CM . . .
. Volume XXI Number 16. . . .December 19, 2014
Toronto, ON: Dancing Cat Books/Cormorant Books, 2014.
266 pp., trade pbk. & html, $14.95 (pbk.).
ISBN 978-1-77086-413-9 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-77086-414-6 (html).
Grades 10-12 / Ages 15-17.
Review by Gillian Lapenskie.
My high school recently held a Student Voice forum on mental health during which students expressed their most pressing mental-health concerns for themselves, their friends and their siblings. Many of the students had good understanding of the issues, but most of them requested more support in coping with depression, anxiety and other mental health problems. As our mental health team worked to address these needs, I wondered about ways the library could help.
So when a copy of Lisa Harrington’s Twisted was sent to me for review shortly after the forum, I thought, “Perfect!” Although we have lots of nonfiction books on the shelves that will help teens understand the facts about illnesses in the mental health spectrum, it would be great to have more fiction choices that deal with these issues in diverse and (hopefully) sensitive ways, allowing students to engage on a more emotional level. After reading Twisted, however, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not exactly the kind of resource I was looking for.
Harrington, the author of the popular Y/A novel Live to Tell, wastes no time in establishing Lyssa, the protagonist of Twisted, as being isolated and alone, with no one left to turn to. When the book opens, Lyssa’s mother has just died of cancer, and Lyssa can’t live with her alcoholic stepfather. Lyssa even leaves behind her best friend when she suddenly, right after her mom’s funeral, moves to Halifax to be with her boyfriend. Kyle isn’t the only one who gets a surprise when Lyssa turns up unexpectedly at his door: she discovers that he’s been cheating on her while he’s been away at university. The confrontation with Kyle seems clichéd, but you can’t help but feel for Lyssa.
Despite all the awful events in her life, Lyssa is a survivor who doesn’t give up easily. She finds shelter by contacting the only other person she knows in Halifax, her stepbrother Aidan, with whom she hasn’t spoken in over two years. After working through her anger over his sudden, unexplained departure, she agrees to his plea to be his roommate. Lyssa shows her determination and resourcefulness in other ways, too, as when she manages to get a job and when she visits the university to ensure that her acceptance can be deferred until next semester.
A few of Twisted’s characters are tied together by some key coincidences that may be a bit too much for some readers, but there are moments of truth in their interactions with each other. For example, Lyssa’s exchanges with her co-workers at the coffee shop are realistic and relatable. Also, although the amount of description is fairly economical, it’s refreshing to read a Canadian Y/A novel with an east coast setting. Harrington uses pathetic fallacy to good effect: one storm after another batters Halifax, while Lyssa can’t seem to catch a break in her personal life, weathering storms of her own. This is seen most clearly in her budding relationship with Liam--the sweet boy from the coffee shop who comes to her aid a few times--which brings its own challenges and drama. And ultimately, Lyssa and Liam’s relationship is overshadowed by the situation with Aidan.
It turns out there’s much more to Aidan’s past—and his mental illness—that Lyssa has to learn. The only other feature on the cover of the novel besides the title and the author’s name is an illustration of a single pill, which hints at the importance of medication to the characters and plot of this story. (If there’s a message for readers in this novel, it is clearly:take your meds.) Lyssa happens to find Aidan’s medication and starts investigating; eventually, she confronts him about it:
“Those pills I found were…” I try to remember the actual name, but I can’t. “They were anti-psychotics. Is that what you’re taking?”
“And who told you that?” he asks quietly, almost ominously. “Coffee shop boy?”
“You don’t take antipsychotics for mood swings, Aidan.”
“He just knows everything about everything, doesn’t he?”
“It wasn’t him,” I lie.
“Don’t listen to that, Lyss. He’s trying to turn you against me.”
I press my fingers to my temples. “Aidan, you’re not keeping appointments, not seeing your doctor. I don’t think you’re taking your pills. You wouldn’t be acting like this if you were.”
A darkness falls over his face like a veil. “You nosy bitch!” he shouts. “I don’t have to explain anything to you!” Then he immediately clasps his head with both hands. “Sorry. That was too loud. I—I didn’t mean to yell at you.”
I feel a prickle of fear. I force myself to ignore it. He’s my brother. “I’m only trying to help you, Aidan,” I whisper.
As Lyssa continues to expose the truth about her stepbrother, including the real reason why he left home suddenly, the novel’s mood becomes even more menacing. Harrington completely sets the Liam storyline aside near the end of the novel when she ramps up the action and suspense to focus on a bizarre kind of showdown between Lyssa and Aidan.
I’m surprised that the blurb on the back of the book states that “Twisted is a compelling look at the impact mental illness has on the sufferers and the people who love them.” The publisher even describes the book as “poignant”. In fact, Twisted’s antagonist Aidan morphs into a character from a horror flick, the deluded psycho who hears voices, spews profanity and becomes murderous. This is far from the experience of most “sufferers” of mental illness. While it may be “compelling” reading for some, this novel does little to further one’s understanding of the impact mental illness has on families and, instead presents the mentally ill as being unpredictable and violent. I realize that it’s not Harrington’s job to be educational; she’s a writer of fiction, not informational texts. Perhaps, then, my problem is with the marketing of this novel. If it were categorized as a thriller, maybe it would find more of an audience. Harrington throws in a few extra twists at the end, but, by then, I was more discouraged than thrilled.
Gillian Lapenskie is a teacher-librarian at Barrie Central Collegiate in Barrie, ON.
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