All the Rage by Courtney Summers (Macmillan Children's Books, 28 January 2016)
Courtney Summers is incredible. Her writing is incisive, powerful, startling. The only other book I've read of hers is her debut, CRACKED UP TO BE (published in 2008), which I also enjoyed, but her writing has come a long way since then. ALL THE RAGE is sickeningly honest, and that's obviously meant as a compliment to Summers. I don't know how she does it. How she carves the truth onto every page of fiction.
Romy Grey was raped by Kellan Turner, one of the sheriff's sons. No one believes her, because everyone knows she wanted him. She's lost her best friend, Penny, the most popular girl in school. They all bully her now and call her a liar and a slut and worse. She finds a job out of town where no one will know about what happened to her, and it's there that she meets Leon. Leon likes her, and she likes him back, but nothing can be so simple as that anymore, and it's a struggle to keep him separate and distant from everything else in her life. But when Penny goes missing after the biggest party of the year and Romy wakes up on the side of the road with no memory of the night before, things get even more complicated and Romy finds it increasingly difficult to keep her life from unravelling further.
It's hard to review a book like ALL THE RAGE. I can only say that its depiction of rape culture is terrifyingly accurate, and that Summers encapsulates what it is to be a girl in this world. Summers never shies away from the darker thoughts that we all have sometimes. It was particularly heartrending when Romy learns that Leon's sister is having a baby and she thinks, I hope it's not a girl. And again, when Penny goes missing after the party on Friday night and Romy hopes that she's still missing by Monday because then that will give people something to talk about; they'll talk about Penny's disappearance and not about what Romy was up to at the party that she can't even remember.
And these thoughts hurt to read, but I feel how true they are for Romy, and I sympathise with her completely. Romy's pain is so real. It hurts her to be a girl. It hurts a lot of girls to be girls. But somehow, this book still clearly manages to get across how strong girls can be. How extraordinary it is to be a girl. How much it matters if we try and fight for each other, at each other's side, rather than against each other as the world tries so hard to teach us to do. The most beautiful moments in this book are the moments between the female characters where one reaches out to another, even if it fails. The moments between mother and daughter; all the things that a mother cannot protect her daughter from no matter how much she wishes she can, the terrifying helplessness and the sadness and the anger. The moments between one teenage girl and another, where there's an attempt to make up for mistakes, for betrayal, for not understanding before, for the things the world forces us to be but that we can try our best to break from. The quiet moments between Romy and Leon's sister, Caro, when one woman confides in another and shows her vulnerability, her uncertainty.
There's more that I'd love to say on this particular topic but can't because of spoilers, but yes, this book is about rape culture, it's about the awful things that men and boys do to women and girls, that girls can do to each other, but it's also about the amazing things that women and girls can do for each other. I'm so profoundly moved by the conclusion that this book moved towards; it's ruthlessly heartbreaking but it's so, so unbelievably poignant and powerful.
There's also the development of Romy's relationship with Leon, slow and careful, an obstacle course that Romy has to pick her way through the same way she has to do with the rest of her life. But different because Leon is one of the few good parts; he's sweet and respectful of Romy, and Romy doesn't want to mess it up but at the same time, she just can't let him know what's going on with her because it makes her different when she's with him, the fact that he's one of the few people who doesn't know. She can pretend that she's someone else with a different life. Summers writes this relationship with the same unflinching realism that she applies to everything else, and it's good but it's bitterly sad to see how desperate Romy is to keep Leon ignorant and how the relationship runs far from smoothly because of all the things she's struggling with. I really liked that Leon was black too and Summers wrote that part well, showing how the colour of his skin could be quite a problem for him when he's in a mostly white environment.
In sum, I just can't recommend ALL THE RAGE enough. The truth is, girls can be so amazing and fearless for each other, though a lot of the wonderfully brave things that girls do will still be to no avail because ultimately and unfortunately, it's men who still hold the real power, the power to hurt and to do violence. But it's no less important that girls try and believe in each other and defend each other. What happens to Romy in ALL THE RAGE is a harrowing and deeply frightening story that I know repeats itself all too often across the world; it's difficult to read because it's intensely painful, but I also think it tells us that we are not always alone. Some girls, unfortunately, are. But sometimes girls have other girls, other people who stand by them. And we need that more often. We need that to always be true, and we need all of us, every one, to recognise the true horrors of rape culture and to feel this rage, this anger against it – because we should be angry. I know I am. Anger is what drives us to fight for change.