A SMALL MADNESS
Author: Dianne Touchell
Allen & Unwin RRP $16.99
Review: Monique Mulligan
Brilliant. That’s my one-word review of Dianne Touchell’s second young adult novel, A Small Madness. I’ve been waiting for this book ever since I read and reviewed her debut novel, Creepy and Maud. That book, with its “evocative plot and screwy characters who need a really big hug” lingered in my mind long after I finished it. A Small Madness has the same lingering aftertaste.
Rose didn’t tell anyone about it. She wondered if it showed. She looked at herself in the mirror and turned this way and then that way. She stood as close to the mirror as she could, leaning over the bathroom basin, looking into her own eyes until they disappeared behind the fog of her breath. Looking for something. Some evidence that she was different now. Something had shifted inside her, a gear being ratcheted over a clunky cog, gaining torque, starting her up. But it didn’t show. How could all of these feelings not show? She was a woman now but it didn’t show and she couldn’t tell anyone.
A Small Madness begins with teen lovers Rose and Michael having sex for the first time. They’re ready, they’re in love and not unlike most other young teen couples. What seems entirely normal changes when Rose misses her period and takes a pregnancy test. After revealing her pregnancy to Michael, she starts to act strangely, pushing away her best friend; her initial decision to hide the pregnancy temporarily manifests into full-blown denial. As far as Rose is concerned, the pregnancy does not exist: “If I say it, it will come to be. I speak my reality and so create yours. No correspondence will be entered into.” Michael loves her, but has no idea how to handle the situation (‘what situation?’, is how Rose would put it). It’s clear that this can’t end well.
The novel deals with themes of teen sex, pregnancy, teen-parent relationships, isolation, friendship and mental illness. What makes it different from other young adult novels is its message that, in Touchell’s words, “being damaged is very, very different to being evil”. It’s one of those concepts we all struggle with when we hear about things like infanticide – our instinct is to judge, to stand firmly on the victim’s side. Sometimes that’s right. But sometimes, the perpetrator may also be a victim in another way, and that’s where misunderstanding becomes a monster. I applaud Touchell for her perspective, insight and compassionate approach to something full of grey areas. In A Small Madness, something in Rose is damaged. It wasn’t before – she was a good student, no trouble at home, and she had a steady boyfriend. Yet, she experiences “a small madness”, a glitch, because her mind can’t cope with her predicament.
Rose missed Michael. A fraught status quo seemed to exist between them. It was as if each of them were precariously balanced over an enormous drop, an abyss that neither of them would mention even while it caused their voices to echo and the tiny patches of workable ground beneath them to crumble. He wasn’t coming around as much and he seemed preoccupied. (p132)
A Small Madness is an intense and confronting novel. The reader is compelled to consider the actions of Rose and Michael, and in doing so, may be taken far out of their comfort zone. Is Rose evil? Or are her actions the sign of a damaged mind? If she’s not evil, how should she be judged? What consequence should there be? And what of Michael, who stands by helplessly, and his brother Tim, who becomes party to the young couple’s devastating secret? So much food for thought. This is not a book that you can read and not have some opinion about the characters’ actions (I love that in a book).
I loved the raw power and emotion of A Small Madness; it’s intense and challenging, heart-breaking and compassionate. I read this in one sitting.
While it’s aimed at the young adult market (15+ due to content), and Touchell really “gets” this market, I believe the novel has a lot to say to adults as well. In fact, if this is what Touchell write for YA readers, I’d love to see what she writes for adults.
Available from good bookstores and Allen & Unwin. My copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin.
Bookish treat: Couldn’t eat – too busy reading.