I haven’t yet read Good Oil, the author’s previous, award-winning book, but after reading Holier than Thou I’m definitely going in search. Now.
“Holly Yarkov has a boyfriend who is a gift from the universe. She has a job that fulfils her even as it wears her down. She has a core group of friends from high school. And she has a layer of steel around her heart that is beginning to tarnish. Just as she is reaching for a future she can’t quite see, Holly is borne back into the past by memories of her beloved father, and of the boy-who-might-have-been… ‘
It’s accurate as far as it goes, but it doesn’t really go into the depths of this engrossing book. Told in a series of ‘Then’ and ‘Now’ chapters, the book charts Holly’s progress from a fifteen year old girl with a terminally ill father to her current existence as a social worker with a seemingly happy life. On paper she looks fine, but inside she is beginning acknowledge that her carefully constructed defences against grief are crumbling. ’Steel corrodes’.
The book is full of remarkable characters. Holly, at the centre, is an uncertain blend of pragmatism and anger, sharing with the reader the final months of her father’s illness, with all the unpleasant details of soiled sheets and incoherent ramblings of a drugged mind that once was brilliant. Detached and lacking in overt self-pity, she tells her story in a way that still conveys an undercurrent of loss and anger, not only of her father, but also at her perceived ‘outsider’ status in the family after his death.
Other characters, such as Holly’s long suffering boyfriend Tim, and her social worker ‘friend’ Nick are complex beings in their own right, not just sidekicks in her central drama. Holly’s mother is neither ‘hero’ nor ‘villain’, her genuine distress at Holly’s misconception of their relationship is all-too-real.
But Holier than Thou is not an unrelentingly dark book – it is part of the author’s talent that she can produce moments of hilarity in Holly’s life, as a teenager and an adult, often via pithy and eloquent dialogue. Holly’s workplace and the often bizarre experiences and people to be found there are acutely described with a whiff of total authenticity – it’s no surprise to learn that the author has herself worked in the ‘system’, so to speak.
Some of the writing is inspired – who, for instance, could stop reading a chapter where the opening line reads: ‘It was, of course, horrifying that the old lady got tasered.’ The miseries of a system stretched to breaking point and swathed in black humour will make the reader laugh and cry at the same moment.
The book is for upper YA readers, and will very likely be eagerly adopted by the crossover market. Holly is 23 and the style in which the book is written reflects that – it’s smooth and fluent and the author doesn’t pull punches when describing Holly’s various relationships and the sometimes unfair power plays between characters. There’s also a modicum of drug usage.
Younger readers will buy into Holly’s teenage struggles; older readers will empathise with these people as they head towards the increasingly complicated hurdles of adulthood. And readers of all ages will appreciate the quality of the writing.
Holier than Thou will be published in May 2012.