leave them behind when the book ended.
I’ve linked to the Goodreads page for each book in case you want to check the books out. Just click on the title.
Clancy of the Undertow, Christopher Currie
First, I have to say I was so damn happy to find an Australian young adult fiction book about a lesbian. Sure there’s a few, but the pickings are slim. I loved this book. And I adored the disjunct between Clancy’s internal voice as she narrated her story for us readers, and the Clancy presented to the world. It gave such a sense of her awkwardness and social reticence at this point in her life. Clancy was so ornery and struck dumb in her life, but so vibrant and thoughtful and funny in her inner narrative world.
“We’re sitting there with matching milkshakes, Sasha and me, and somehow things aren’t going like I always thought they would. We’re face-to-face under 24-hour flourescents with the thoroughly unromantic buzz of aircon in our ears and endless flabby wedges of seated trucker’s arsecrack as our only visual stimulus.”
And it was this voice that talked us through a point when her family hits hard times, and she’s carrying the extra baggage of being closeted in a small town and harbouring a huge crush on the local hot girl. What could go wrong? So much. But it was Clancy’s wry, thoughtful and honest voice that pulled you through the story.
Not Otherwise Specified, Hannah Moskowitz
This book is chock full of contradictions. Like life. Etta, our narrator, is a teenager who is both conflicted and utterly sure of herself, depending on what aspect of her rich, multi-faceted personality we’re talking about. And in this book she comes at her readers like a freight train. A charming but endless stream-of-consciousness freight train, that is. And the narrative is written just how you know Etta would speak.
“Nebraska—all of Nebraska—has one thing going for it, one tiny pink little light in the middle of its giant mass of cornfields and suck, and it’s Club Cupcake, the grossest, most rundown piece of shit you can imagine…”
In this book, everywhere she goes, Etta finds she doesn’t fit the necessary category, from her sexuality to her body type to the rest of her social group. With her forceful, thoughtful voice, she talks us through her confusions, her rage, her sorrows and her happiness as she claws her way back from friendship break-ups, personal problems, and the loss of her career in dance. But Etta is a lover and a fighter and a dreamer, and her relentlessly thoughtful journey as she tries to make it into an performing arts school while dealing with her crap, was one of my favourites this year.
Ask the Passengers, A.S King
I loved how Astrid’s reluctant journey to coming out defied some of the typical narrative expectations you build. You’d assume something about her character and her life from the things she shared, and then be blindsided for a second by discovering things were really different to what you’d initially imagined. This conflicted storytelling really gave me a sense of the uncertainty and confusion of being that age, where you can believe in two different things in the same breath, because you’re so busy figuring out what you know and believe. Astrid’s is the voice of someone foundering for a moment, of someone moving a little too fast for themselves because everyone around you is in such a hurry to grow the hell up. And the whole time you’re just trying to figure some pretty damn important things about yourself while on this puberty expressway, but really what you’d like is just to stop for a second so you can just think. Astrid’s voice could be brittle, philosophical and plaintive all at once, and it was this voice that made me care so much where the story would leave her.
“Dude, what matters is that you’re happy. What matters is your future. What matters is that we get out of here in one piece. What matters is finding the truth of our own lives, not caring about what other people think is the truth of us.”
Forgive me if I’ve Told you this Before, Karelia Stetz-Waters
Like the Miseducation of Cameron Post, Karelia Stetz-Waters’ Forgive Me if I’ve Told you This Before is an epic in that it tell the story of Triinu’s entire adolescent journey as she discovers herself and her sexuality. The voice and the story is so natural that it has the feeling of an autobiography. Life and people don’t come in pretty, fictional packages in this book. Not at all. But at the same time every moment, ugly or not, is expressed truly beautifully as Triinu makes sense of herself as she entered adulthood. Triinu is so sharp and so aware, and you can’t help feeling like it’s the older Triinu looking back and telling us nostalgically of her journey in coming out and growing up.
“We weren’t grown, but nor were we simple. Nor did we change the world, although she slid her soft arm around my shoulder and touched every bone of my ribcage, and I thought our beauty was a war we were winning.”
Emily O’Beirne is the author of the A Story of Now series, published by Ylva Publishing.
You can also find Emily at:
Goodreads: Author profile
Amazon: Author page