Author: Louise Gornall
Publisher: Chicken House Books
Publication date: 7 July 2016
Series or standalone?: Standalone
Source: I was kindly sent a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
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Every day Norah wakes up in a quiet house on a quiet street, and every day she prepares for battle with the combined forces of agoraphobia and OCD. Years of struggling with illnesses that seem much stronger than she is have left her weary and increasingly resigned to the confines of a life where the sky is a glimpse through a window and the world is always out of reach.
When groceries are left out on her porch, Norah can’t step out to get them. Struggling to snag the bags with a stick, she meets Luke. The sweet, funny boy next door just caught her fishing for groceries, because of course he did. And just like that: Norah has a crush. But love can be tricky even when your life can fit the rose-tinted lenses of a Hollywood romance – and what about when it can’t?
The set-up of Under Rose-Tainted Skies may be simple – it tells the story of a girl, a boy, and the agoraphobia which throws a bit of a spanner in the works when it comes to conventional romance – but it’s also nuanced. Short, serious and just sweet enough to temper its heavy subject matter, Under Rose-Tainted Skies will undoubtedly please readers calling for more young adult fiction which tackles teen mental health head-on.
Stepping back to look at the story as whole, you’ll also find (in no particular order): red lipstick, passed notes, inconvenient birds, fumbled French, bad movies, and one unusual protagonist. Whatever kind of narrator you were expecting for Under Rose-Tainted Skies, Norah probably isn’t it. Frank, fearful, foul-mouthed and morbid, she won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but she’ll have readers rooting for her faster than they expect. Blunt, arresting and distinctive, Norah’s voice is not confined.
The romance between Norah and Luke, in contrast, is quite sweet. There’s a lightness to it which lifts the prose long enough to keep you reading, but it doesn’t go unblemished by the seriousness of Norah’s situation. Luke is kind, funny, and while he makes mistakes, he cares about her – though I definitely felt like there was a touch of that scene in the new Wonder Woman where a curious and wide-eyed Gal Gadot sees Chris Pine on the beach and is like, “This is the first man I have ever seen, yes, good, I like him, I shall not kick his ass today, I will keep him” to the way the Norah falls in love with essentially the first teenage boy she claps eyes on.
(Sidenote: I am more excited for the Wonder Woman movie than is probably warranted, that line in the trailer “what I do is not up to you” I NEARLY FELL OVER it’s amazing)
But then maybe Norah is as strong as Wonder Woman, too: Norah, after all, has the persistent ability to contend with a brain which often works against her. There’s exploration of a teenage relationship in which serious issues and boundaries have to be dealt with early on, and while it’s tame in terms of content, that’s sort of the point. Under Rose-Tainted Skies strives to show a relationship in which two teenagers care about each other while scaling back the usual step-by-step of contemporary romance to fit its heroine’s needs. It’s a book that makes you cheer when they get to hold hands – for Luke and Norah, it’s a real triumph.
And in a move that will delight many with an interest in mental health-focused teen fiction, this book states pretty emphatically that love does not cure mental illness. Luke is Norah’s light in the dark, but he’s not a knight in shining armour, swooping in to show that mental illness can be fixed with a bit of starcrossed love or the quirk of an expressive, sculpted eyebrow.
The story may even have benefited for a little more of Luke, as it’s cast is more short film than blockbuster-sized. Norah and her mother are close and she has a positive relationship with her therapist which just about counterbalances what can come across as the book’s harsh judgement of other female characters. The writing style still needs work, as it relies on uninspired plot contrivances, the ending is rushed and poorly explored, and in a not-uncommon occurrence for a début, the plot is as simplistic as its structure. It lacks the warmth of polished, get-stuck-into-it contemporaries like Huntley Fitzpatrick’s My Life Next Door or Holly Bourne’s How Hard Can Love Be? It’s set in America though there’s no particular reason for it to be. It requires a trigger warning (self-harm) and it’s not always the most enjoyable of reads given its heavy theme.
Of course, it’s no secret that the best thing in, and perhaps the point of, this book is its raw, honest approach to mental health. It’s the reason it’s being recommended, the reason it’s being read. Much of what can be said about Under Rose-Tainted Skies’ approach to mental health has already been said, but it’s still worth mentioning. Norah’s distinctive voice and validated perspective aside, it notes her worries about medication and therapy and how an emotionally healthy support system – without caveats, without take-backs, without impatience disguised by tolerance – can be invaluable. There’s an unexpected physicality to the prose, specifically in the case of its emphasis on Norah’s awareness of her body and of how what many would assume is a purely psychological experience is in fact a highly physical one. Descriptions of place and colour may be a little lacklustre, but more internal descriptions, like those in which Norah relates what her agoraphobia kicking in does to her legs or limbs or brain, are visceral and incredibly specific. Descriptions of her body’s reactions to fear are more suggestive of a relentless mind-body rugby match than anything else. It’s not perfect, but it’s stark, unflinching stuff.
A sensitive and defiant portrayal of a teenage girl’s complex relationship with the world, her brain and the boy who makes her wonder if she’ll ever be able to navigate both.