Review: Risk by Fleur Ferris

Margot McGovern reviews Fleur Ferris‘ debut YA novel, Risk (Random House, 2015).

When best friends Taylor and Sierra strike up a conversation with Jacob Jones on Mysterychat, it’s just a bit of fun—something to fill an afternoon at the end of the school holidays. Then Jacob starts emailing Taylor and she thinks maybe it’s something more, maybe it’s love. But it turns out Sierra’s also been chatting with him, and they have a date on Friday night.

Around the time Sierra should be heading home, she calls Taylor and asks her to cover for her so she can spend the night with Jacob. Taylor is jealous and annoyed—Sierra’s done this before. But when Saturday morning turns to afternoon, with no sign of Sierra, Taylor and her friends begin to worry. Where is Sierra and why isn’t she answering her phone?

Risk is the stuff of modern nightmares, made all the more unsettling by the fact that predators like Jacob Jones  are both real and invisible. The premise of cyber stalking is nothing new, though with the increasing number of apps and social media channels available, meeting people online and gathering information about strangers has never been easier, as Senior Detective Kel Parkinson explains to Taylor and her friends:

RiskEvery time you’re online you can be tracked to your exact location, give or take a few metres… [Jacob] probably stalked Sierra from a distance. He would have gone through her photos on her social media sites. He would have found out her interests, identified locations she’d been to—probably said he’d been to the same places on the same day, before she even told him she was there. This is how a predator draws a victim in. The victim thinks it’s an amazing coincidence. Suddenly they have so much in common. How amazing to meet here, online, in this chat room. 

In this respect, Risk is a relevant and familiar cautionary tale. However, too often in the case of cyber stalking (and other crimes where women are the most likely targets) the message is one of victim blaming: she should have known better, she should have done more to keep herself safe, she was asking for it. And here Ferris takes a stand: victims of these crimes are never to blame. If her message is conveyed with a heavy hand, it’s because it needs to be.

Sierra is a little wild, a little rebellious and she likes to have a good time with boys—once she even sent pictures of her boobs to a guy as a joke. She’s exactly the kind of girl we’re repeatedly told is asking for it. But Ferris has Taylor stand up for her friend. Speaking at a school assembly she reminds her peers:

[Sierra] got caught because she didn’t even realise she was taking a risk. Sierra never stood a chance… She did nothing different to any of the people here who have met someone online and taken that next step and met them in real life.

And, importantly, she shifts the focus from what Sierra does to what is done to her:

Instead of saying Sierra was gullible or desperate or stupid… Think about what he [Jacob] did. He calculated every move. he stalked Sierra’s social media profiles so he could hook her interest, to make her fall in love with him. He was so clever at making her believe he was her perfect match.

Despite the growing backlash against victim blaming, this is a paradigm shift Australia continues to struggle with. While reading Risk, it’s hard not to consider the real-life cases of women who have fallen prey to monsters. Risk shares unnerving parallels with the case of Carly Ryan, the fifteen-year-old Adelaide school girl who was seduced and murdered by an online predator in 2007. More recently, in Melbourne where Risk is set, Jill Meager, Stephanie Scott and school student Masa Vukotic, were the victims of vicious and fatal attacks, and while their cases differ in nature, the overwhelming question asked is always the same: what did these women do wrong? Time and again, women, and girls in particular, are told what not to do: don’t go out alone, don’t get drunk, don’t wear revealing clothes, don’t wear headphones, don’t take nude pictures. In short: don’t presume that you are an independent person with control over your own body and a right to public space because if you do, you’re asking for trouble.

Ferris deftly rebuts this assumption that a woman, by lack of care of virtue, is somehow responsible for the crimes committed against her. It’s not just Sierra, the wild party girl, who is taken in by Jacob. Taylor falls for him too. Taylor’s not promiscuous. She doesn’t dress provocatively or break the rules. In fact, she doesn’t even want to talk to Jacob in the first place. And yet, if she had been the one he’d asked, she would have met up with him, too.

Taylor is an innocent, but she’s not weak. In the wake of Sierra’s disappearance, she’s determined to do something for her friend and find a way to turn Jacob’s weapons against him. She takes to the blogoshpere to inform other girls of the risks of meeting guys online, and her message to her peers is one of empowerment: helping them them to be aware of and manage their risks rather than telling them to stay away from online dating altogether.

However, more than just a cautionary tale, Risk is a heartfelt story of friendship, grief and guilt. The friends Sierra leaves behind—Taylor, Callum, Riley and Joel—each deal with her disappearance in a different way—with anger, denial and guilt—and these reactions cause the group to fracture and reform.

Some of the pop culture references feel a little old school (are kids still listening to Pink, Delta Goodrem and Guy Sebastain?), and in places Taylor’s dialogue reads more like an anti victim-blaming address rather than the genuine expression of a grieving fifteen-year-old, particularly towards the end. However, both the teenage and adult characters are generally well-rounded and sympathetic. Ferris’ prose is clean and well-paced and the need to find Sierra and her abductor before he strikes again sets the stakes high and drives the story forward.

Risk is an unsettling and compelling read. It delves deep into questions of guilt and blame that surround sexual predators and their victims, and while Ferris gives Taylor and her friends space to explore the guilt they feel as survivors, she firmly assigns one-hundred percent of the blame for Sierra’s abduction where it belongs: with the monster who commits the crime.

Risk is available through Amazon (Kindle) and Kobo.

If you enjoyed Risk, these titles may also tickle your fancy:

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A Small Madness by Dianne Touchelle (read the Lectito review), available:

Pieces of Sky by Trinity Doyle, available:

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, available:

Just Between Us Beautiful-Malice The Rehearsal
Just Between Us: Australian Writers Tell the Truth About Female Friendship, available:

Beautiful Malice by Rebecca James, available:

The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton, available:

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