Tanya Byrne – Heart-Shaped Bruise

Tanya Byrne - Heart-Shaped Bruise coverWhen Archway Young Offenders Institution is closed down a notebook is found in one of the rooms.

I have to start by saying that this isn’t an apology. I’m not sorry. I’m not.

This is that notebook.

They say I’m evil and everyone believes it. Including you. But you don’t know.

Its pages reveal the dark and troubled mind of Emily Koll, Archway’s most notorious inmate.

Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever shake off my mistakes or if I’ll just carry them around with me forever like a bunch of red balloons.

Heart-Shaped Bruise by Tanya Byrne was one of the books all over my Twitter feed in the past year. It received a lot of buzz and enthusiastic reactions, so I was pleased to get a copy for Christmas. As soon as it landed on my huge TBR-pile, Wiebe made off with it – to my complete and utter amazement, as I’d never expected him to start reading contemporary YA, but that’s a different story – and after finishing the book in three hours flat he came back and said: “You have to read this NOW, this is something special.” For a book to draw such a reaction from my quite critical husband it has to be extraordinary, so I read it I did, and he was right; it is something special indeed. Heart-Shaped Bruise is a stunning book, which just left me speechless when I finished it. I even had to take a few days to gather my thoughts so I could write a somewhat coherent review for it.

From the first pages I was gripped; as a reader, one of the things I look for in a book is a strong authorial voice and Byrne has that in spades. It didn’t take long to see that this was quite a unique voice, one that I really connected with whole-heartedly. What was surprising was how much the book made me laugh. Emily is genuinely funny and wields a kind of gallows humour that tickled my funny bone. In Emily, Byrne has created a character that will be hard to forget for anyone who meets her. She’s funny, hard, angry, vulnerable, insecure, broken, and ultimately very, very human. As narrators go, she’s also rather unreliable as she deliberately leaves things out and tells us so. In addition, we never learn what she’s incarcerated for exactly. We learn what happens, but we don’t learn the charges. In the first chapter of the book, Emily says she did what she did, because Juliet had broken her, while through the narrative the Emily we get to know seems to have at least been structurally weakened even before finding out about her dad. Byrne succeeds in making the reader care for this damaged, creepy girl, despite all she does, which reminded me of this guest blog by Foz Meadows over on The Book Smugglers. Emily is like the new bad boys Foz describes, she displays all the symptoms of being seriously disturbed and dangerous. Where she differs though, is that she knows very well that what she did was wrong and even if she’ll never admit it, you get the sense that she’s sorry.

The other characterisations in the book are very strong as well—my favourites being Juliet, Sid, and Dr Gilyard. What I loved about the character of Juliet is how completely skewed the reader’s emotions become towards her. Here is a girl, who was attacked and had her father brutally murdered, to all intents and purposes scrabbling back up and going on with her life and despite all life has thrown at her she seems to have kept her innate kindness and decency intact. And through Emily’s narration she takes on a slightly petulant and spoiled cast, which seems both natural – nobody is that perfect – and slightly wrong. I also liked the juxtaposition of the two girls; Dr Gilyard draws Emily’s attention to the many similarities in their background, raised by single dads, who were very successful at their chosen professions and both smart and well-educated. If only their dads hadn’t been on opposing teams, so to speak, what would have happened had they met then? Sid is one of my favourite love interests I’ve ever encountered in my YA reading; he’s slightly dark and bad boyish on first acquaintance, but turns out to be a really decent guy with a complicated past and a heart filled with good intentions. Again, it’s unclear whether this shift is due to Emily’s perceptions of him being affected by her feelings for him or whether it is just a case of first impressions being shallow, but I rather like that uncertainty. Dr Gilyard’s tenacity and the sessions with her Emily describes were fabulous, not only did they bring out Emily’s inner snark, I also loved how cool, calm, and collected Dr Gilyard remained when Emily tried to get under her skin. She really seems to care for these girls without turning into a bleeding heart. I do have to add that I think Byrne writes genius characters, even those we only encounter the once in Emily’s narration. One of those was her college councillor Ms Grace Humm. Now there’s a lady who jumped off the page and who I kept hoping we’d see more off as she was just so amazingly cool.

The settings are rather limited. Obviously, the parts pertaining to Emily’s time on ward would be rather limited, as it’s a small world they get to occupy, but even so, those few rooms we’re shown are clear and I found the glimpses we got of life there interesting and Emily’s fellow long-staying inmates were interesting and well-developed. The ‘outside’ setting in comparison felt rather flat. That part of the story is set in London and while clearly London, it didn’t ooze the city as much as some of the other books I’ve read this year. However, I think that in the parts set in the past the emphasis is very heavily on character interaction and the relationships between various characters, so the ‘stage’ rather fades into the background. The plot is rather brilliant, as we’re kept in suspense almost until the last page, even if from page one we know she did it. The suspense here is concerned with what and how, not with whether she did it or not. And even while I knew that there wasn’t going to be a happy ending for Emily, as we know she’s in prison when we meet her, I kept hoping that she would get one, that she wouldn’t do whatever horrible thing she was going to do and just sail off into the sunset to a happily ever after. That is how powerful Byrne’s writing is.

To convey how much I loved Heart-Shaped Bruise is hard without turning into a gabbling fan girl. It had me chuckling and laughing out loud at some of Emily’s snarky remarks and had me reading with bated breath and hoping against hope that everything would be okay. Its story and characters are still stuck in my mind and they made me ponder their intent and have a long discussion with Wiebe on what had happened and why, and what did this mean etc. If you only get to pick one more book to read this year, let it be Heart-Shaped Bruise. Even if you don’t read YA or non-genre books, read this one. It’s an amazing story and to think this is only Ms Byrne’s debut—imagine what her next book must be like. I know I’ll be reading it soon as I can.

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