Monday, 11 April 2011

Review - Losing It, edited by Keith Gray

Summary; An anthology of short stories dealing with teenagers losing their virginity, finding their sexuality and figuring out the consequences and taboos that come with it.

Will you? Won't you? Should you? Shouldn't you? Have you...? A gift? Or a burden?

Virginity and sexuality is a touchy topic in modern YA. In a genre ruled by no-sex-before-marriage propagandists like Stephenie Meyer and shameless slut-shamers such as Becca Fitzpatrick, it can become a dangerously taboo subject with little good literature dealing with teenage sex currently being published. However, the blurb of Losing It calls itself "Everything you wanted to know about virginity but your parents were too embarrassed to tell you." It's not lying.

Complete with some of the most intelligent writers in YA today, such as Anne Fine and Melvin Burgess (both of whom have some of the most stellar reputations in the entire genre), Patrick Ness (author of Chaos Walking Trilogy, and one of my favorite writers), Sophie McKenzie (author of Girl, Missing, one of my sister's favorite books) and Bali Rai (author of The Last Taboo, and deals heavily with racism and interracial culture), the anthology came with high expectations, and I am really, really pleased to say that it did not disappoint. It is the sort of YA that should be dominating bookshelves, the sort that should send moral guardians into a panic, make Daily Mail readers campaign to ban it from libraries and send Stephenie Meyer and Becca Fitzpatrick slinking back to their holes in shame.

Patrick Ness's Different For Boys, a novella on boys coming to terms with homosexuality and trying to figure out what virginity even means, is the most memorable, introducing a concept of blacking-out all swear-words - and considering this is about teenage lads obsessed with manhood, whole paragraphs are sometimes blacked-out (in hindsight, it's not surprising, coming from Ness. His Chaos Walking series has recurrent themes of censorship). A character even leans on the fourth-wall and comments, "Certain words are necessary because this is real life, but you can't actually show 'em because we're too young to read about the stuff we actually do." I'm guessing this is going to resonate with a lot of teenagers that feel patronized or misrepresented.

Despite Different For Boys being the most striking (and arguably, the most shocking, along with The White Towel), it's not the only standout in the book; Anne Fine's Finding It is a touching story of a world-weary teacher having to teach the school's dreaded Sex Ed class, and finds herself reflecting on her first time, her later love, and her wonders on what lies in store for her students in their future. If you've had a bad first time, are worried that sex isn't all it's cracked up to be, or are just worried about the future of sex and relationships, well, this story might not put to bed those worries, but it may lessen them somewhat. It did with me.

By far the funniest in the anthology is The Age Of Consent, where a grandmother openly discusses her first time to her shocked family. The parents of the teenagers present are appalled, but the experience gives a valuable lesson to the sixteen-year-old granddaughter. This humorous piece subtly highlights a serious topic; adults need to be able to discuss sex with their children. (Without her crazy grandmother's advice, this girl could well have regretted her first time). Other stories in the series tell slightly more familiar tales; Scoring, written by the anthology's editor (whose other work I have not read but am now pretty tempted to get hold of), discusses the pressure of sex on teenage boys, contradicting advice coming from his coach, football team, other friends and girlfriend, and The Way It Is is another story about not giving in to pressure about sex. Despite the not uncommon premises, the writers to inject the storylines with refreshing, unsure, likable characters, and do incite the readers to care about them and their predicaments.

And adding a bitter tinge to the often funny stories about finding sex, love and yourself, come such heavier offerings as The White Towel and Charlotte; the former dealing with the taboo and dire consequences that a girl faces in a traditional Indian community when it is rumored she is not a virgin on her wedding night, the latter following a destitute Victorian girl as she is forced into prostitution to provide for her family. Discovering the darker side of what losing virginity can mean to some people adds a more sombre tone to the book; sex can have undeserved and unexpected consequences for some people, and needs to be treated with respect.

In all, the anthology is highly recommended; when we come of age, we worry heavily about virginity, sexuality, and whether it's even okay to be thinking these thoughts. We need books like this in our culture, letting us know it's okay to be nervous or curious, virgin or promiscuous, straight or gay, or whatever the hell we want to be, rather than the multitude of novels ingrained into pop culture and aimed at young adults (Twilight being the most iconic offender), dictating that teenagers must be in straight, attractive, chaste, so-unremarkable-it's-remarkable romances. I love this book.

5/5. Definitely.

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