Tuesday, 21 September 2010

REVIEW: Forbidden, by Tabitha Suzuma (4*)

(Definitions, 2010)

Wow. It's hard to know where to begin with this review - or even whether to review it at all. It's always hard when it comes to books like this because the hardest to review are so often the ones that deserve it most, so bear with me and I'll do my best!

To begin with, let me say that although this is published by Definitions as a young adult novel, I wouldn't recommend it for teenagers younger than 15 or 16 due to the extreme nature of the themes. Because yes, this is a story about the romance between a brother and sister. Don't stop reading! Because it's also so much more than that...

Lochan is seventeen. He suffers from crippling social anxiety at school, and comes home every afternoon ready to take care of his three youngest siblings: wild rebel Kit, 13, mischievous young Tiffin, and sweet Willa, 5. His mother is a neglectful, alcoholic mess who barely bothers to come home any more, and his father moved to Australia with his new wife years ago. His only ray of sunshine in this darkness is his sixteen year-old sister Maya. The two have never really been like brother and sister; they are best friends and, to all extents and purposes, parents to the three children. So when they share an unexpected kiss one night, it's like the final piece of their existence has fallen into place.

The first third of the book is mostly about the family, and the way Lochan and Maya are hanging on by a thread. They have to keep up with their school work as well as cooking, cleaning, shopping, playing, supervising homework and bedtimes, and covering for their absent mother so that Social Services won't split them up and place them in care. With Kit now old enough to rebel against his brother's authority, the situation is reaching breaking point and the tension is tangible.

Once the kiss happens and changes their lives forever, this tension is only compounded by the added nightmare of falling in love with the wrong person. As their love grows deeper, the sense of dread grows ever more pervasive as they try to balance their feelings against the needs of their family and their gradual realisation of how much trouble they would face if they were ever caught. With this comes an even greater despair as they wonder how they will ever be together. Seriously, Romeo and Juliet had nothing on these two.

By alternating between Lochan and Maya's first-person, present-tense narrative, Suzuma gives a real sense of immediacy and urgency, deftly exploring the thought processes and passionate feelings that each is struggling to bear, and placing the reader squarely in the middle of this whirling dervish of emotion. You know that something has to give, that this can never end well, and yet you ache with every fibre of your being for life to finally cut these two young people a break and allow them to live happily ever after. Of course, the sick feeling in the pit of your stomach tells you that it just can't happen that way.
I closed the book with tears rolling down my face, feeling like I needed a nap - or at least, a stiff drink. This is a real rollercoaster of a read, and so skilfully written that I felt every bump along the way. Every blissful moment, every small triumph, every second of panic, every long hour of frustration and despair and exhaustion, is so beautifully evoked that I found I couldn't read the book for too long at a time without stopping and removing myself from it for a while, giving myself a break from all that turmoil!

I could go on - about the internal morality battle for both the characters and the reader, about the questions it raises about the legal implications of consensual incest (though it never feels like what happens in the novel should be labelled so harshly), about the harrowing depiction of teenagers having to step up and take responsibility for a whole family - but I won't. I'll just say that this is a complex novel about two deeply sympathetic characters in a difficult situation, which will provoke a lot of thought and reflection, skew your world perception a little, and stir up every emotion you can imagine until you tumble out the other end, exhausted. Open your mind, take a deep breath - and read it.

  • "You can close your eyes to the things you do not want to see, but you cannot close your heart to the things you do not want to feel." - Anon. (opening quote)
Source: I bought this book from Amazon UK.