Maddie Nessfield is in teenage hell: guards are watching her every move, and even her Internet access has been taken away. Her parents locked her up, and she has no idea why. After all, wanting to look good is hardly a crime. But the real prison in this tale is Maddie’s own body, which the 17-year-old is determined to starve into submission. So drastic is her conviction that her parents have committed her to an eating disorder treatment centre.
Liane Shaw, who has battled anorexia herself, spins Maddie’s treatment – as she progresses from delusions to tough realizations – into an absorbing psychological drama. As a means of therapy, Maddie is encouraged to write her life story, recounting her journey from a happy childhood to a teenage obsession with body image.
Readers are given Maddie’s story piecemeal, interspersed with notes on daily life in the treatment centre she detests, and coloured by a conviction that her destructive dieting is actually keeping her strong and in control. Reaffirming this delusion is a group of girls who frequent a “Pro Ana” (i.e., pro anorexia) website. Calling themselves Girls Without Shadows, they connect nightly to assure one another that the symptoms of their illness – the interruption of normal bodily functions, alienation from friends and family – are worthwhile sacrifices on the altar of thin. Now, with nothing to do all day but consider her past, Maddie begins to have some unwelcome revelations about her beloved GWS – particularly after tragedy befalls one of their number.
Though heavy on message, Maddie’s story is compelling, brought to life by Shaw’s intense engagement with her character’s mental state. With the exception of some awkward renditions of online chatting, this smart and cynical teen voice is convincing – chillingly so.
The book’s conclusion feels rushed, though Maddie does not make an instant recovery. This story isn’t without hope, but there are no easy answers. Rather, through clear and unflinching storytelling, Shaw takes her readers deep into the labyrinthine psyche of a young girl battling an eating disorder. From there, we come to realize, it’s a long road home.