Sunday, April 03, 2011

Powerful Currents

The most compelling stories are the ones that pull us beneath the surface, draw readers into a powerful emotional current, offer a clear-sighted view into the deepest recesses of a character’s heart.

That’s the kind of first novel that Jo Knowles has written, exploring the ever-shifting boundary lines of friendship, sexuality, and identity with the precision and self-assuredness of a master novelist.

A dark, complex, emotional journey following in the tradition of work by Cormier, Lipsyte, and Coman, Knowles' Lessons from a Dead Girl is about friendship gone awry and how two troubled girls struggle, each in her own way, to find their own destiny.

Laine is pulled into a relationship with Leah, another girl her age, and their “friendship” tests Laine’s sense of self in ways that force her to question her identity–who is she, really?–and her own sexuality–is she gay or straight?–as well as whether Leah is truly the friend that she claims to be or a manipulative, spiteful girl too hurt by her own demons to know how much she’s hurting Laine.

Knowles’ eye is unfaltering as she probes each character’s heart, as in this passage:
Last year, someone left a note on my desk that said, Are you a boy or a girl? I put it in my pocket and waited to reread it when I got home. Alone in my room, I carefully unfolded the note, trying to touch it as little as possible. It was written in messy pencil on yellow lined paper. I stared at the words and cried.
And this:
“Thanks,” I say. I try to imagine Leah being caught in a lie, but I just can’t do it. Leah is the best liar ever. She told me once it was OK to lie as long as you asked God to forgive you right away afterward. Sometimes I thought I knew when she was lying because she’d pause for a minute and I thought maybe she was saying a quick, silent prayer.
And this:
“Oh, Laine. Come on. You don’t have to be afraid of me anymore.”
“I’m not afraid of you,” I lie. “I just think I should get back.”
And I don’t want to play your games.
“I think you’re afraid.”
“Why do you always do this?” I ask. I don’t know why I bother. I should just step off the gazebo and disappear.
“Do what?” she asks innocently.
“Act this way. Like you’re playing some game. Like you’re out to get me.” I pause as the familiar fear courses through me. My heart pounds so hard in my chest it hurts. But instead of running away, I take a deep breath. “Why do you hate me so much, Leah?”
The plot, part flashback, part circle, provides the reader with a kind of emotional security, even as that security is adroitly undermined each time Leah and Laine meet on the page and the powerful emotions between them pull the reader into the downward spiral of their relationship.

There are tragic consequences to friendships based on falsehood, as Laine discovers, but she learns, too, that friendship based on trust and mutual respect can sometimes lead to a deeper understanding of yourself and your life.

For more information about Knowles and her work, visit her website:

And to read a wordswimmer interview with Knowles, check out:

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