Elizabeth transports the trappings of a classic ghost story to the tawdry dystopia of a US high school, amplifying the exclusion faced by those whose life includes—or publicly includes—other than the narrow list of socially acceptable things.
Dylan Hatfield’s grandmother suffers from dementia. And, ever since moving to Hawthorne, Dylan has been followed by imaginary friends. Either of these might be enough to make a teenager outcast; together they ensure she is assaulted mentally and physically by her classmates; and her school refuse to admit it’s even happening. She’s certain her imaginary friends are just a coping mechanism, until one of them offers to possess one of her assailants, to make her more pleasant.
Elizabeth conjures an entirely too plausible image of the abuse of out-groups perpetrated by in-groups in school, right down to a vilified weirdo becoming everyone’s friend the moment a popular child is pleasant to them; and the delinquency of authorities and parents. Her portrayal is granted all the more banal horror by the untouchable nature of one of the abusers highlighting the “money is morality” rot at the heart of US society.
As such, a story of fighting back by supernatural means risks becoming simply a wish-fulfilment fantasy. However, Elizabeth skilfully seeds both Dylan’s imaginary friends and the suggestion of possession with a subtle otherness that distinguishes it from the pristine “power to make everything right” dream of the abused.
This sense of not solving everything and potentially not being ideal is supported by the dementia of Dylan’s grandmother: even if the possession is possible, it won’t remove the stress of her grandmother disintegrating before her eyes; and—by implication—possession is much like someone “losing their mind”.
Elizabeth unfolds the plot using the standard techniques of a ghost story: creepy events that might have a mundane explanation; a sense of dread that fits the paranoid mindset of the oppressed. However, she also takes advantage of the presence of abusers who might wish to scare or implicate their subjects.
Elizabeth weaves a teen romance subplot through the abuse and paranormal uncertainty. However, unlike some YA stories, this is a plausible evocation of friendship and awkwardness rather than a grand passion for an unseeing object or a choice between two airbrushed hotties. As such, it forms a realistic contrast to the implausibility of mystical events, a source of strength, and another thing that could be lost to a reputation for weirdness.
Dylan is a sympathetic character, not exceptional in ability or morality but commendably free of angst given the abuse she faces on a daily basis and the lack of support from adults. This evocation of an ordinary teenager treated cruelly is likely to resonate with younger readers experiencing peer abuse themselves and avoid more mature readers finding her overly mired in self-pity.
The supporting cast are divided almost along age lines: the teenagers with more than brief page-time have a subtle complexity; whereas most adults seem drawn with a slightly broader brush. This adds to the sense that Dylan’s story occurs in a real world, but that she cannot access the adult part of it that should be countering the abuse.
Overall, I enjoyed this book. I recommend it to readers seeking YA fantasy that portrays both the horror of peer abuse and the bitter-sweet complexity of solutions.
I received a free copy from the author with a request for a fair review.