Little Brown 2010
Alex is a student at the progressive Themis boarding school, a liberal institution whose administration believes that treating it's teenage students like mature adults will encourage them to act likewise (because mature adults are all such paragons of virtue, good decision making and niceness, right?). While Themis may sound like every student's dream school, the reality is that misdemeanors – from the mild to the extreme – go ignored and unpunished. When Alex wakes one morning with the suspicion that she has been date raped she instinctively knows that there is little good in her approaching a teacher. Instead, she turns to The Mockingbirds – an undercover justice racket that the students of Themis have created to both investigate crimes to the student body and also to mete out punishment where necessary.
Alex is a challenging character to read, particularly because readers only get to know her through the prism of her recent and shocking experience.. At the start of the novel (where she wakes up naked next to a boy who she barely knows) she is clearly in a state of shock. As she slowly come to terms with what has happened to her, her emotions swing from one state to another through humiliation, fear, anger, guilt and confusion. Alex has been raped, an ordeal that has fundamentally changed her on every level and because of this she doesn't know who she is any more than the reader does. Over the course of the novel, Alex starts to find herself again – through music, friendship and a tentative relationship. She uses the terms before and after several times during her narration and it is clear that whoever Alex was before the book started, she is someone similar yet inherently different from the moment she wakes up in that bed. While Alex's growing relationship with Martin was something that I initially found slightly odd, considering the fact that she is recovering from a sexual assault. However, it becomes clear that her friendship with Martin is an important part of Alex reclaiming herself – and reclaiming all that can be good about a relationship with the opposite sex. In reality, I don't think she would have stepped into such a relationship so quickly but I also think that it's important for the overall themes of the novel that she does.
The central conceit of The Mockingbirds at first seems extreme – would a school administration really be so ignorant of it's students that said students would resort to creating their own justice system? I don't know – perhaps not, but for the purposes of this book, Themis staff walk around in a state of happy denial and the students respect and obey their own private system of law. While The Mockingbird's system is extremely well thought out – it includes councils, trials, juries and witness systems – I had a slight problem with how it was implemented. I found it hard to believe that every student convicted of an offense would just take it sitting down and there seemed to be no process in place to deal with a refusal to obey.
What is, of course, at the heart of this novel is the date rape of Alex by Carter (a truly disgusting piece of work who never seems to accept that he has committed a crime). Daisy Whitney, herself a survivor of rape, bravely sets the scene so that the situation surrounding Alex's rape is not black and white – at least, not to Alex. She was drunk and she can't remember what happened (at first) but is certain that she didn't agree to losing her virginity to a boy she barely knows. In fact, she's pretty sure that she passed out before she could agree or disagree to anything. But she's not sure – and this is key. I am certain that this kind of rape goes largely unreported because the victims just aren't confident enough of what has happened to them. Whitney reiterates again and again that the lack of a clear “no” does not constitute a “yes” and this is a message that cannot be shouted too loudly – to all sexes and all ages. As Alex slowly remembers the night in question, things for while seem even less clear and it is only due to the strength of her friends that she doesn't crack under the guilt and shame that she feels.
The Mockingbirds deals with the issue of date rape superbly, never undermining the seriousness of what has happened to Alex with the subplot of a school justice system. The schools I know don't have a flock of Mockingbirds willing to swoop in and fight injustice, and not every student has friends who will understand the implications of rape and encourage them to stand up to their attacker. For those schools and those students it is a comfort to know that there are books like The Mockingbirds, providing guidance, hope and at least some answers as well as perhaps the courage to not let such attacks stand. I highly recommend this title.
The Mockingbirds is available now. Thank you to UK Book Tours for providing me with this title to review.