Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Review: Missing Ellen by Natasha Mac a'Bhaird

Isn't it funny how much baggage we bring to a name? Even our own name? Growing up, the only Ellen I read about was in Enid Blyton's Malory Towers series. That Ellen resorted to cheating to keep her scholarship and had a permanent frown-line. This cemented my picture of Ellens in my head - dark, bookish, overworked, uninteresting. I was called Ellen before it was cool. Hipster face.

I was quite surprised, for no reason than because of my own associations with the name, to see Natasha Mac a'Bhaird turn my preconceptions upside down. In her novel, Missing Ellen, the title character is a rebellious beauty with flame-red hair, who likes short skirts, guys in bands, guys near bands, drinking, sneaking out of school and her best friend Maggie, the narrator.

The story is ostensibly Ellen's, but it's also Maggie's. The book opens with a letter, written from Maggie to Ellen. She tells her friend about school, how she misses her, how she has concealed the letter in a notebook she hopes her mother won't find. Then Maggie begins to tell the story of how Ellen came to be missing.

The narrative cuts back and forth between Maggie's letters to Ellen, written after the climactic events of the novel have taken place and dealing with Maggie's life post-friendship-with-Ellen, and the story leading up to the climax. It is skilfully done - each section is in a distinct voice, although both Maggie, and both first-person. Maggie speaks differently when she is addressing Ellen directly in her letters, which comes across as authentic and real.

Maggie is not a firecracker like Ellen - she's more staid, calmer, loves sewing, is less rebellious and more of a worrier. I was that kind of teen myself and I have never, ever known how to write an anxious teen whose scared of booze/parties/older guys with beat-up cars/drugs/going outdoors without making them dull. Mac a'Bhaird manages it well, and handles the friendship between the girls realistically, especially how Maggie handles her knowledge of Ellen's disintegrating home life, and how she is torn on how to express her loyalty - by hiding Ellen's secrets or revealing them.

I was initially drawn to this book for the obvious reason that the title contained my name, and when I learned more, I was keen to read it as my current drug of choice is hard-hitting realistic YA, especially in an Irish setting. Although this book handles big things, I wouldn't call it hard-hitting - I've read books about less emotive topics that have affected me more - but it also doesn't cushion or shy away from the very real feelings Maggie endures as she copes with missing her friend.

In the interests of full disclosure, I won my copy of Missing Ellen on Twitter in a contest run by O'Brien Press (Mac a'Bhaird's publisher) - it was a draw, and the copy was not given in expectation of a review. I just got lucky! 

4 comments:

  1. An outstanding review! Thank you for pointing the book out, Ellen!

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  2. Nice. I like books that involve letters. So mysterious.

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    1. I do too! They can reveal and conceal so much, and I always feel like I'm peeking in someone's diary :)

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