“Here stands a girl clutching a knife. There is grease on the stove, blood in the air, and angry words piled in the corners. We are trained not to see it, not to see any of it. . . . Someone just ripped off my eyelids.”
― Laurie Halse Anderson, Wintergirls
This novel is marked as being targeted towards young adults and I can see why, since on the surface it mostly focuses on a teenage girl, having teenage problems, going to school, fighting with her separated parents, and worrying about her weight and her friendships. It is not, however, as easy as all that.
At the beginning of the novel, Lia’s best friend has just died. She has been found alone in a hotel room with pills and alcohol. It was not murder. Worst of all, Lia tells the reader that her friend had tried to call her before she died. She left messages asking for help. In fact, she had called 33 times in less than two days. Lia had never replied because she was angry with her friend.
And her friend had died.
This is the real premise of the novel – guilt. Lia feels guilty for betraying the only person who ever really understood her. More terribly, everyday, Lia struggles with her problem with food. Feeling worthless and wanting to starve herself to nothing, she values herself according to how little she weighs, not seeing any other good attributes about herself.
One could easily say this is also the fault of Lia’s parents. One is a high-profile doctor, always busy with her patients and work, while the other is a famous writer, giving interviews and going abroad for meetings. They have no time to notice Lia, who lives with her stepmother and her little stepsister. Both love her and worry about her, especially since she has already been locked up twice in medical institutions, but they are also wary of her. Her stepmother particularly seems to think at times, that she’s only doing everything to get attention and be in the limelight. She could not be more wrong. Lia does not want anyone to pay attention to her, she wants to thin out, vanish and disappear, especially after what happened to her friend.
Lia cannot eat. The novel is brilliant in this sense. We hear both Lia’s unconscious, in the form of crossed out words and semi-whispered sentences, and the way Lia tries to convince herself that she is not hungry, will not eat, and that food itself disgusts her. We see Lia cutting herself to feel better, forcing herself to feel pain, in order not to eat. She pretends to follow her nutritionists’ plans and is weighed by her stepmother each week, but she hides the fact that she is still not eating, and that she’s weighing the scales down with coins, in order to appear to weigh more than she does.
Lia also has another secret. She can see ghosts. She has been seeing ghosts ever since her grandmother died, and now that her best friend is gone too, she can see her following her, taunting her, telling her not to eat, in order for them to be together again.
As Lia spirals into depression, the reader not only totally relates, but also continues to keep track of her deterioration, as the weight falls off, and with her, we continue to count calories and food intake – which is the only way she can keep herself sane. We also empathise with her mother, who loves her and is driven away by Lia again and again.
This is not an easy book. It is not something one reads to relax. Though the language is flowing and, like a river, sweeps the reader away into another reality – Lia’s reality – it is a book with a difficult premise and a serious one. It shows the way we manipulate ourselves, our consciousness and our will, in order to come to terms with perceptions of life we cannot understand.
Although it’s marked as ‘young adult’, most adults will more than love reading this novel, especially those who, like me, have a preference for psychological issues and the secrets of the unconscious mind.