By the time I hit 14, the bottom end of the suggested age range for Marthe Jocelyn’s soapy new novel, sex dominated all my thoughts, and most conversations. I know this, and yet I get a little thrown when I read a YA novel that displays the same preoccupation with carnality as I did way back when. In What We Hide, very frankly described sexual encounters occur at a rate of about one every 15 to 20 pages, with a fair amount of discussion thereof in between. It’s easy to overlook that this is a novel for teens, not simply about them.
The abundance of sex in What We Hide is not prurient, however. Unlike, say, Vancouver author Don Calame’s novels about horny teenage boys, or more blatantly commercial teen-rotica, the sex here is not a narrative end in itself, but merely the most frequent motive for what the book is really about – which, as the title suggests, is deception. The few characters not engaged in the near-constant telling of lies are also the novel’s most minor – a cheerful parent here, a goofily earnest teacher there. Everyone else works frantically to keep from being found out for lies both major and minor.
The first liar we meet is Jenny, a Grade 11 student from Philadelphia who spends a semester at Illington Hall, a small Quaker boarding school in rural England, to be closer to her draft-dodging older brother. So as not to look inexperienced, she tells the girls in her school that her brother’s best friend, Matt, currently fighting in Vietnam, is also her long-time boyfriend. (Oddly, though Jocelyn takes time to explain some common British idioms, she never does the same for the whole issue of dodging the draft or the lottery system, introduced in 1969, that sends Matt to Southeast Asia.)
Through Jenny, we meet the rest of the troubled cast of teens. Brenda, who spends her evenings taking care of her older sister’s two children, begins a fumbling, awkward romance/friendship with the son of the school’s lecherous doctor. Nico is the son of a feminist icon whose memoir is filled with details about her sexual escapades and his unconventional childhood. He becomes the target of a young female substitute teacher, a devoted fan of his mother’s work. Luke and Robbie are trying not to let anyone find out they are gay, even as they repeatedly hook up in secluded areas of the school grounds. Elsewhere, there’s a promiscuous young troublemaker, a habitual liar who sends highly fictionalized letters to her friend in Toronto, and a young man who pines for his out-of-the-picture father, a famous movie director.
Of all these characters, Jenny is, by far, the weakest link. Her arrival at Illington Hall seems, at first, to be the start of a fish-out-of-water story, but the deeper we get into the lives of the other kids, the more obvious it is that she’s not just in the wrong country or school, but in the wrong book. She’s a stock YA character, whose first-
person narration is rife with superfluous exclamation marks. (“No Thanksgiving in England. The Pilgrims escaped this country!”) That she lies about having a soldier boyfriend is trivial compared with the rash of teen pregnancies, delinquent and/or unstable parents, and homophobic beatings that fill the rest of the book. To put it in terms a 1960s teen would understand, each time Jenny reappears, it’s as though someone has turned off the Velvet Underground and put on the Archies.
The true heart of Jocelyn’s novel is the dangerous relationship between Robbie and Luke. Robbie, the more experienced of the two, initiates the affair and does his best to teach Luke the fine art of passing for straight around the town toughs – something he does well, though not well enough to avoid a horrendous beating. At first, Luke resists his own inclinations, but after trying to make out with some girls and visiting Robbie in hospital, he stops lying to himself. Their occasional encounters in the woods are some of the most explicit in the book, but also the most emotionally healthy.
No one in What We Hide gets a storybook ending, just a slightly better understanding of his or her predicament. The book works better as a series of linked tales than a novel – it sometimes has the loose feel of a teen TV drama, with subplots picked up and dropped along the way. Where it shines is in many of the individual scenes. Jocelyn shows an ease with the vagaries of the teenage mind and a willingness to depict some very uncomfortable situations without blinking. Yes, there is a lot of sex here, but Jocelyn writes about it with more brute honesty and maturity than you’ll find in many adult books.