Saturday, November 30, 2013

Book Review: Miss World by Randi Black

It's 1993. Kimmy Ho's never really been happy (and thinks her life sucks). She's not really good at anything - or at least, that's what her mother says. But music makes her feel better, and gives her something to live for. 

Then, she gets raped on the day Kurt Cobain's found dead. And her life begins to suck even more. 

From his death comes her cross-dressing imaginary friend Joey, and her budding romance with Walter, the skinny kid from special-ed. Walter shows her love and the ability to feel pleasure again, but even he can't make everything better. Not when he also awakens a lust for violence and revenge that she never knew she had inside her.

Miss World was a book I wanted to read even before it was released—I was a child and teen of the 90s, and I really liked the idea of an honest, raw look at that time period through a teen girl’s eyes.  In fact, I think this may have been the first “indie” book I was really interested in.  However, I want to read EVERYTHING, and I’m a slow reader, and…it took me three years and a little push to finally read Miss World.  And of course now I’m kicking myself for not getting to it sooner, since it was even better than I expected.  A truly meaningful, emotional, sincere look at adolescence, Miss World was an incredibly refreshing read for me right now, in a year that seems filled with trend-based books.

I knew before going in that the main character in Miss World, sixteen-year-old (when the book starts) Kim Ho, is a victim of rape and that the book is raw and unflinching in its portrayal of the subject.  Still, I was extremely impressed by how the rape scene(s) (I’d argue that there are two, although the first is almost completely glossed over when it first happens) and their aftermath are dealt with.  While the rape itself is disturbing and painful to read, it’s told in an almost matter-of-fact way, with an emotional distance that illustrates Kim’s disassociation from the experience.  Then as the book goes on, we get hints of flashbacks and memories that somehow seem more intense than the rape itself.  I found this to be such an insightful illustration of the way trauma can affect you—during the initial event, your mind sort of shuts down and doesn’t take in the full extent of what’s happening, which allows you to survive it.  But then in retrospect, the experience builds and builds in your mind till it can become all-consuming, which is what can make a trauma so difficult to get over. 

I was expecting Miss World to be raw, so I was pleasantly surprised to find the book also contained one of the sweetest—although also imperfect and realistic—teen romances I’ve read.  Walter, the special-ed kid who’s nursed a longtime crush on Kim, is such a real teenage boy, and his character constantly surprised me as I learned more about him.  It was great to see Kim with someone who truly cared for and respected her, when she needed that so badly in her life.  However, Walter also has his own problems, which gradually drive a greater and greater wedge between them.  I see Kim and Walter as a couple who have a true connection, who might be perfect for each other, but who met at a time when both had their own issues to work out.  The ending is open—appropriate for a realistic coming-of-age novel—and hopeful about Kim’s ability to recover her self after what’s happened to her, whether or not she stays with Walter.

As for the 90s influence—it’s everywhere in the novel, and I loved it.  While I’d never want to be a teenager again, I’m glad I was one during the 90s.  I feel like that’s the last decade when pop culture wasn’t completely airbrushed, and despite the whole “slacker” thing, there was a genuine search for emotion and meaning and engagement with the world.  Miss World brought me back to that era in so many ways.  The imagery and the rhythm of the writing evoked grunge and punk music.  Kim’s strained relationship with her traditional Asian parents reminded me a bit of Margaret Cho’s 90s TV show, All-American Girl.  [Note: I haven’t watched that show since I was a teen myself, so I’m not sure if it was any good or if it really paralleled Miss World!]  All that was missing from Miss World were a few My So-Called Life references…but oh well, I guess you can’t have everything.

Miss World was only available in paperback for a while, but it looks like it's back on kindle, so you can grab a copy for only 2.99 here.  If you'd told me back in 1993 that 20 years later we'd be paying 3 bucks or less for our books, and 5 bucks or more for our coffee drinks...  It's a crazy world!

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