Review: ‘Am I Normal Yet?’ by Holly Bourne

Am I Normal Yet Holly Bourne

Whisper it oh so quietly – don’t jinx it – but I think this book might have broken my reading slump. I read this in one six-hour sitting on a Sunday afternoon – I didn’t even put it down to make a cup of tea.

This book follows sixteen year old Evelyn – Evie – through her first term of college. Evie has OCD and Generalised Anxiety Disorder, and has been educated from home for a few years. She is getting better though. The novel follows her as she tries to balance reducing her medication and managing her coping methods, with the pressures of growing up.

The portrayal of 1) teenagers, and 2) mental health are impressive and refreshing. Holly Bourne is never patronising, and excellently avoids my worst pet peeve in YA Fiction, when the protagonist’s voice warps into that of the author for a few lines as they get to the Important Message they are trying to teach their readers. Bourne portrays Evie sympathetically, and always gives her a motivation for her actions – even if, yes, sometimes that motivation is manipulated or coloured by other forces in her life. Evie is not always right – she is not perfect, but she is not demonised for making bad choices. I can’t tell you how important I think that is.

The only times I felt the author was a little too present were the Spinster Club’s talks – but then, that may just be because I’ve read so many other iterations of those conversations in different places. Some of the discussions the girls have about feminism could easily have felt shoehorned in as an educational rant on the author’s part, but they are situated well enough in the text to feel natural.

While these are great, I was personally happier about the fact that these ideas and framing were implicit in the writing of the story – we are signposted towards a certain understanding of things. For instance, we’re not meant to think of Joel as cool for singing aggressive songs about his ex-girlfriend. I was also glad Jane’s characterisation was more sympathetic than simply writing her off as the ‘wrong’ kind of girl. For a while I was concerned that we were heading towards ‘we’re not like those other girls who like boys and parties’ territory, which essentially still posits the idea that there’s a right way to be a girl / woman. Bourne has this carefully under control though, and brings Jane’s character around – not to be absolved or ‘fixed’, but simply to be understood.

The in-text critique of ableist language is also fantastic, and never pulled out as explicit or preachy – but it is simple to observe through the course of the novel how Evie reacts to people casually using words like crazy, freak, mental – their casual use amplifies her fear of being labelled and ridiculed if she were to be honest about her experiences. The effect of this language on her is profound and genuine, when used to describe herself or used to describe other people. She does also directly talk about how irritating it is to her when people use mental health terms casually and incorrectly, describing themselves as ‘so OCD’ for liking their pens arranged a certain way. I loved that passage so much I actually read it out to my husband.

I was however disappointed that the feminism Holly Bourne chose to introduce young readers to had to be trans-exclusionary. I’m not suggesting that trans issues should have been explicitly referenced – other intersectional issues such as race and orientation certainly weren’t – but Bourne chose to make the conversation the girls have about periods centre on the idea that periods are important because they’re what make us women. Eurgh. [What follows is discussion of this point – skip to next paragraph for rest of review] Quite apart from the issue of this excluding trans women from the girls idea of feminism, it also excludes postmenopausal women, women who’ve had hysterectomies for a variety of reasons, women like me, who have IUDs which cause menstruation to cease for a while – and I’m sure a fair few others. I haven’t had what I’d call a ‘proper’ period for nearly three years. We are all still women though. We might collectively as a society have ideas about what makes us individually feel like women, but it doesn’t make our feelings objectively true for everyone. But, I digress.

I admire that Bourne manages to give her narrator both the usual anxieties of her age with those which are tied up in her illness. As a reader, it might not immediately be easy to draw a line under where those worries blend into each other, lending us sympathy with Evie and hopefully encouraging some level of understanding – of the things said in ignorance which are unhelpful, of what we believe which makes talking about these things worse for those suffering silently. I believed Evie’s internal dialogue with herself and with her illness. [Mild Spoiler here – jump to next paragraph to avoid] At first the thoughts Evie has which are connected to her OCD are highlighted quite obviously, written in separate paragraphs and titled as Bad Thoughts, but as the novel progresses, we can tell that Evie is not identifying the symptoms of her illness as much when these aren’t present for each time she acts on her compulsions.

This is the kind YA Novel I wish had been available to me when I was in the target age group – this story would have been very important to me at sixteen years old. It is still important now, and I am glad to have read it. I’m glad for current teens and the ones who’ll follow who will have Holly Bourne’s writing available to them.

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