Young Man With Camera (2015), by Emil Sher

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 21.3.

Young Man With Camera was short-listed for the 2016 Amy Mathers Teen Book Award.

Young Man With Camera

Sher - Camera

As hard as he tries not to, T–  stands out from his classmates. As a child, an accident resulted in extensive burn marks to his face and neck; since then, he has been bullied mercilessly by Ryan and his group of followers, whom T–  and his friend Sean label “Joined at the Hip.” T–’s parents had tried all sorts of activities to help T–, but the one that stuck was photography. He sees the world through his camera lens, finding beauty in small details that others see as unimportant, or in people whom others see as useless. This is how T– meets Lucy, a homeless woman with an interesting vision of her world. T–’s growing affection for the ostracized Lucy is complicated by the increasingly violent bullying of Ryan and his cronies, ultimately leading to a horrific incident that changes T–’s life forever.

It is hard to know how to approach Young Man With Camera, for a number of reasons. For one, the narrative voice is inconsistent. T–  speaks in metaphor, with a poetic vision of his world that plays with language and image in the way a highly intelligent young adult might; at the same time, though, 13-year-old T–  does not know what irony or behoove mean, and has to ask the teacher he idolizes, Ms. Karamath.

Ms. Karamath introduces him to the work of famous photographer Diane Arbus, whose pictures influence his vision. This connection between the readers’ world and the narrative world is a strength; the development of T–’s artistic ability alongside the reader’s developing understanding of T–  as a person is very effectively executed and almost sufficiently mitigates other problems in characterization.

When T– has photographic evidence of Joined at the Hip’s murderous attack on Lucy, he considers taking the photos to Ms. Karamath, the only adult he trusts. Ultimately, for reasons that are explicit but not convincing, he does not do so, and this is another issue I have with the story. Regardless of the depth of fear he has of Joined at the Hip—T– they poisoned Sean’s dog, Watson, and threatened worse to Sean—is it realistic that T–  would tell no one? Granted, the adults in his life have not been entirely supportive, but again, this is an issue. All the adults we meet, including T–’s mother and father, believe Ryan’s lies and consider (what they interpret as) T–’s criminally anti-social behaviour to be an understandable result of his childhood injury. No one ever thinks to address the issues T–  actually might have. If they are aware of the relationship between his accident and his (presumed) behaviour, why then is there no indication of interventions on his behalf? That question aside, all of his actions could also be interpreted in less damning ways. The notion of T–  having a persecution complex, projecting his abuse at the hands of Joined at the Hip onto others around him, I could understand as a narrative device, but that doesn’t appear to be what is going on. Despite his use of language, T–’s tale is not a metaphor: to have the entire adult world—even ultimately Ms. Karamath—unable to see what is going on, to the extent that T– ends up serving a seven-month incarceration, seems problematically unrealistic.

The intensity of Ryan’s persecution I can accept, as it is presented as excessive even for a typical bullying situation, but when Ryan is found guilty of assault on a member of his own gang, there is no reassessment of T–’s situation at all. Having years of experience dealing with the Canadian school system, including special needs assessments and psycho-educational evaluations, I find it very hard to believe in T–’s journey, in the choices he makes, or the responses of those around him.

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Born Confused (2002), by Tanuja Desai Hidier

E940_SCH_BornConfused_0.tifAt first I was unimpressed.  The author seems unable to maintain an authentic teen voice, fluctuating between frankly unbelievable slang (“frocking” instead of “fucking; “Dear Claude” instead of “Dear God”) and a mature, fluid, and poetic narrative, purportedly from the mind of the one central protagonist, Dimple Lala.  (Why do South Asian authors call their protagonists Dimple so readily? There are thousands of beautiful South Asian names that are not a silly word in English…)

Once I got past the questionable narrative voice, I began to like the character and her life. Granted, her best friend Gwyn is an appalling creature, selfish and self-centred, but Dimple’s responses to her friends, family, and life are honest and explored with sensitivity.  Dimple learns a significant amount about herself and her culture through well-structured plot machinations, and the characters she meets are as carefully and fully created as she is.  I do ask, though, if it is necessary in the narrative of adolescent development always to encounter and learn from lesbians, gays, and in this case an attractive and wise transvestite… It seems that this level of engagement with this variety of alternative lifestyle within the New York Desi scene might be a bit of a stretch of authenticity, as is a grade 11 girl having her photos chosen for a complete spread in a flash (literally Flash!) New York magazine, without her knowledge… Plot manipulation aside, I think the characterizations in Born Confused redeem the text, and make it worth recommending.

Out of Focus (2006), by Margaret Buffie

Out of Focus is not for the weak at heart.  It is also not only for YA readers.  Margaret Buffie has nailed her characters perfectly. Again. As an adult reading this novel, I learned as much about my own mistaken interpretation of the world as we could ever hope that a younger reader might. It is true, too, what she says about black & white photography: “if you really wanted to catch the essence of people—see what was really going on inside them—you had to use black-and-white film. … Color shots are like sunglasses, reflecting back social masks” (20). Buffie’s text is like a black & white photo: she doesn’t pull her punches, but presents us with a concentrated version of her protagonist’s emotional turmoil: pure, unmitigated adolescence.

Bernie (Bernice Dodd) is in charge of her life. She has to be: her father has deserted them, and her mother is an alcoholic who takes off on binges and doesn’t return for days. For four years—since she was 12—Bernie has had to be mother to herself, her younger brother and sister, and even her own mother, Celia. At the opening of the book, she has had enough. The level of anger Bernie feels at first seems not only completely reasonable, but even productive. Her threats to call in Social Services force her mother to take the family to a property in the north-western Ontario woods, leaving behind the lure of Winnipeg, its bars, and its enabling associations. Once they reach their old family home, bequeathed to Celia by her mother’s sister Charlotte, Bernie’s plan to establish a sense of security and purpose within the family begins to work. Why, then, does Bernie become progressively more angry? Why can she not allow herself to heal?

In a less realistic novel, the woods, and the lake, and the fresh misty morning, air would cause a healing to seep up and catch Bernie unaware; we would peacefully watch the process, comfortable in knowing what must happen in a children’s book. But life does not always work according to narrative expectations, not even Bernie’s. She is powerless to affect her own transformation: “Happy? I wanted me to be happy, too. But it wasn’t going to happen any time soon.  … I was fighting a war here.  If no one understood that, then tough” (192). Our own angst growing with hers, we watch Bernie slipping towards the edge of a recognized social and emotional chasm that is hard to climb out of. Our own anger builds as we watch her making mistakes, when we can so clearly see—as do some of the adults around her—what is happening in her life. Like those around her, we are no longer sure we even like Bernie. Buffie reveals her remarkable narrative abilities in showing us only enough to understand her characters’ emotions, never enough to fully anticipate the plot. In the end, even when what we wanted to happen comes to pass, we are exhausted by the emotional roller-coaster we have just been on with Bernie. But like Bernie—and hopefully the adolescent reader—we have learned a powerful lesson: no matter how wrong we are, no matter how far off track, it is always possible to start over, sometimes even to mend the rents in our emotional world.