I'm very interested to see how this novel will play to the young adult set. I thought it hit some things absolutely perfectly, but I'm 20 years years from my young adultness, and I know that. This is the thing: so often, when I read young adult novels, or watch teeny movies, the social systems in play seemed to be cribbed from 80s movies or musicals. There's the popular kids, who are obviously evil, and the everyone-else, who are some kind of Marxist uptopian rag-tag group of misfits who win the dance-off or whatever.
Ask everyone you know what group they belonged to in high school, and the vast majority of them will demur with some comment about how they belonged to multiple groups. "I didn't have the one," they will say. "I guess you could say I moved between them." That's fine. I don't think they are lying or anything; but still, we moved. Most of us did move among them this way or another: the NHS snobs, the dance-line whores, the cross-country assholes, the date-rapists from hockey. We all moved from a group of slagged identities to another. We slagged identities to get by.
Sojourner, the daughter of a white Jamaican and a black American, was slagged so hard in her last school that she had to move schools. The whisper campaign started - girls being casually mean that deepened into everyone being purposefully mean - and then it ended in Sojourner face down, gum in her hair, fucked in all ways but the most literal. She starts again in a new school, and this book starts again after she's found her trio, built her rep, and then had her trio fall apart due to a fight with the other girl in that claustrophobic group she calls home.
Her relationships with her friends are all beautifully sketched, from the bathroom scenes to the after-dance-practice moments. I'm 20 years from this, but I could feel the truth of two girls working out their anger with one another about a boy, and talent, and things harder even to say out loud. There's a brilliant social realism at play here, that gets seriously complicated when the the weird metaphorical changes begin, changes embodied in the Chaos of the title.
Sojourner goes with her brother to a poetry slam while their parents are out of town. It's a shivering frission of getting out, using the fake ID, trying to pass as just a few years older. (This is Canada, so drinking age is 19, and Sojourner's 17 isn't far off, but still world's away, the way it is.) She gets hit on by a dude who fails her race test - he can't tell she's mixed race, and when she tell him, he says some stupid things. Then she meets a spoken word poet who is in a wheelchair, and she fails the same kind of ableist test that she just applied in racial terms to a dude in a bar. It's an incredibly adroit juxtaposition: one identity understanding doesn't translate to the other. Then everything goes to hell.
For whatever reason, a volcano rises in the bay in Toronto, a vortex sucks away her brother, and all manner of weirdness unfolds. The streetlamps turn to crayons; a hippo wears a hat and talks. Some of this weirdness is ground in mythology, and there is an extended riff on Baba Yaga and her chicken-legged house - a riff full of all kinds of physical comedy that I enjoyed - and other mythological figures. Jamaican folklore also figures pretty prominently, as does Jamaican culture and accents, and those I felt were the stronger magical sections, more bound with Sojourner's family and identity. Sometimes I was all in with this, and I thought the way the overt metaphors dealt with the internal structures was amazing and true. Sometimes I just felt beset by weird that was hard to understand. But Sojourner is not Jamaican, she's hyphen-Canadian, and it makes sense that the metaphors are going to be mixed
On some level, this is a novel of Toronto. Sometimes there is a fantastic sense of place, nods to the way Torontonians deal with their social situations, smart comments on the varying layers of Toronto society. I'm not from Toronto, though I have visited a bit, so I got a bunch squee about various touristy locales. But sometimes the physicality failed, and I had a hard time understanding where we were, and what that might mean to someone in the know. I enjoy city-stories though, in general. I like when people write cities, how place is identity, and identity shifts with place. The physicality isn't as strong as something like Zoo City, but it still mostly works.
I really don't want to get into spoilers, especially because I think I'm one of the first to review, but this ends with a sort of obliqueness I enjoy, unperfected. The way this story manages certain identities, I thought it was cool how they were taken on, but occasionally were touched in a way that was more schematic and less character-driven. Damn, I just deleted a bunch of sentences that were spoilers for shore, and y'all should read this and get back to me so I can talk about it. Rarrr.
I can't say whom to recommend this to. It's smartly written, interesting, complex, but it might be more fun to think about than read, you know? Dang, I just made it sound like it isn't fun to read. There's a lot of weird here, weird that might be metaphorical for more upsetting things, and nothing is easy. Hot damn, neither is adolescence, so that is a flat win in my book.
I received an ARC from someone cool, but no expectations were placed on my review, fwiw.