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Review: Boring Girls by Sara Taylor August 27, 2016

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews, Canadian content.
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9781770410169_1024x1024Boring Girls starts out as the story of a smart teenage girl who doesn’t quite fit in at school and has a hard time connecting with other kids. Her life changes when, having just been hassled by a bully, she hears some strange but powerful noisy music coming from a passing car and makes a mental note of a bumper sticker that may be a band name. She goes to a record store, finds a CD by the band, and death metal takes over her life, especially the band DED.

Rachel has always been a creative girl, writing in a journal and fascinated by a painting based on an apocryphal biblical tale of two women killing an evil king. Meeting Fern, another girl who’s interested in the same style of music and is starting to play guitar, leads them to start their own metal band.

It’s not giving away spoilers to say that things go terribly wrong eventually, leading to murder, because the book’s told from Rachel’s first person perspective and she’s recounting why she and her friend Fern became murderers.

Rachel is, at first, a quiet girl who does well at school but has difficulty making friends or connecting with people, something that continues through the novel. She has a couple of crushes but pulls away from an opportunity to have a real boyfriend; she grows very close to Fern but that never becomes a romantic relationship, either.

It’s a tale of two parts — first, the misfit girl making a world for herself, then a drastic shift into a girl gets raped, girl gets revenge story. (At the beginning of the story, Rachel’s 15, and it’s not clear how much time passes over the course of the book.) Rachel’s perspective is what keeps the novel so readable. She may be something of an unreliable narrator; at times she seems not very self-aware, seeing herself as a victim even in situations where her own actions are cruel. But that’s not to take away from the fact that she and Fern go through a lot of crap as young women trying to find a place in what is not just a very masculine scene but a downright misogynistic one. Rachel and Fern keep having to prove their place as metal fans, then as metal musicians, to everyone around them.

One of the key elements throughout the book is Artemisia Gentileschi’s paiting of Judith beheading Holofernes. Early on the fact that it’s a painting by a woman of two women killing a man gives Rachel inspiration in her artwork. After she and Fern are beaten and raped, it’s the model for their planned revenge, Rachel deciding she will be Judith, Fern her assistant, and the man who raped Rachel her Holofernes. (The fact that there’s another painting of Judith holding the severed head of Holofernes is not insignificant.)

And this is where I really begin to question Rachel’s reliability as narrator. She’s been cruel, she’s been violent, though she’s presented those moments in ways that mitigate her responsibility or demonstrate some regret. But her unlikely plan is for her band to get popular enough that she can take revenge on the more famous band who assaulted her and Fern, preferably before an audience, and sure enough, their smalltown band rapidly grows more famous. But as they get closer to their planned revenge, Fern and Rachel seem to trade places, Fern becoming the violent one, taking the lead, becoming Judith. Suddenly Rachel isn’t sure she wants to go through with it, once they reach the point where they could actually achieve their unlikely plan, and it’s Fern who starts it, Rachel who follows. We only ever have Rachel’s perspective on events, so maybe she’s telling the truth, but she may also be spinning (consciously or not) the story to put more of the blame on Fern. One of her regrets about murdering her rapist is that she didn’t say something witty first. The closing chapter shows just how far gone Rachel is.

The only people I really talk to are my psychologist, and the girl I share my cell with — but she’s crazy. We don’t have much in common, but we get along okay, I guess. […]

The point was never to ruin anyone’s life or waste anyone’s time. The point was just revenge.

Side points: it’s not clear exactly when or where this novel is set. Sometimes it feels like the pre-web era, but gradually there’s more mention of the Internet and cellphones. Maybe the story covers a longer span of time than seems to be the case. Rachel’s hometown is Keeleford, two hours away from the much larger city of St. Charles. There is a St. Charles in Ontario… with a population of about a thousand people. I assume St. Charles and Keeleford are stand-ins for Toronto and London, Ontario.

As for music… though Rachel is obsessed with death metal, all the bands mentioned in the book, as far as I can tell, are fictional, and at least one reviewer has complained about the somewhat cliched portrayal of the metal scene. On the other hand, others have agreed with Taylor’s portrayal of the misogynistic crap women in rock, not just metal, often have to put up with, and Taylor herself has been in the goth/synthpop/metal band the Birthday Massacre (originally known as Imagica) since 1999. Their early days starting out in London would have overlapped the rise of all-female London nu-metal band Kittie, whose 2000 debut album was a big hit and may have provided some inspiration here.

To sum up, despite some weaknesses, this is a strong and suspenseful story with a compellingly strange narrator.

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