Thursday, 10 May 2012

Heart-Shaped Bruise, by Tanya Byrne


by Tanya Byrne (Headline, 2012)

Heart-Shaped Bruise has already received plenty of rave reviews across the blogosphere, so I had pretty high expectations when I started reading.  With so much talk about how it was addictive and nigh on impossible to put down, perhaps my expectations were too high - but I just didn't fall for it in quite the same breathless way.  I think some of my highest hopes stemmed from the frequent comparisons to Girl, Interrupted and Heathers, two of my favourite films of all time.  In actual fact, a couple of characters and a few little moments are a bit TOO similar to Girl, Interrupted, which I found offputting, and the book didn't have the same level of black humour that made both movies so appealing.

Comparisons aside, what is the book actually about?  It takes the form of a notebook, found in the now-defunct psychiatric ward of a young offender's institution.  Inside it is the journal-style testimony of Emily Koll, an eighteen year-old girl in psychotherapy there.  We don't know what she did, or how she did it, but we know that it must have been something terrible - and that it involved revenge against a girl called Juliet, who was instrumental in the exposure of Emily's father as a London gangster.  Beyond this the entire book becomes a jigsaw, as the reader tries to put together the pieces and work out how Emily arrived at this deeply unhappy point in her life.  The 'journal' details Emily's sessions with her therapist, Dr Gilyard, as well as offering her own take on her past and anecdotes about daily life on the ward.  The title themes of bruising and the heart run throughout the book: the importance of family, the pain of teenage love, the horror of betrayal and the sheer intensity of youthful emotions.    

There were definitely things that worked in the novel, but there were other aspects that just didn't hit the spot for me.  Some of the teens' exploits were fun to read, but very idealistic and a bit clichéd - going to all the coolest gigs, wanting to take time out in Paris and busk on street corners, sitting on the floor in the poetry section of the local bookshop drinking green tea...  It was all a little too perfect, particularly given the dark premise.  The plot wasn't as complex as I had expected, and I found the obvious nods to Girl, Interrupted quite distracting at times (I expected humour and insight that didn't appear, and somewhere in the back of my mind I continually thought of Emily's fellow inmate Naomi as 'Lisa').  The whole thing just felt a little self-conscious, like I was hearing Tanya Byrne rather than Emily Koll, and it lacked a certain spark that could have really brought it to life. 

On the other hand, there's also a lot of good in the book. I found the first thirty pages or so quite dull and confusing, but the further I got into the novel, the more intriguing it became.  The layers of Emily's history - and of her character - started to build up, and I found myself liking her more and more.  I found her motives completely plausible and she was a wonderfully complex and feisty, albeit damaged, character behind the brassy wall she'd erected to protect herself.  It was quite thought-provoking, watching Emily's 'evil' persona - the persona she feared the world would always remember - being gradually created by the media, and seeing the person underneath being swallowed by her own myth.  I'd just about figured out Emily's big crime by the end, but when it came it was still swift and shocking.  There was no neat conclusion, which left the way clear for me to think through the different possibilities for myself and wonder how everything worked out in the end.  My verdict?  Well, it's a promising debut novel that will probably benefit from walking the fine line between the YA and adult markets, and it definitely got more and more compelling as the pages went by - but to my disappointment, in the end it just didn't live up to the hype...

About the author:

Tanya Byrne was born in London and studied in Surrey, where she still lives with her cat who goes by several names, none of which he actually answers to.  After eight years working for BBC Radio 1 and BBC Radio 4, she left to write her debut novel.  She started the novel at a Writer's Retreat in the South of France.  She has a weakness for boys with guitars (me too!), drinks far too much tea (ME TOO!) and even though her mother tells her not to, she always talks to strangers.  You can find out more by following Tanya on Twitter at @tanyabyrne or by visiting her blog

Notable Quotables:
  • "That's all normal is, you know, a habit I have to relearn.  Crazy is a habit I have to break."
  • "I don't know if that's ever happened to you, if you've loved someone, loved who they are, then found out they're not that person after all.  It doesn't just break your heart, does it?  It breaks you.  Then you're not who you thought you were, either."
  • "It happened so quietly, her and Sid.  It wasn't one of those stories they'd tell their children.  There was no rain, no chance encounter.  Sid didn't pull her out of the way before she stumbled into the path of a bus.  But I felt the classroom hum with it.  The floor shivered.  Pens rolled off desks.  Books fluttered off shelves like broken birds."
  • "I wasn't as pretty as the girls at St Jude's, as rich, as thin, as clever.  They had boyfriends and were on the hockey team and had short stories published but still managed to get straight As while I struggled to read all the books on my reading lists.  But Rose didn't need to pass any exams.  She didn't need a boyfriend or a place at university.  It was strangely liberating, not having to try to be someone."
  • "'They say home isn't where you live,' I said, 'but where you're understood.'"
  • "You know how, sometimes, something can hurt so bad that after a while it starts to feel kind of nice?  Like pressing a bruise with your finger.  This was the opposite; this felt so good it hurt.  It hurt so much I thought I was dying."
  • "I need you to pass on a message to my father.  His name is Harry Koll.  Do you know him?... Of course you do!  Everyone knows Dad.  There's the Devil, then Hitler and Dad's somewhere between cancer and famine."
  • "He looked at her sometimes like he didn't know how to stop.  Walls fell, the ceiling peeled off, furniture blew away like dead leaves until all that was left was her, and he'd look at her like she was the only thing he could see for miles."

Source: Many thanks to the lovely folks at Headline, who sent me a copy of this book in return for an honest review.


  1. So weird you reviewed this! The author is a good friend of a friend! Hopefully going to get a copy soon! Great review :D

    1. Thank you! I think there'll be a fair few reviews around - Headline's been promoting the heck out of this one. In fact, I felt quite bad that mine seems to be one of the few less ecstatic reviews out there so far... Oh well, can't win 'em all I guess!

  2. Turns out it's already on my wishlist... WHEN DID YOU APPEAR THERE? I don't remember!


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