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Telling

by Carol Matas

Carol Matas won renown in the late 1980s with Lisa and Jesper, two very well-done books about the Holocaust and the Second World War. Her latest young adult novel, Telling, continues the Winnipeg author’s more recent exploration of teenage problems in a contemporary setting.

This short novel chronicles one summer in the lives of three sisters, giving readers a glimpse into three very different rites of passage. Eighteen-year-old Sue, the sensible eldest, falls in love and begins sexual exploration; Alex, a 14-year-old aspiring writer, gets a summer job at a Renaissance fair and is forced to deal with the crises and interpersonal issues of a first job; and rebellious 13-year-old Corey finds that her friends are probably not what they seem.

The sisters’ stories come together, finally, in a single dramatic night. Middle-sister Alex has written a play for the fair that she hopes will tell the “truth” about witches in the Middle Ages. Little-sister Corey decides to bring her friends to the play, but gets blasted on the way and brings the performance to an abrupt end with her drunken shouting. (Needless to say, this causes a serious rift in her relationship with Alex.) Meanwhile, with everyone else out of the house, eldest-sister Sue chooses that evening to lose her virginity, an experience she later describes during a “telling” session (a nightly talk with her sisters in which neither lies nor modesty are permitted) as “not great.”

“The kissing and stuff leading up to it was a lot more fun than doing it was,” says Sue. “I got nervous, he got nervous, it was just kinda stupid.”

Telling is chock-a-block full of issues: sexuality, underage drinking, drugs, midwifery, relationships … the list is long, and, at 120 pages, the book fails to develop them all. Maybe that’s why the novel feels so thin. Or maybe it’s Matas’s heavy use of dialogue that makes the book seem like a Degrassi Jr. High episode in novel form. There’s precious little room for descriptions of characters or settings, creation of mood, or even a real depiction of Mom. (Dad doesn’t appear in the book, a casualty of divorce.)

What Matas finds room for is talk – talk about problems and relationships. For young readers who enjoy dialogue-rich writing, there are sketches of three interesting teenage sisters and quick once-overs of some boys: nice-guy Mark, gorgeous Dan, sensitive homosexual Paul. There are some poems, our only real insight into Sue’s deeper feelings (the poems were written by two young women Sue’s age), and the full text of two short plays by Alex about witchcraft.

In her contemporary books, Matas explores some interesting and very sophisticated concepts: the true nature of relationships, psychological denial, the distortions of fiction and point-of-view. As Alex says at the end of Telling: “It’s funny about stories – how much is true, how much is lies. I mean, when I found out the truth about the witch-burning, I thought everyone would be thrilled to know. But it looks like people would rather not know if it’s going to make them have to change.” If this book had been longer, Matas might have been able to develop these more sophisticated themes.

Telling is really a novella, and, as such, never manages to do more than graze the surface of the issues it takes on. Unlike Diana Wieler’s insightful look at teenage homosexuality in Bad Boy, the coming-out scene in Telling is a cliché. Paul tearfully confesses his homosexuality to Alex in three short pages. Halfway through, Matas uses dialogue to connect Paul’s modern-day persecution to historical persecutions of Jews and witches – but it doesn’t work. As is the case elsewhere in Telling, the author puts lengthy exposition into dialogue that sounds leaden and contrived to the ear.

Matas is a distinguished writer whose ability to describe, to stir reader emotions, and to tackle big issues has been clearly evident since Lisa. She has a rare gift for this kind of writing. But she seems less certain of her craft when it comes to contemporary young-adult fiction. She needs more space to make us feel with her characters, to build three or more plot lines, and to give some thoughtful considerations to the host of issues that get passing attention in the book. But the current trend for shorter and shorter YA fiction doesn’t allow for such space, and Telling suffers as a result.

Telling, writ large, might have given us a modern Little Women that could have really captured the swirling world of teenagers in our time. Writ small, as it is, the book gives only a hint of what it might have been.