Full disclosure time: in 2016, this book was shortlisted for the Text Prize for Unpublished Children’s and Young Adult Writing along with a book I’d written and three by other writers. Clearly, my book and those three others didn’t win and this one did. I was always going to read Beautiful Mess because 1) it won a writing prize and that’s a pretty great endorsement, 2) I wanted to know what Claire Christian had done better than me and use it as a learning process, and 3) I’m a little masochistic (but mostly the first two). I’m very pleased to report that it’s an amazing book because 1) it justifies that it won the Text Prize and 2) I get to write a glowing book review and avoid looking like a sore loser.
Ava is going through a tough time. Her best friend, Kelly, has recently died after a long struggle with depression and Ava’s coping mechanisms – like sleeping with Kelly’s older brother and telling an assembly of her entire school to get fucked – aren’t really helping.
Gideon is going through a tough time, too. He goes to Ava’s school and he knows her and what happened to Kelly but they haven’t crossed paths. She’s popular and beautiful and he’s introverted and poetic – literally; he writes poetry – and he’s a recovering self-harmer after being bullied out of his former school.
They meet when Gideon’s therapist gets him a job working at Magic Kebab where Ava works, too. She doesn’t think about him much until the night he uses his knowledge of poetry to beatbox with a group of African teens and blows her away. She tells him he should ask her for her number but he tells her he doesn’t have a phone. Or use the internet. (Because of the aforementioned bullying.) So instead they start writing each other letters. (It’s hilarious when Ava realises she doesn’t know how to post a letter.)
Nothing huge happens in the book because all of the huge things have already happened and it’s about what happens afterwards, the long, horrible seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks and months of coping after awful things have happened. It’s all gritty realism, nothing escapist about it at all. It deals with so many difficult topics – death, sex, depression, self-harm, bullying, expulsion from school, identity – using complex, interesting, imperfect characters with a really important message for teenagers and for all of us really: it’s okay not to be okay.
I read some reviews that didn’t like the ending, I suspect because it wasn’t Hollywood happy ever after, but how could it be Hollywood happy ever after when your best friend’s still dead at the end of the book and your arms and legs are still scarred from your self-harming as permanent reminders? It’s not neatly wrapped up because it’s not meant to be an end, it’s meant to be a beginning to the rest of the characters’ lives. But it’s also not meant to be a jumping off point for a sequel, at least I hope it’s not. There’s nothing worse than trying to force another story out of a set of characters that have already told you everything you need to know about them.
Beautiful Mess reminded me a great deal of Will Grayson, Will Grayson but better and Claire Christian’s writing and insights into young people reminded me a lot of John Green, the same kind of insights into teenagers that he has but with a lovely and obvious Australian flavour that should still translate into other countries and cultures.
It’s very close to being a 5 star book and my true rating is more like 4.5 stars but there was a moment when Gideon punched another boy in a fit of jealousy and a misplaced sense of needing to protect Ava and instead of being ashamed of his actions, he was a little proud. I know it’s realistic but it seemed out of character and in an environment of court cases dealing with one-punch killings (quite prevalent in Australia), it was jarring, almost like he reached out of the book and punched me.
But apart from this moment, some editing errors and the short time it took me to get used to Claire Christian’s way of writing how the teenagers speak (a bit stop-start), it’s nearly a perfect book. I can’t wait to see what she does next.
*First published on Goodreads 28 October 2017