There are plenty of children’s books that explore the fantasy of living in a public space – for example, Corduroy, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, or The Invention of Hugo Cabret. In some cases, these fantasies have been enacted in real life – as with the recent trend of teenagers having “sleepovers” in Ikea by hiding in showroom furniture then posting their exploits on YouTube. A cursory description of Maureen Garvie’s new novel about a 13-year-old runaway from Kingston, Ontario, who lives undetected in her school’s art-supply closet might suggest a tale in that tradition. But in motive and mood it’s very different.
That’s because protagonist Jewel is driven not by a spirit of adventure but by the need to escape neglect and violence at home. Jewel hasn’t heard from her older sister, Charmaine, since the elder girl ran away months ago. Jewel finds an envelope with Charmaine’s handwriting in the garbage. It’s postmarked from the nearby city of Belleville, but a clandestine trip there yields only a police escort home. After a drunken friend of her abusive biker father comes into Jewel’s room one night, a scene Garvie writes with just the right balance of horror and confusion, she realizes she, too, must flee.
Garvie’s focus on logistics bolsters Almost Invisible’s vivid realism. Every part of Jewel’s uncertain journey – from the frigid, filthy cottage where she initially hides out to her use of a babysitting gig to surreptitiously wash her clothes to pilfering a yoga mat for a mattress from the school’s lost and found – feels plausible and draws us more fully into her plight.
As the title suggests, blending in is a key part of Jewel’s strategy. Her parents didn’t alert the police when Charmaine disappeared, so Jewel isn’t surprised when they fail to do so with her, either. Jewel’s tenure in the school closet – which she accesses after a teacher leaves her keys in the lock – comes to an end when two girls, Maya and Lily, discover Jewel washing her hair in the bathroom sink. The girls tease out her secret and, to Jewel’s surprise, offer to help by hosting regular sleepovers at their houses.
The girls’ parents inevitably learn of their subterfuge and chastise them for what they see as reckless naïveté – why didn’t they go to the authorities? But by now it’s clear to the girls, and to us, that it’s the adults who are naive; institutions and the police can’t and won’t help Jewel. (In this, the novel provides an apt, age-appropriate reflection of the circumstances that spurred the #MeToo movement.) Lily and Maya have at least provided her with a safe space. Here and elsewhere, Almost Invisible does what the best YA books do: creates a sense of a world apart from the clueless, and at times cruel, grown-up one that must eventually be joined but not quite yet.