We Are Not Okay by Natália Gomes Book Review: Big Issues that Need More Space to Breathe

We Are Not OkayWe Are Not Okay by Natália Gomes, £7.99 (HQ Stories, 9780008291846)
Publication date: 2 May 2019
My rating: 

⚠️ This review contains spoilers and refers to sensitive issues, including sexual assault and suicide.

Four teenage girls: all of them different, all of them struggling with their own shame and secrets. Lucy loves to gossip, Ulana is from a conservative Muslim family, Trina likes to party and Sophia has a seemingly perfect boyfriend. But in this book by the author of the dark social problem novel Dear Charlie, no one is exactly as they first appear.

Gomes’ chatty, readable narrative style belies, and sometimes jars with, its mature subject matter, which ranges from interracial relationships and teen pregnancy to slut-shaming and sexual assault. The chapters cycle through each girl’s perspective; each is given a voice, and I assume that the intent is for the reader to identify with different aspects of the narratives, building a cumulative impact similar to The Everyday Sexism Project.

Source: María José Guzmán

However, while younger readers might relate more to this, I didn't find the girls' voices especially engaging or distinct, despite their diverse backgrounds. In fact, due to the chapter-by-chapter switch-ups, I had to refer to the back cover to remind myself of which character was which on several occasions. Some of the devices used to distinguish characters, such as the contrasting diary-style entries and listicles in Trina's chapters, didn't seem to serve any broader purpose and instead felt gimmicky and inconsistent.

Given the gravity of the subjects, just one of the protagonists’ stories could have easily provided enough substance for the whole book; with four different perspectives squeezed into 300-odd pages, that's only around 75 pages per story. While I would have devoured this as an angst-ridden adolescent and it's sure to appeal to the expansive market of The Hate U Give and Thirteen Reasons Why fans, this fast-paced, more-is-more approach is high on drama but doesn't allow for the necessary depth required to explore the numerous heavy issues raised.

Some of the descriptions of the personal repercussions from sexual assault feel lifelike and are sure to resonate with others who have been through similar traumas. However, several important issues are sadly oversimplified; it is foreshadowed early on that a character might develop an eating disorder, which is occasionally hinted at, but this gets left by the wayside for more dramatic reveals.

Another character considers an abortion, understandably expressing that she wants to go to uni, loves her life and doesn't want to pay for a mistake every day of the rest of her life, but her concerns are dismissed as her caring too much what others think. By the end of the book, having her baby anyway has seemingly healed her emotional and identity issues and rift with her mum.

This narrative felt the most familiar and predictable, and, honestly, I'm tired of tales involving young mothers 'overcoming the odds' to have a baby and it being presented as 'worth it' despite any initial misgivings and somehow a solution to any identity crises. Considering how taboo the alternative is, for once I'd be interested in reading a book in which the alternative is explored and becoming a mother isn't presented as inevitable -- something this book appeared to be angling to explore.

Most troublingly, the steep escalation to Sophia's sudden tragic fate yet lack of exploration of the buildup to this or real everyday aftermath for her family risks a problematic depiction of suicide -- a highly sensitive and challenging topic that this novel simply isn't equipped to tackle. Although how this turn affects Sophia's best friend, Ulana, and the school on the whole is discussed, this is almost as an addendum and after a time skip, softening the blow.

The fact that the story continues past this point, with the cast and community all shown coming together in the wake of this tragedy and certain characters learning from their errors and showing remorse, unintentionally casts Sophia's suicide as a necessary plot point as well as action with a desirable payoff. Similar to the criticism leveled at Thirteen Reasons Why, this plays into the suicide ideation fantasy that the individual will be able to see the idealised consequences of their actions unfold and somehow remain in control of their narrative.

While this was probably unintentional on the author's side, I couldn't help but discern an underlying cynicism to this book -- released in the #MeToo era, it ticks all the right boxes from a keyword perspective and has a clear marketing niche, but its superficial glossing over of important issues (despite its young target audience) and rushed writing style make it feel ironically opportunistic.

For example, rather than emulate realistic teen dialogue, Gomes drops several brand names unnecessarily throughout in a cringeworthy attempt to appeal to young readers ('You should use Boots' Extender Tan'), and some of the narration comes across as juvenile and eye-roll-inducing, even for 17-year-olds ('UGGGHHHHHHHH! I can't wait for Friday. This week is going to SUCK!!!!!!'). Other passages include roughly sketched out backstories and unimaginative filler text ('Everyone gets up and starts collecting their bags, phones, throwing Coke cans into the blue recycling bin, half-eaten cold lunches into the brown bin, plastic into the green').

In the book's favour, the characters overcoming their differences to find commonalities in adverse circumstances is an admirable development, and Gomes gradually draws the cast together as their stories increasingly interweave. It's just a shame that we don't see more of this overall, with many interactions consisting of bitchy slanging matches.

There is also immense value in showing the perspectives of characters who would typically serve as villains in YA media, and Gomes doesn't demonise anyone. Even the person who perhaps most deserves it is given an opportunity for redemption, highlighting the important role of male allies in tackling misogyny (even if they have participated in it), although some would argue he gets off lightly. In contrast, his earlier actions are almost cartoonishly villainous, and the fact he goes basically unchallenged for so long stretches credulity (a revenge porn-style Facebook post linked to his account that everybody sees yet nobody reports? I would also imagine he would care what his parents, teachers and peers think of him if not about his ex-girlfriend's wellbeing).

Therefore, the sudden development of formerly problematic characters can feel somewhat artificial, and the protagonists' predicaments are given overly neat resolutions that feel unsatisfactory. This is one of the main issues with the book: while ambitious and positive in its apparent aims, the lack of nuance means the resolutions feel forced for the sake of pushing an agenda (at one point, Steve, the antagonist who pushes Sophia over the edge, and Lucy, a pregnant teen, enter the school and 'no one gossiped or pointed fingers, or whispered behind their backs' because everyone has apparently learnt from the recent bullying drama, which is a nice thought, but no one? Really?).

While the least dramatic, Ulana has perhaps the most satisfactory ending as her small yet significant triumph feels the most natural and touching even though the subject of interracial/intercultural relationships warrants much more exploration.

The issues raised could be a good starting point for discussions between parents or caregivers and teenagers, and if someone is able to feel a little less alone and more empowered as a result of reading this, it will have succeeded, despite its flaws. But ultimately there are far stronger, more revolutionary books on some of the topics covered, such as Speak, which was published two whole decades before this and manages to tap into the adolescent headspace without name-dropping 'Revlon's peach parfait lip gloss'.

Note: I received a free proof copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. A heavily summarised version of this review was originally posted in the NYALitFest newsletter.


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