Sometimes it feels as if North America is terribly isolationist with respect to its reading material, so it's always nice to see an author from another continent - in this case, Australia - getting some attention. And Rebecca James's Beautiful Malice is certainly garnering buzz - happily, largely deserved.
Written by James after her kitchen design business had gone belly-up, Beautiful Malice was rescued from a publisher's slush pile and became the subject of a bidding war. It is technically a young adult novel - in effect, a kind of teen romance/suspense/revenge thriller, but with enough "grown-up" content to recommend it to adults; it is perhaps what many of us would call a guilty pleasure. But to call the book as a teen romance is not really doing it justice; this is a far cry from the vapid, intellectually deprived abstinence porn of the (endless) Twilight books and their ferociously passive heroine. While there are certainly age-specific elements of James's novel that are geared toward teenaged readers, mature themes abound that will appeal to older audiences: love, death, sex, unplanned pregnancy, family tragedy, violent crime, toxic friendships, cute musicians and so on. Come to think of it, teenagers will be interested in those things too.
The story begins with a prologue, that, to some degree, gives away the ending - a much-used literary trope that doesn't seem out of place here, but serves as just enough foreshadowing to fill the reader with an increasing sense of anxiety as the book progresses. It's also refreshing to find a YA novel that isn't afraid to show a little vitriol right from the get-go. How exhausting are the sweet and swooning doe-eyed heroines who seem to spring from the woodwork at every turn these days.
Instead, we have 17-year-old Katherine Patterson, who has moved to Sydney, Australia, in order to put her life together and escape a terrible tragedy in her past; we don't find out exactly what this is until nearly 100 pages in, but we do know that it involves the death of her sister. Katherine has changed her name and even her personality, and just wants to get through her remaining high-school year without incident.
Enter Alice - charming, beautiful, popular, the girl everyone at school wants to be around. Alice befriends Katherine and proves difficult to resist, especially given Katherine's nearly solitary life since her sister's death. Alice drags Katherine out to parties, invites herself for sleepovers, sits with her at lunch, invites confidences, lends clothes - in fact, everything a lonely teenager would desperately want in a friend.
But Alice isn't, of course, entirely what she seems to be (but, then, neither is Katherine), and her friendship is, of course, too good to be true. Alice has what one might politely call "mood swings" that turn her into a completely different person, and her malicious and erratic behaviour becomes increasingly troublesome as time wears on. Things come to a head when Alice discovers that Katherine has a new boyfriend and is beginning to be happy; a happy Katherine is the very last thing that Alice wants. After several calculated acts of emotional viciousness on Alice's part, acts that seem worthy of Iago, Katherine knows that her new friendship must end. But of course, Alice has another agenda and isn't ready to just let it go.
While the plot may seem, on the surface, to be the standard fare of girl-meets-new-friend, girl-meets-new-boy, new-friend-goes-wackadoo, what elevates the book's occasionally predictable plot above the usual Poison Ivy/ Swimfan revenge melodrama is James's pacing and style. She has a real knack for writing from inside the head of a teenage girl on the cusp of adulthood. The likeable characters aren't so lily-white that they're unbearable, and though the villainess is deliciously nasty, it's clear how damaged she is; it's not just soap-opera vamping. The story moves at a good clip, and it really is a book to read in one sitting, feverishly turning the pages, hoping that not too many terrible things will happen to the heroine, all the while expecting quite the opposite. But that creeping dread is part of the fun.
One of the most refreshing plot developments in Beautiful Malice is the unplanned pregnancy, which is dealt with honestly, but without any over-the-top hand-wringing or smug moralizing. That alone would make this recommended reading. But as it happens, the entire book is entertaining and eminently readable. Not high art, but a good solid story, with characters to invest in and an interesting plot with several stings in the tail. Not a guilty pleasure, then, but a (somewhat nail-biting) genuine one.
Sandra Kasturi is an award-winning Toronto writer, editor, poet and publisher. She is the author of The Animal Bridegroom and co-publisher of ChiZine Publications.