Margot McGovern reviews A Small Madness by Dianne Touchell.
Rose and Michael’s first time is awkward and illicit and wonderful.
She let him put his sticky hands in places her own had never been. All those places she’d been warned about. The places that attract strangers with lost puppies and the wrong touch and sin. Private places that embarrassed her and shocked her eyes wide when he touched them. … When it was over and she pulled her knickers up, she realised her bottom was crusted with cool sand. The heat was over along with summer. They walked the dunes in a flush of new shyness, talking of the beginning of their last year of high school.
But Rose and Michael come from strict families where sex is not discussed and nor is the importance of taking precautions. Besides, as Michael reminds himself, ‘In the sixteenth century you could have sex with someone you promised to marry sometime in the future and the church said it was okay.’ He and Rose do plan to get married, so surely there’s no harm in enjoying sex beforehand? Their more worldly friends, particularly Rose’s best friend, Liv, warn them to be safe, but it feels so good and in the heat of the moment it’s easy to forget.
When Rose learns she’s pregnant, her confusion and panic quickly shift to denial. Her mother taught her that ‘A happy face reflects a happy home,’ and so Rose, a talented actress, decides to pretend the pregnancy isn’t real. She convinces herself that if she can play her part convincingly, it will become the truth. Michael is initially (unfairly) angry with Rose and grows increasingly frustrated with her denial. But ultimately, he buys into her fantasy. Though he watches Rose make herself sicker and sicker in order to maintain the pretence, he can’t bring himself to tell anyone about the pregnancy for fear of disappointing his father.
The months pass with mounting dread as the story swells to its inevitable crisis. More than a mere cautionary tale for horny teenagers, A Small Madness is an unsettling, claustrophobic novel of anxiety and denial—a sinister reworking of the Gothic ‘descent into madness’ tale.
With Gothic flair that nods towards Edgar Allan Poe’s neurotic narrators, Touchell draws the reader into Rose’s nightmare:
Rose didn’t immediately realise it but she was watching the calendar the way you watch a spider in the corner of a room you can’t leave. Each day that passed was a spider leg twitching, a pedipalp shifting, and Rose went about her day with eyes relentlessly trained on that spider, so preoccupied with the passing time that ordinary considerations such as bathing and eating became ruthless irritations.
When her pregnancy is confirmed, she’s convinced it won’t last, telling Michael: ‘Anything could happen. We could tell people and then it could just go away and everything would be ruined for nothing! … These things go away all the time.’
Touchell isolates Rose, turning her support network of family and friends against her early on, so that in her limited experience she can’t see that she has any choice but to magic away her pregnancy. Even Michael is too willing to make her the monster, slinking out of her house away from her when he hears the news ‘as if she, herself, was the threat’. He’s unwilling to acknowledge the extent of their predicament, after all, it’s ‘just a lump of cells, a clot, a smudge of tissue deep up inside her, unstable and vulnerable. Surely removing it couldn’t be more complicated than picking your nose.’ The reader is reminded that even though it takes two to tango, an unwanted pregnancy is still often considered the woman’s fault and a problem for her alone to deal with.
Despite the increasingly drastic measures Rose takes to conceal and abort her pregnancy, she remains the story’s most sympathetic character, with Touchell drawing the reader into her logic and her desire to disassociate from her situation.
Initially she hadn’t thought anything of it when she missed her period. The time came and went and although her lack of bleeding registered, she wasn’t concerned. Sometimes she did skip a month. Sometimes it was so light she could get by with toilet paper alone.
Another month came and went, but still she didn’t panic. Her breasts were tender, which always happened before her period started. So she waited. There was some spotting in her knickers at one time, which excited her so much she washed her hair and shaved her legs, but she cried in the shower while she did so.
While the story centres on Rose and Michael’s predicament, it’s Rose’s friend Liv who is perhaps most intriguing. She’s the innocent bystander drawn into the fray. If Rose had followed her advice, the whole mess might have been avoided, and the more she tries to help, the harder Rose pushes her away. Liv wants to do the right thing, but when she asks her mother for advice she’s told in no uncertain terms to ‘Stay out of it’. Despite all this, does she still have a responsibility to intervene on Rose’s behalf, and how much blame must she accept for the horrific events that occur?
Unlike many YA narratives where the adults are the (often rebelled against) voices of reason, in A Small Madness their blindness and inaction marks them as antagonists. They have pinned their hopes on an ideal and in doing so have broken from reality. In their idealism, they’ve set a narrow path for their children to walk, but offer no guidance or advice about what to do when they inevitably lose their way—straying off course is simply not an option. Through wilful ignorance and their failure to intervene, they push their children towards extreme and violent action. In a broader context, Touchell highlights our eagerness to misread signs of sickness and distress in order to uphold the status quo and our society’s particular reluctance to openly acknowledge and support those who suffer mental illness.
You have to admire a writer who’s got the gumption to show young readers that their parents don’t necessarily know what’s best, that adults are fallible—often driven by selfish motivations—and are not always to be trusted. Young people may do better to think for themselves.
A Small Madness is an unsettling, uncomfortable read that explores the shadowy space between the real and the ideal and questions our responsibility and moral obligation towards others.
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