Our Girl in Chicago writes:
Is there a woman out there who doesn’t carry around the invisible scars of her teenage social life? If so, I don’t know her. For everyone else, though, I recommend Special, Bella Bathurst’s psychologically acute, emotionally charged first novel. Why it hasn’t been more widely reviewed is a mystery to me. The perfect title captures one aspect of the angst that makes girls of 13 treat each other so cruelly, even at the height of their own psychic tenderness. How do you square the idea, carried over from childhood, of your own inalienable specialness with the beginning of an adult social life and the regard for others it entails? How can everyone be special? In the adolescent social algebra that Bathurst renders with heartbreaking verisimilitude, to remain special implacably requires that someone else be chaff–to put it politely.
Bathurst tells the story of a school trip that brings eight girls to a shopworn English countryside. Removed from their usual setting, the girls quickly shake off the flickering authority of their two chaperones and hammer out their own pitiless social contract. Early on, one character looks out over the Severn River: “Something about the water seemed misleading to Hen. Over there in the distance the river looked harmless. Only when she looked down through the railings of the bridge could she see how fast it was going. You’d never know until you were dead that it might kill you, she thought.” It’s a powerful metaphor, both for the feelings churning inside the girls and for their shifting alliances with one another. Throw in boys and sex, distracted absent parents, and everyday insecurities, and you have plenty of lit matches to go with this powderkeg.
No doubt you’ve thought by now of Lord of the Flies, a point of reference duly noted in the book’s jacket copy. But it isn’t power that’s at issue here so much as the struggle to shape an acceptable self to present to the world. When the audience is narrowed to seven others involved in the same endeavor, beset by the same vulnerabilities, things get dangerous–like the Severn. The girls’ little world smolders, rather than explodes, but the conclusion is every bit as devastating.
This book dredged up uncomfortable memories of junior high school, but gave me new sympathy with my tormentors of old–something I wouldn’t have thought possible. Maybe it’s because I’m a woman that I find Bathurst’s girls even more fascinating than William Golding’s boys, and her novel at least as penetrating as his. But I think it’s because Special is simply that good.