Review Blog

May 09 2011

Beautiful Monster by Kate McCaffrey

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Fremantle Press, 2010. ISBN 9781921361982.
It's a very ordinary day in Tess's life. She's learning to fit into high school, making new friends and enjoying the usual up-down relationship with her ten-year-old brother, Brodie. Today is his birthday so she's trying hard to be especially nice, and is as thrilled as he is that he has an award for excellence to show mum, because she knows how much mum values that sort of thing. 'Yeah, you're just a genius for a brain-dead dead head', she says, not knowing that within seconds, that's exactly what Brodie will be, the victim of a hit-and-run driver.
It takes just a few short seconds of distraction for Tess's life to be irrevocably changed, and that of all those around her. But how do you deal with the loss of your brother, especially when your mum goes to a deep, dark place that demands all your dad's attention and your friends won't even mention his name in case it causes you pain and hurt? And whenever you think of him, all you can think of are the nasty things you said and did? How do you make your life whole again, when everyone else has gone? You try to be perfect - the perfect daughter, the perfect student and have the perfect body. You control those things that you can. You set goals that you can achieve through strict discipline and willpower, and you have a boyfriend like Ned who encourages you to keep going, scoffing at your efforts if you deviate. Knowing that if you didn't have Ned, you would really be all alone and so you strive even harder to meet his expectations. Rowing, running, studying, starving, rowing, running, studying, starving. And still your mum stays in her dark place. And still you're on your own, except for Ned. A's remain elusive, the rowing team gets a dead-heat not a win, and 47kg is not enough when 45kg beckons.
Is this Tess's life forever, until she, too, becomes a brain-dead dead-head? Or is there a breakthrough? Is there a happily-ever-after ending? This is McCaffrey's third novel and it is just as intriguing as Destroying Avalon and In Ecstasy. She writes with a knowledge of the issues that gives insight rather than just information, as anyone who has had a Ned in their life would know. Written in three parts, each distinct phases of Tess's life, Beautiful Monster explores the issues of grief, self-perception and self-worth, anorexia and bulimia. In keeping with the characteristics of contemporary realistic fiction, it focuses on the people, their problems, and their challenges allowing the reader to combine their social development with a greater knowledge and understanding of the world - the epilogue is very powerful to those who read between and beyond the lines, not just along them - but its situation and circumstance is sadly common enough that this novel could also be used in a therapeutic setting.
There are teaching notes available  but, in my opinion, as with many contemporary realistic fiction titles, teachers need to really know their students before they set this as a one-size-fits-all study. A student may well be in a Tess-Mum or Tess-Ned relationship already that requires professional intervention.
Beautiful Monster was one of 11 Australian books selected by the International Youth Library in Munich for the White Ravens 2011. This is their annual recommendation list of outstanding international books for children and young adults, presented at their stand at the Bologna Children's Book Fair. The books for this year's exhibition, 250 titles from more than 40 countries, were selected from the thousands of books that the library received as review copies from publishers, authors, illustrators, and organisations from all over the world within the last year.
It deserves it place.
Barbara Braxton

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