January 28, 2013

Form and Feature, Face and Limb (Review: Black Heart Blue by Louisa Reid)

Black Heart BlueBlack Heart Blue
Louisa Reid
Razorbill 2011

Hephzibah and Rebecca are twin sisters living under the watchful eyes of their neglectful, abusive and uber-religious parents in the vicarage of an idyllic country village.  As with many teenagers, they have just started college and are trying desperately to fit in – a feat somewhat hampered by social skills decayed by years of home schooling.  This desperate bid for acceptance is made even more difficult for Rebecca as a sufferer of Treacher Collins Syndrome, a genetic disorder resulting in facial disfigurement. 
Rebecca always relies on Hephzi.  With her outgoing personality and good looks, she casts the perfect shadow for Rebecca to hide within and can always fend off the sneers and smart comments along with The Fathers punches and kicks.  But then Hephzi dies and Rebecca feels that she has abandoned her.  All of a sudden, Rebecca is left alone and struggling to deal with the isolation and bullying that her condition causes, from both outside her home and within.  Rebecca has to learn to defend herself and flee her abusive life but as the secrets off the vicarage begin to rise to the surface, no one knows what will come to light and whether Rebecca will be able to vanish before she meets the same fate as her sister. 
Unusually, we are treated to alternating chapters from each sister’s point of view, with Rebecca’s chapters either “Before” or “After” her sister’s death.  The chapters are not laid out chronologically and so the book ends up with a real thriller undertone which adds to the wonderful sense of pace and leaves the reader guessing over many aspects of the story.  Both Rebecca and Hephzi are entirely believable characters and I found myself invested in their fate from very early on, making the dark parts of the story even more harrowing.  Hephzi’s voice is very much that of a an average teenager – desperately seeking approval from her peers at any cost, eager to leave her parents as quickly as possible (I suppose she has more of a point than most) and, often, fairly self-obsessed and generally not very nice.  Rebecca, however, is more complex.  Whilst she realises that her parents behaviour and, subsequently, the life that she is forced to live is not normal or right, she seems frightened to lose the little family support that she has.  Although openly disapproving of some of Hephzi’s behaviour, this disapproval seems to spawn from her parents’ influence which she knows is toxic - she is still jealous of Hephzi’s exploits and longs to be included and to be accepted by her peers. 
Louisa Reid paints a dramatic and highly believable picture of life within an abusive and neglectful family.  The sisters referring to their parents as “The Mother” and “The Father” instantly fills the reader with the fear, hatred and detachment that they feel towards them and drives the reader’s hope for the sisters to flee and thrive.  I think it’s fair to say, however, that Mary Poppins this is not.  This book goes to some seriously dark places, often with little respite, and treads some fairly new ground for the Young Adult genre.  Nevertheless, for me, this is a welcome change.  It’s refreshing to see a Young Adult author tackling subjects which are more adult than young and Louisa, if you please, long may it continue.  A dark and tragic book that demands to be read by anyone looking for something a little different from the genre.  Maybe just not on a rainy day... 

This review was brought to you by PolkaDot Steph.  Black Heart Blue is available now.  Thank you to the publisher for providing us with this book to review.     

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