When I was a real girl my best friend was called Cassandra…
Novels about eating disorders always disconcert me, as they are so hard to get right. It is vital that the disease is portrayed sensitively, in order that the book offers the opportunity to understand what can seem an incomprehensible state of mind. Yet it is also important that the book does not act as a trigger to existing or potential sufferers, validating their behaviour or reopening old trap doors in the mind. This could mean that although the writing is responsible, it is not as ‘real’ or authentic as it could be. However, given that incidents of eating disorders are on the rise, both understanding and responsibility are vital when reading texts about eating disorders for young adults. Wintergirls (Scholastic) provides a vivid and sensitive portrayal of a recovering anorexic’s relapse and eventual ‘awakening’ into a healthy life, tracking the damage she causes to those around her on the way.
Lia is not always a likable character. A ‘typical’ selfish teenager anyway, the selfish nature of her affliction cannot be hidden, and it is grating to read of her treatment of her step-sister and parents. She shuts her mother out of her life, lies to her step-mother, and at one point succeeds in giving her little step-sister nightmares. Through her the disease is not glamorised, she becomes a pathetic, pitiable creature the reader longs to slap. Or at least hurry up and realise what she is doing to both herself and her family. What I found the most convincing aspect of the novel was the depiction of depression. The metaphor Lia uses to describe anorexia sufferers poetically illustrates the disease: it locks the sufferers outside of society, into the cold. They become wintergirls: numb and trapped in a state of suspended animation as their bodies no longer grow and their future is postponed. What this metaphor suggests about mental health and depression is vivid and illustrative, striking a particular chord with me. The theme of isolation is repeated throughout the novel, as Lia describes herself as living on ‘the borderlands’, her memories are ‘ghosts’ and she is in ‘the dark’.
Difficult to read at times, and yet I was unable to stop, Wintergirls became compulsive and I read it in only one sitting. Part of me was annoyed that Lia was such an aggravating character, but this is clearly part of the depiction of the disease. As I reader I wanted to wholly sympathise with her, and yet this was tempered by my frustration with her attitude towards those around her. It is also fair to mention that there is a mystery involved to hold the reader’s attention – which it does – but anorexia dominates the book as it does the lives of sufferers and their families. There is compulsive calorie counting, suppressed urges and hallucinations. Beautifully and lyrically written, Halse Anderson takes the reader with her to ‘the borderlands’, as the poetic nature of the prose adds to this sense of isolation from reality and everyone else.
Engrossing and powerful, Wintergirls is definitely worth a read. Its depiction of the thought processes of an anorexic is extremely convincing, and helps illuminate the ‘logic’ behind a disease generally misunderstood. But it is a story about anorexia first, and a story second. The disease sets the pace, the tone, the mystery, the action. Everything about the book is surrendered to anorexia. Which, I suppose, is kind of the point.