Sunday, 7 June 2020

Review: 'The Burning' by Laura Bates

High school can be the best and the worst of times. It's where you can make lifelong friends and pick up lifelong traumas. Add to that the sheer confusion of growing up in a female body, and all the pressures and developments that brings with it, and you have a veritable roller coaster of emotions. In The Burning Laura Bates shows us the dark underbelly of these experiences, while also giving us a historic perspective. Thanks to SOURCEBOOKS Fire and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

The Burning focuses very strongly on the ways a female body is policed, but does so from the perspective of the young girls themselves. Bates makes very clear the pull to both sides that I think all girls have felt. On the one hand there is the thrill of revealing, teasing, playing, giving what is asked for. On the other hand there is the need to protect, to cover up, to hide away, to be safe and respected. The middle ground between these two sides is as sharp as the edge of a knife and we never quite find the balance. We are either too slutty or too stuck up and it is a constant back and forth, all with the secure knowledge that whatever happens, it will probably be blamed on you. I would attach a warning to The Burning, however, as its descriptions of revenge porn and bullying are rather intense. It is good that Laura Bates doesn't shy away from the horror of its pervasiveness and the ease with which it is spread these days. But it could prove triggering for some readers, hence my warning. However, Bates does her best to infuse The Burning with a sense of hope as well.

Anna and her mother have left everything behind to start anew. As the reader you don't know why immediately, but there are enough hints that perceptive (female) readers will be able to pick up on the why pretty quickly. Anna's history comes to haunt and traumatize her, as well as those around her, and it becomes clear that it is impossible for her to be considered innocent. As her own life spirals, she finds fortitude from a history project, for which she selects to research Maggie. Maggie herself was at the centre of a scandal, accused of witchcraft, and as her narrative intertwines with Anna, the latter gains a newfound strength from this connection to the past. I really enjoyed the way Bates brought together past and present. Although vastly different situations, something is gained from both Anna and Maggie's narratives, even if it is quiet strength in the face of an oncoming storm. It also highlights other themes in The Burning, which is the need for solidarity between women, the need for institutional support and the holding accountable of men's actions. 

Laura Bates tackles a number of difficult themes in her novel which could have easily overwhelmed the plot. What impressed me was the way that Bates managed to keep the tone and message appropriate for a younger audience without drawing a veil over the more horrifying aspects of sexual harassment. The novel's language is straightforward and simple but at times also deeply lyrical, especially in Maggie's passages. Bates allows her characters to be teenagers while her adults are also allowed their full breadth of emotions. I will admit I was slightly biased in The Burning's favour as it's set in Fife. At one point Anna visits the St. Andrews' University Library and I was hit by a major wave of nostalgia. I was gripped by The Burning and found myself unable to put it down. I became rather attached to its characters and, despite its difficult topics, I found myself warmed by the reading experience.

I give this novel...
4 Universes!

The Burning is a great read that tackles difficult themes. It is a very timely read that, although not a manifesto, does its part in spreading awareness and bringing hope. 

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