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The Game

by Teresa Toten

A teenage girl in a psychiatric hospital: there could be few scenarios more emotionally fraught, and more at risk of creating a tidal wave of melodrama that might overwhelm the characters and their story. In her new YA novel, The Game, Teresa Toten has taken on this volatile subject matter, avoided its potential pitfalls, and written one of the most ambitious and absorbing young adult novels I’ve read in a long time.

When I reviewed Toten’s splendid first novel, The Onlyhouse, in 1995, I was struck by the freshness of her voice, the depth of her characters, and her wonderful sense of humour. The latter, surprisingly, turns out to be her most important skill in The Game. When I first read the book’s blurb I felt more than a little bummed out – it sounded grim and earnest – but this is a remarkably funny and irreverent story. Toten’s teen characters are quick-witted and quick-tongued, and their self-awareness and sense of humour prevent them from ever becoming sentimentalized victims.

The novel opens with 14-year-old Danielle Webster in detox, after a suicidal binge with pills and booze. Writing in a vivid third person, Toten puts us right into Dani’s skin, and these first few pages, an elliptical stream of consciousness, pack a visceral punch. Sobered up, Dani begins her life at the Riverwood Clinic by being assigned to room with Alison Mackenzie (called Scratch for her predilection for self-mutilation). This is fortuitous for Dani, because Scratch, a world-weary veteran of many institutions, has plenty of good advice and survival skills to impart to the bewildered newcomer. As a character, Scratch is a scene stealer, cynical and funny and volatile all at once, without ever becoming the clichéd aloof loner with a heart of gold.

It soon becomes clear that what has landed Dani at the Riverwood Clinic is an abusive father, though the magnitude of this abuse, and its even more damaging corollaries, are only revealed gradually, through Dani’s flashbacks, and conversations with her psychiatrist, Dr. Thurber. There’s a chilling little moment early on, when Thurber presents her with a family photo album, placing it on her lap: “It felt like a fridge, that cold and that heavy. Thurber kept looking at her while he flicked invisible ashes into the ashtray. Obligingly she started flipping through the pages…. She frowned, trying to concentrate. Fake pictures of fake people. The Ghost and her girls posing prettily at the base of the Statue of Liberty. Dani and Kelly slurping at their snocones….

‘Does anything come to mind when you look at that picture, Dani?’

Talk, speak, say anything….

‘They’re a beautiful-looking family.’


‘I mean, we.’”

The father is ominously sketchy: handsome, charismatic, and silently brutal. Initially, I feared the very worst, and was gladly relieved when this didn’t turn out to be yet another incest story. That would have been too easy, and perhaps too sensationalistic. The father’s abuse is more mundane, more plausible, but no less shocking. And the tragedy that truly traumatizes Dani, though an astute reader might guess at it from the halfway point, is doubly horrible in the way that Dani has interpreted it in her own mind, and been crippled by it.

Toten has an excellent ear for dialogue, and her characters talk both with a halting authenticity and sincerity, as well as the savage parry and thrust of articulate teens. Though mainly told through Dani’s eyes, the novel uses a variety of interesting narrative techniques to advance the plot and provide different perspectives: Dani’s letters to her beloved younger sister, Kelly, letters from Dani’s parents to Dr. Thurber, interview transcripts of Dani’s sessions. Most revealing, though, are Dani’s flashback memories of her childhood and her sister.

The novel’s title refers to the elaborate fantasy game Dani and Kelly played in the ravine near their home, in which they were two warrior princesses questing to save the good Saraya from the grasp of the evil Yuras. At first it seems that this escapist role-playing is transparently symbolic: trying to save their passive mother from their abusive father. But Toten, in a surprising twist, makes it more complex than that. These flashbacks could have been corny and unconvincing, but Toten’s characters are so full of verve and self-awareness that the scenes achieve a real poignancy and wistfulness.

Toward the end of The Game, when Dani tries to re-establish a relationship with her mother (who has recently left her abusive husband), Toten loses her grip just a bit and lapses into a couple of swelling soundtrack moments. But given the charged emotional tone of the book and Toten’s overall restraint throughout, they seem welcome, a well-earned release rather than something foisted upon us. This is a terrifically engaging book.


Reviewer: Kenneth Oppel

Publisher: Red Deer Press


Price: $9.95

Page Count: 160 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 0-88995-232-9

Released: May

Issue Date: 2001-7


Age Range: ages 12-16