Book Title: What We Hide (Standalone)
Author: Marthe Jocelyn
Number of pages: 288
Americans Jenny and her brother, Tom, are off to England: Tom to university, to dodge the Vietnam draft, Jenny to be the new girl at a boarding school, Illington Hall. This is Jenny’s chance to finally stand out, so accidentally, on purpose, she tells a lie. But in the small world of Ill Hall, everyone has something to hide. Jenny pretends she has a boyfriend. Robbie and Luke both pretend they don’t. Brenda won’t tell what happened with the school doctor. Nico wants to hide his mother’s memoir. Percy keeps his famous dad a secret. Oona lies to everyone. Penelope lies only to herself.
(re: Goodreads @ What We Hide by Marthe Jocelyn)
Should this book be picked up? the tl;dr spoiler-less review:
– Follows 8 POVs, changing tenses, and told in varying narrative styles (i.e. letters, screenplays, prose-fiction)
– Timeframe set during the 1960-70s, themes involve: lies and betrayal, LGBT, social status, sexuality (not crude though), bullying; all relevant to the average teenager
– Ensemble-driven rather than fully developing specific characters; some of which are more/less developed than others
– Individuals have their reasons for what they do in order to remain relevant. By remaining stagnant, the possibility of growth and revelation diminishes, and characters face the same challenges in a constant cycle.
Boarding school? Check.
I think we both know where my thoughts are going. Not.
This is going to be one perplexing review because I’ve never had to critique something like this before. Maybe it was the various perspectives which threw me off (eight distinct voices in total) or maybe it was the sheer nonlinearity of the plot—or at least how it felt like when reading What We Hide—that makes it difficult to assess. At first, I was going to scrutinize each character…but I’m still not quite sure how I truly feel about this book since I enjoyed what I think it set out to achieve but it wasn’t extremely captivating or game-changing.
Full disclosure: I received an advanced reader copy of What We Hide through NetGalley for an honest review. I extend my thanks to Tundra Books at Random House of Canada Limited for providing me the opportunity to review this book.
Disclaimer: There may be spoilers inherent to this review from this point onward.
Pegged as a historical fiction, the story takes place during the Vietnam War in England and centers on Jenny (the American transfer student and the first and last narrator) as she gets allowance from her parents to follow her brother (Tom) to the land of the English in order for him to escape from getting drafted into the U.S. Army. A new school, a new life, a new Jenny; so why not play up some aspects of her past—I mean, who’s going to know? Her conscience. Truthfully though, if the whole Matt thing wasn’t integrated and the siblings just absent mindedly went to England, I would have never known that the war was integral to the story (which is kind of isn’t anyways).
There is a vague overarching plot: kids in the upper forms (that’s grades I suppose) meandering through their prepubescent lives. While it’s daunting in some ways to tangibly grab hold of some form of revelation-seeking antics, it’s more of the day-to-day happenings which should be engaged and where meaning is derived. The premise therein focuses on the length each student will endeavour to keep themselves afloat; academically, socially, and mentally. Using a variety of mediums, the narrative demonstrates that while the thoughts we have and the secrets (and lies) that we internalise and wrestle with are all unique cases—the root problem will always be the same.
[”There is only me to blame for where I am. There is only me.”]
To provide a brief sketch of the characters you meet in this narrative without giving too much detail away (i.e. their names), you have: an American transfer student, diverging bloke spectrum’s (one’s mildly popular, one’s more bookish), a grounded plump girl on scholarship, seemingly superficial “best friend” types, and misunderstood individuals who either play-up or play-down their past. This mishmash of casting pulls no punches in voicing their opinions. So now you’re probably thinking “holy shit, where does one begin to liken the lot?” Well, you won’t start off enamored by everyone but you also won’t feel like you don’t understand them by the end of it. The narrative for each character is comparable to a Jenga set: things start off generally solid and grounded but the more exposure and shifting of the building blocks of one’s personality, relationships, etc., the greater the likelihood that life can just implode on you. It’s almost like a coming-of-age story where each character’s revelation teeters on its tipping point; where they can face the unknown and hope everything doesn’t topple or just take the off-chance that things will work out.
With the forms of narration changing sporadically, what readers may normally consider as off-pace (i.e. switching from prose-fiction to a screenplay) is one that at initially reads awkwardly. Basically: without the blatant title of the chapter introducing the character, you wouldn’t really know who’s chirping their drama. Further to this, all the stories are linked by a common thread (re: boarding school antics) so it isn’t like there are thoughts and opinions laden throughout that doesn’t relate back to the main plot. By the same metrics, readers are essentially plopped down into whatever’s happening at that current timeframe. There’s no true beginning or end to each segment that successfully links up with another. For example, one of Percy’s POV was just a cover sheet with work-in-progress screenplay titles. Random? Maybe. Yet for the most part, the entire novel was woven together pretty well considering its delivery. Part of me feels like some perspectives were underwhelming and unnecessary because their POV spanned one chapter and never fully developed. But looking back, it’s difficult to imagine the narrative without it. See? Perplexing.
[“Each phase of our own maturity is marked by the ability to reinterpret what we have considered familiar, to adjust our point of view, to encounter…revelation.”]
The themes and issues Jocelyn has decided to tackle is one easily relatable by many teenagers. Whether its socially-involved drama induced lies and betrayal or human sexuality and its insatiable desires, the resilience of this novel quintessentially drives the coming-of-age vehicle with the element of lies/secrets being its driver. There are crude scenes of bullying, uncanny prejudice, and sex that transcend the age groups to involve adults as well. Yet while you do see glimpses of deemed inappropriateness in some situations (i.e. adult-on-teenager temptations, gay shaming and bullying), it fits the time-frame, setting and is not overambitious in delivery.
I’ll be frank with you. My favourite character in this novel was actually Percy, someone who I initially started off thinking that he was some sketchy kid scrawling details of a girl, school, and a massacre all on the same page. Remember folks, it only takes a thought to spark anything. Then we read into some script; and it’s messy, ideas jumbled all over the place and you wonder if he’s just misunderstood. So then you take a step back and start to uncover that Percy doesn’t have all the answers but he tries and tries again on his misguided journey to understand the things around him and that one person who has never bothered to approach him. Yet at the point of revelation, Percy realises that through all that research and doubt, the answers were always there—right in front of him.
[All the imaginary conversations he’d had with his father during all the years–utter fiction. The wise words, the funny anecdotes, the manly tips that Percy had invented for Mick to pass along—complete and made-up crap. But. Percy waves at the van as it bounces away down the Illington drive. He realizes that whatever you call it—invention, wishful thinking, or brilliant observation—everything that Mick had said inside Percy’s head in all those conversations. . .well, it was Percy who wrote those line’s right? All that knowledge was already there, just waiting to be summoned.]
I described my feelings for the overarching premise this novel tackles best with my Music Monday post, featuring Bastille’s “Pompeii”. To paraphrase: individuals endure ongoing struggles that ultimately seal their fates. When there’s a fork in the road and something has gone awry, we more often than not try to overlook it—to delay the inevitable acceptance because we aren’t sure what’s going to happen if we stray too far from the path…from what we know. But nothing will change and the cycle continues in a loop if we don’t make the effort into putting that foot forward to consider the possibility of stepping away and growing (even if it’s discomforting).
There’s no easier way for me to say this than: there is no cookie-cutter finality to this novel. The avenues taken may not finish the way readers may want, and abrupt ends are laden in each voice such that you don’t truly read into a fleshed out character. The effort this book puts forward merely considers that action is preferred over inaction; where impact is more evident and poignant when it’s actually being acted on rather than growth by means of a passive voice. Avenues of interest which could have been developed include tacking on another fifty-to-hundred pages to fully develop some characters if all eight are to be kept. The overly pretentious and snooty behaviours of some characters kind of irks me without futhur justification. Like, what kind of guest thinks it’s okay to be invited to someone’s house and purposely drops fine china and then think ‘oh cool it didn’t break!’ Holy shit. If this book is of representation of a large majority of teenagers now, then please, ship me off to the Mars colony.
Just like the way it was introduced: if you’re one to be enamoured by boarding schools, school drama, and realistic fiction issues—What We Hide by Marthe Jocelyn may fit that bill. However, I would still be wary as it might disappoint you with its multifaceted style of story-telling and underwhelming delivery of certain elements.
//review ends here.
I wanted to pick this book up because I wanted to re-immerse myself back into the English setting after having a nostalgia bomb of my music band trip in high school to England. Some of the exchange-style living was also in Harrogate so some places felt very tangible to me.
And who would have thunk I’d be able to throw down two reviews in less than a week. -pat’s self on back-