Probably one of my most unpopular literary opinions is that, despite being a very happy reader of both genre and literary fiction, I just don’t get the appeal of the new-style ‘YA’. Unlike the young adult books I read as a teenager, I see new YA as a genre rather than an age category, given its popularity among adults (55% of YA books are bought by over-18s) and the strong similarities between YA novels’ approaches, concerns and themes. I’m certainly willing to admit that I’m wrong, and of course there are fantastic novels that happen to have been marketed in the YA category. But so often, a YA novel will leave me feeling like it could have been a great book if only it hadn’t been YA. This is obviously nothing to do with any stereotypes about not wanting to read books that are marketed at teenagers. If anything, my concerns about the ageist ways in which young people are treated make me inherently suspicious about YA, which doesn’t always avoid playing into these ageist tropes (although adult novels definitely do this as well). I hate when adults sneer at books for children or at children’s writers, and I feel the same way about shallow criticisms directed at YA and at YA writers. And yet – unlike children’s fiction – I still rarely meet a YA book I really like.
Two recent reads have partly confirmed my worries about YA, but also left me asking further questions about the definition of the genre. Orangeboy by Patrice Lawrence, #6 of my 20 Books of Summer, is certainly one of the best YA novels I’ve read in a long time. The opening chapter, where teenage Marlon heads to the fair with the girl of his dreams, Sonya, then suddenly realises that he’s sitting next to her dead body on a House of Horrors ride, is a miniature masterpiece in its own right. By the end of this handful of pages, we’re completely inside Marlon’s head, and although we want him to tell the police the truth about the drugs Sonya slipped him, we understand that, as a young black man, his wariness is well-founded. This sympathy is something that Lawrence tests to its limits throughout the novel, as Marlon makes a series of what we might see as increasingly stupid decisions, and yet she manages to keep us on our protagonist’s side. Even though the novel is partly about gang violence, she resists simple racial and class stereotypes about broken, uneducated families – Marlon’s mum is a librarian and his dad (dead from cancer) loved old science fiction novels so much that Marlon’s full name is Marlon Isaac Asimov Sunday. (“It could have been worse,” Marlon’s mum comments. “Your dad could have preferred Philip K. Dick!”) One thing that most adult novels desperately need to learn from YA is how to deal with diversity beyond the very simplistic, and Orangeboy makes a great start.
And yet. The novel, at 449 pages, is very long, especially for a YA novel, and especially for any kind of novel that has a relatively linear thriller-esque plot. Most of the time, it kept me turning the pages, but given the space Lawrence had, I felt she could have fleshed out a few sub-plots – Tish, Marlon’s best friend, for example, is a great character, and a great support to Marlon, but doesn’t really get to have a story of her own. Ultimately, while I enjoyed Orangeboy very much, I felt that its portrayal of a young man trying to make good but being sucked into the criminal underworld through family connections wasn’t a patch on Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies. Perhaps it’s unfair to expect it to be; perhaps YA novels have a different job to do. And yet, to me, that feels a little too much like pandering to the idea that teenagers need simpler stories told in simpler ways.
In contrast, Shappi Khorsandi’s deeply disturbing Nina Is Not OK seems on the surface to suggest, as do Louise O’Neill’s lacerating Only Ever Yours and Asking for It, that YA fiction might be able to go places where adult novels fear to tread. We meet seventeen-year-old Nina as she’s being kicked out of a club for giving a man a blow job in public. He and his friends follow her outside. The next thing she knows, she’s in a taxi heading home, throwing up spectacularly as she makes it to her front door. Waking up the next day, she tries to scrub off the remains of her awful night in the shower. But this is just the beginning of a sequence of drunken days and drunken nights – which lead to Nina’s eventual realisation that, like her beloved and dead dad, she is an alcoholic. However, saying that Nina Is Not OK is simply a book about alcoholism would be to undersell it, although it certainly deals very well with both the experience of addiction, and the suffering it inflicts upon an addict’s friends and family. It is, almost more than anything else, a book about sexual and emotional boundaries, and despite its darkness, it feels profoundly healthy in its insistence on the right of young women to set such boundaries and the ways in which they should do it. Some readers might find the second half of the novel, in which Nina goes on a full-blown AA journey of recovery, complete with a number of formal apologies to people that she has hurt, a little cringeworthy; I believe that by this point Nina Is Not OK has fully earnt these emotional scenes. It also portrays the utter heartbreak of losing an adolescent love – and the need to draw very careful lines in order to move on – better than any other novel I can currently remember.
Nina’s alcoholism has its victims, primarily her mum and stepdad, and her long-standing best friend Beth and Beth’s father, who take Nina in when her family move to Germany. Nevertheless, what is most upsetting about Nina Is Not OK is the sequence of men who prey on the obviously teenage, obviously ‘plastered’ Nina as she seeks out drinks in pubs and clubs. These men sit on a spectrum of bad behaviour but none of them is completely exempt from criticism, despite Nina’s attempt to group them into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ men later in the novel (a rare misstep, I think, from Khorsandi). There are, of course, men in the novel who don’t take advantage of Nina – mostly older men in positions of responsibility, but also the lovely Robbie, who fancies her and yet shows no signs of putting any pressure on her to do anything she doesn’t want to. And yet most of the men who go after her are like the middle-aged man she picks up in a pub, who has sex with her in a park and yet, when he finds out she is seventeen, texts her: ‘I am shocked by this. I got a daughter a bit younger than you. Please take better care of yrself. Treat yrself with more self-respect.‘ Apparently men’s sexual desire is a force of nature; it’s Nina’s job to stop it. Khorsandi handles Nina’s shifting beliefs around sex with great sensitivity, critiquing well-meaning but harmful interventions, such as her stepdad’s suggestion that some women put rape ‘down to experience’, but I thought this particular strand of sexual entitlement could have been more firmly dealt with.
Nina Is Not OK is not an easy read. But Khorsandi also makes sure that Nina has hope. The support she receives from Beth, from her other friend Trish and her mother Belle, from schoolteacher Isabelle, and eventually from Sapphire, allows her to carry on. In the midst of its otherwise bleak world, the book’s treatment of sexuality is also hugely refreshing. During the course of the novel, Nina realises she is bisexual, but she encounters very little biphobia or indeed much internalised self-hatred about this particular aspect of her sexuality. She is also surrounded by positive female gay role models – Belle and Isabelle are both lesbians. Khorsandi has explained this aspect of the novel with reference to her own confusion as a teenager about being attracted to women as well as men: ‘[it’s] my little way of being happy for this generation… because they will live in a world where it’s completely fine… it won’t be a big bloody issue… There are bits [in the book] that are my sort of cathartic moments that make up for my missed opportunities.’ Sadly, I think Khorsandi is a little over-optimistic about the current state of affairs for LGB teenagers. However, I don’t think there’s anything wrong at all in writing a novel where the protagonist happens to meet only with love and acceptance. Gay women need this kind of story as well – and Nina Is Not OK is already dark enough.
Nina Is Not OK is a great example of what YA fiction could be. The problem: it hasn’t been marketed as YA. Amazon have categorised it as contemporary women’s fiction, and/or humour and satire. Penguin list the book on their adult site, and recommend it to fans of Caitlin Moran and Lena Dunham. And while I’m no expert, the cover does not look to me like YA. While I see no reason why it shouldn’t be seen as YA, and fully expect that teenagers will read it, it does make me wonder what the book would look like if it had been aimed at a ‘teenage’ market. And that’s why, I suppose, despite its possibilities, YA still leaves me a little concerned.