The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

This Heart Within Me Burns (review of Torn, by Cat Clarke)

Cat Clarke
Quercus 2011

When Alice King heads from London to the Scottish countryside for a school trip, her biggest concern is leaving her widowed father at home alone. When her group arrive in Scotland, though, things take a turn for the problematic when Alice, her best friend Cass, emo Rae and outsider Polly are roomed with uber mean queen, Tara Chambers. As the week progresses and Tara and her minions become increasingly cruel, Cass and Polly decide to take matters in to their own hands. When their plans go awry, Alice finds herself immersed in a situation of which the repercussions are immense and consequences desperately final… and so begins a classic, twisted tale about the line between what is right and what is easy and how even easy can be so very, very difficult.

Alice is an extremely relatable character who finds herself in a truly horrible situation. Her narrative voice is strong and her personality shines through even when she is at her most conflicted – perhaps then especially so. Her reaction to the situation she finds herself could easily be repulsing were she not written so carefully, but Alice is not a bad person.  In fact, Alice is a rather nice girl albeit one who has made some bad, bad decisions. Her saving grace is that these decisions taunt her relentlessly (some extremely literally) and watching her work through this torment and come to her final conclusion is mesmerising.

Her supporting cast are no less fascinating. While Cass clearly cares for Alice, she’s big on self-preservation and as readers learn more about Alice’s childhood friendships one wonders if Cass perhaps exploited situations to her advantage. Throughout the book it is hard to figure out whether Cass is a friend or a frenemy and that alone makes for edgy reading. Rae, of all the characters, is known least about and this is used to great effect as she fades into the background of Alice’s guilt when she is possibly the person who would most relate to Alice’s own confusion. Jack is believable both as a teenage boy and a loyal brother and Alice’s dad is another beautifully written character, portraying perfectly the father who so desperately wants to do right by his child. However, the stand-out character must be the chameleon-like Polly. Her metamorphosis over the course of Torn is at once fascinating and deeply disturbing adding a creeping horror to proceedings. Finally, there is Tara, lurking and smirking in the background, slowly emerging as a girl who may not have been all she seemed.

At first glance, the storyline of Torn – teenage prank gone wrong – may seem familiar, even hackneyed but to dismiss it as such would be a grave mistake. While other writers may have been tempted to use this premise as the basis for an angst ridden mystery, Cat Clarke rather deftly uses it as a basis for a fascinating study of guilt, grief and the constantly shifting currents of teenage hierarchy. However, Clarke doesn’t veer entirely away from mystery and thriller territory here and at times Torn is very frightening (not to mention quietly gruesome) - fans of Edgar Allan Poe would do well to take a look at this modern day riff on the themes he so often wrote on in an equally creepy fashion.

As with her debut, Entangled, Torn is not an entirely easy read and this is largely to do with Clarke’s ability to get inside the head of teenage girls. Clarke captures vividly the reality of teenage interaction – illustrating perfectly the ease at which the bullied become bullies and vice versa.  Her writing is captivating and extremely moving – the final scene between Alice and her father is sure to engender more than a few tears. Clarke is also mistress of the literary sucker-punch, her sparse yet haunting prose often deliverying a sly one-two, leaving readers gob-smacked. With Torn, Cat Clarke has cemented her place as an author to watch. This is the contemporary title that others in the UK (not to mention America) need to beat and I can honestly say that there are few titles that I have read that are as skilfully written.  Pick up a copy as soon as you can.

Torn is released in the UK on 22nd December and is available for pre-order at Amazon and The Book Depository now.  Thank you to Quercus for sending me this title to review.
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