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A Response to ‘Wintergirls’

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Warning: This book is possibly triggering, so please keep this in mind if you are thinking about or currently reading it.

I had vaguely heard about this book before I read it.

A whirlwind of controversy, criticism, and above all, praise.

It deals with the ever-contentious issue of anorexia and eating disorders, along with elements of depression and other mental health issues.

I picked it up when I saw it on display in my school library. I delved into it completely unaware of the fact I was being thrown into what is probably the most affecting book I have ever opened.

The story itself begins with the narrator, 18-year-old Lia Overbrook, learning of the death of her former best friend, Cassie.

Following this, it quickly becomes clear that Lia suffers from anorexia, her mind, and consequently her narration, riddled with conflict between the need to eat and the urge to starve, between her needs and her compulsions; between reality and what lurks within her mind, pushing her further and further to become less and less.

The first thing that grabbed me about Wintergirls is the style of writing. It’s almost like new-age Virginia Woolf in the way that it meanders and diverts and settles within the narrator’s conscious so that it is no longer the author forming the words, it is the character.

It’s not just the conventional layout of words on a line on a page that Anderson uses; there are smatterings of crossings out, words dotted over the page and, in one instance, a three page spread of “Must. Not. Eat.” that really made me think I was just reading a direct transcription of Lia’s thoughts.

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I’m not going to sugarcoat this – Wintergirls is bleak. There’s no tiptoeing around the nitty-gritty on Anderson’s part. She doesn’t shy away from making Lia undeniably, achingly real, no matter how hard it is.

That being said, there is one point I cannot stress enough: it would have been very, very easy for Anderson to make this book morbid and nihilistic and with no redeeming element to such a disturbing subject matter. There is hope though; a brief shimmer of optimism that alleviates some of the grief within it. Still, do not expect to finish this book without feeling changed.

I’ve been prettily dancing around the point here. I felt the compulsion to write this response because I can’t remember ever being affected so deeply by a book before. Sure, The Fault in Our Stars made me tear up a little, and of course, Perks of Being a Wallflower made me think after I closed the cover. But Wintergirls? This is a whole other league of personal.

I’m going to deflate the elephant in the room now and admit that I used to have an eating disorder, and I am still not entirely positive about myself.

At one point in this book, I honestly thought that it was going to end up being a trigger. And in a way, that is a compliment. Nothing else I have ever read has come close to describing how I felt when I was in the depths of my low points. Nothing has fully encapsulated the real helplessness of it all. It’s a constant onslaught of self-doubt and inward hatred and punishing yourself for being too alive.

Wintergirls is the only book gutsy enough to face up to that in a raw and painfully truthful manner; it shoves itself under the noses of those who turn away from issues such as anorexia and demands to be heard. It makes for a difficult read, but it rewards the reader a thousand times over with its unique insight.

It’s a twisted compliment, but a compliment nonetheless.

I read this book on Wednesday.

It hasn’t left my mind since.

Today is Friday.

I want to hate this book for dredging up all of the feelings I’d worked so carefully to bury. I wanted to absolutely slate it and dismiss it as another sob-story teen fic. But it isn’t. It is so so far from it.

I finally feel as if someone who has not suffered from an eating disorder really understands what it’s like to want to wake up in a different skin or not wake up at all.

If I could say one thing to Laurie Halse Anderson, it would be thank-you — for being uncompromisingly, unapologetically honest. The fact is, this book does not purport to be an anorexic bible, nor does it claim to be a manifesto for tearing down the disorder.

It is a story told in a voice that will stay with me for as long as my memory does.

It is a pure, unadulterated truth.

Nothing more, nothing less.

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