The Burning by Laura Bates: Powerful YA from the creator of Everyday Sexism
Laura Bates, creator of the Everyday Sexism project, has written a YA novel with supernatural elements and the stress of school harrassment at its heart.
The Burning by Laura Bates tells the story of teenager Anna who has just moved across the country to start school in St Andrews. Grieving over the recent death of her father, desperate to fit in at her new school, Anna’s reasons for leaving her old school are dogging at her heels. And when the past she’s trying so fiercely to hide catches up with her, Anna’s world comes crashing down.
The Burning is unafraid to tackle some deep issues. Fortunately, author Laura Bates – well known as the creator of the Everyday Sexism project – has the knowledge and experience to do this sensitively. The claustrophobia of social media harassment is written particularly wel; Bates carried out extensive research for this book, talking to schoolgirls up and down the country about their experiences of harassment, and it shows. I could feel my skin itch and my heart race during some of the scenes where Anna receives truly vicious messages. The sheer relentlessness of this is described impeccably. “And, just as suddenly as it came, the anger subsides, leaving nothing but a heavy, heavy tiredness in its place.”
Unfortunately, discussions on cyber harassment often fixate on social media as the cause of sexual harassment, claiming that if we take away devices and restrict social media access for teens, then we’ll solve the problem. As Bates demonstrates in the book, the bullying which Anna experiences from her classmates continues even when she smashes her phone and deletes all social media.
If I had to find fault with this book, it would be that Bates tries to tackle too much in this book – bullying, sexual assault, abortion, bereavement … and unfortunately this leaves other elements squeezed out, including character development. At times Anna felt like a cipher, a vehicle for the book’s issues, and I wanted to know more about her.
With so many issues packed into one book, the pacing too felt a little off. While I raced through this book, desperate to find out how it was going to end, the resolution felt a bit anticlimactic. The history project element was fantastic (I’m a sucker for witches and the supernatural), but I wish that the supernatural elements had been more seamlessly woven into the ending of the book.
Overall, though, these are minor criticism. I’m well over a decade out of the book’s target audience and if some of the issues tackled felt too forced that is likely because I’m hyper aware of the impact of sexism on young girls, having already lived through my teenagerhood.
The temptation to pack a book full of issues must be a consequence of writing in this era – with easy access to experience and research at the touch of our fingertips, I can understand that Bates didn’t want to leave anything unexplored. This book lays out the problems facing young girls and the problems inherent in the system, while keeping you engaged… and deftly avoids being too preachy.
The Burning shines a light into the dark corners that feminism still has yet to reach and I’m so glad this book is out there for teenagers.