Friday, December 21, 2012

(you) set me on fire by Mariko Tamaki

"Allison Lee is seventeen and off to college in the fall. So far, she's been in love once (total catastrophe) and on fire twice (also pretty bad). Both love and fire have left their scars."
Cover copy for (you) set me on fire. 

Q: Why do you write strong female characters?
A:  Because you're still asking me that question.
Joss Whedon, quoted on Mariko Tamaki's Website. 

Mariko Tamaki is a Toronto writer who is most well-known for her graphic novel Skim, illustrated by her equally talented cousin Jillian Tamaki.  Skim was on many best-of-the-year lists when it was published, including the shortlist for the 2008 Governor General's Literary Award.  Tamaki is also the author of the Minx graphic novel Emiko Superstar and several indie-type books for adults.  Her personal, character-driven writing is woman-centric (Skim takes place in a Catholic girls' school) and definitely takes an outsider stance.   Her characters are not always immediately sympathetic;  she's a writer who will take some risks.  

(you) set me on fire is about Allison, a young woman in first-year university who wants to reinvent herself after not particularly fitting in during high school, and having her heart broken by her only-quasi-lesbian best friend.  Allison's dorm is filled with perky, friendly, mainstream-type girls, but she is irresistibly drawn to the Dark Side, in this case represented by a flamboyant, angry goth named Shar.  Shar is a real Bad Girl, but unfortunately she's not hiding a heart of gold.  She's destructive and dangerous.  At one point I was really afraid for Allison's life.  It's actually kind of unusual for teen fiction to be set in a university, but I thought the setting made emotional sense--it's when your family is no longer around that the possibility of becoming unmoored is the greatest. 

The best things about this book are the voice and dialogue.  Mariko Tamaki studied linguistics for three years, and obviously pays careful attention to the way people speak.  The writing here is deceptively simple--sentences are short and conversational, but the more I read, the more I felt that Tamaki chose each and every word extremely carefully.  Another thing that Tamaki does really well  is give secondary characters dimension.  Allison's dorm-mates start out as silly stereotypes, but become surprisingly more. Tamaki's background in theater shows in her pacing and characterization. She's good at small, uncomfortably illuminating scenes.     

I found the character of Allison really challenging.  There's a passivity about her that makes her a frustrating protagonist.  She gives so much of  her power over to Shar, who keeps her off balance emotionally, pulling Allison close (even sleeping with her) and then pushing her away.  Shar also sabotages Allison scholastically and isolates her from others who might want to be her friends.  Allison bumbles around a lot--missing classes, getting drunk, getting called in to the Dean's office to explain her academic floundering--and becomes increasingly unhappy without really naming the reason to herself.   Shar, on the other hand, is so decisive and controlling that it seems to everyone--Allison included--that she's the stronger of the two.  Allison's not a traditional unreliable narrator though--she's very observant and she does slowly see the machinations of her new friend.  That's what's frustrating--even when she's figuring it out and others are reaching out to her, she's slow to separate herself.  She won't let go until it's almost too late.   To me, the end of their relationship felt like a wound as well as a release.  There was a definite ripping-apart quality to it.  

 Here's an interview with Tamaki in Xtra! magazine, and another one on CBC Books.

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