My rating: 1.5 of 5 stars
Length: 288 pages
Release date: 11 January 2018
Ella Black seems to live the life most other seventeen-year-olds would kill for . . .
Until one day, telling her nothing, her parents whisk her off to Rio de Janeiro. Determined to find out why, Ella takes her chance and searches through their things.
And realises her life has been a lie.
Her mother and father aren’t hers at all. Unable to comprehend the truth, Ella runs away, to the one place they’ll never think to look – the favelas.
But there she learns a terrible secret – the truth about her real parents and their past. And the truth about a mother, desperate for a daughter taken from her seventeen years ago . . .
I’m normally a pretty fast reader. I procrastinate quite a lot so it’s not too hard for me to steal a few moments (or a few hours, you get the idea) here and there to progress on my latest novel. Most of the books I’ve given 5 stars are the ones I finish in less than 24 hours, because they have what it takes to keep my eyes glued to the page/screen despite having schoolwork to finish. You get where I’m going with this? It took me ten days to finish The Truth and Lies of Ella Black. Ten days.
Oh, did that seem a bit over-dramatic to you? Because that’s exactly how this book is written. The author seems to think she’s pulled off a feat of stylistic genius by typing the protagonist’s inner monologue one word at a time, separated by line spacing. Spoiler alert: It’s god-awfully dumb. I remember when I was 12 and decided I would be the next Veronica Roth and laugh my way to the bank writing a Divergent/Hunger Games rip-off. The manuscript I ended up vomiting out was around the calibre of Ella Black, complete with the Dickens-level skill of Writing. Your. Mentally. Ill. Protagonist’s. Thoughts. Like. This.
This really reads like it was written by a 14-year-old at most, which baffles me because last I checked, Emily Barr is a grown woman who’s been a novelist for over 15 years and a professional journalist for even longer than that. Spastic writing style aside, half of Ella Black‘s plot beggars belief, while the other half that does make some sort of sense from a realistic perspective is about as interesting as watching paint dry. (She got orange juice for breakfast! That could realistically happen in real life, so you’ve gotta at least give it that, right? Right?)
The book might at least have been more readable if every character wasn’t so damn unlikeable. The protagonist Ella, while thankfully not as stupid as she could have been made, is frustratingly immature and self-centred, not to mention she has an alter ego nicknamed Bella for ‘Bad Ella’ inside her head, acting as the devil on her shoulder. I have nothing against mental illness or portrayals of it in literature, but the way it was handled here was just so clumsy that I wanted to bang my head against a wall every time Bella started talking in HER SIGNATURE ALL-CAPS. It doesn’t help that Bella’s inauspicious name makes me think of Ana Steele’s Inner Goddess every time she pops up.
Christian, who I might mention Ella meets once and instantly knows he’s The One, gives off a creepy vibe the whole novel thanks to his constant persistence in tracking her down. Who even does that with a girl they’ve known for less than a day? I was expecting him to reveal himself as a rapist/drug dealer/serial killer any moment, but unfortunately it never happened–that would have been a much more interesting story than the one we got. Ella’s parents take helicopter parenting to a whole new level, which is the reason I can sort of excuse Ella’s completely irresponsible behaviour later on. Jasmine is alright aside from being a little entitled and doesn’t incite my hate, but there’s nothing about her that makes me like her as a character either. Nobody else in the cast is developed enough to have an opinion about one way or the other.
Somehow, Ella Black has a few redeeming qualities that make it less of an eyeball-gouging read than it had the potential to be. Disregarding the chapters and chapters of seemingly aimless meandering, the book arrives at a statement by the end, a point that it wants to make, which is a task that every contemporary coming-of-age novel should accomplish. It’s a surprisingly clear point too: Unearth your past to discover your future. Figure out who you are and go and live life as that person, to the fullest. It’s great that Ella comes to discover a purpose and seems comfortable with who she is. It’s great that Bella calms down as the novel progresses and there are less of the spaced out thoughts. It’s great that the narrative voice matures somewhat as Ella comes into her own. If there’s anything that Barr’s writing style should be given credit for, it’s her ability to use comparisons related to mundane experiences that everyone “gets” but nobody ever brings up. Such as:
“I felt like you do when you think you’re at the bottom of the stairs but actually there’s another step to go, and you step off and panic, feeling as if you’ve just stepped off a cliff.”
An elegant, creative and accessible way to describe Ella’s trepidation. If only the rest of the prose could have been that crisp and thought-out, this would have been a much more enjoyable novel. As it is, the whole draft is in need of a serious edit.
*Thanks to Penguin Random House UK Children’s and NetGalley for providing a review copy of this book! All opinions represented remain my own.*