Liane Shaw attempts to capture the turbulent inner life of an orphaned teenager in her new YA novel. Fifteen-year-old Sadie Thompson has spent most of her life in foster care; with no family placements available, she finds herself stuck in a group home. Struggling with disturbed roommates and an undiagnosed learning disability, Sadie yearns for her sixteenth birthday so she can quit school and possibly be emancipated from the world of foster care.
Sadie’s circumstances are undeniably challenging, but the novel’s weak first-person narration makes it almost impossible to develop any real sympathy for the character. Her inner monologue fails to conjure a sense of place: descriptions of the town, group home, and even Sadie’s own appearance are just about non-existent. This lack of context makes it difficult for the reader to envision characters and events.
Even more problematic, Sadie qualifies nearly every single line of dialogue with thoughts like, “I can’t believe my mouth let the words out,” and, “My mouth seems to be stuck open with words coming out.” Sadie’s inability to speak without constant internal qualification is an ineffective way of demonstrating her low self-esteem. Instead, it slows the pace and quickly frustrates the reader.
When she is not bewildered by her own speech, Sadie’s narration is inconsistent. At times she sounds juvenile and dopily tough, labelling other classmates as “nerd babies” and wishing she could rearrange faces. But at other times she notes the fact that she’s used a double negative in conversation, or thinks things like, “What’s that saying? Something about familiarity and contempt?” It’s hard to reconcile these two different registers into one believable, compelling protagonist.
Shaw spent 25 years as an educator and has extensive experience working with teens just like Sadie. While there is no doubting the accuracy of the details about Sadie’s treatment in school and the foster care system, the narrative provides too many barriers to empathy, education, or entertainment.