My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Length: 352 pages
Release date: 1 May 2018
The powerful, glamorous and privileged students of Fullbrook Academy gather for a secret party in the woods.
A party that ends in disaster.
The Fullbook traditions are sacred. But they can hide dark and dangerous secrets.
Jules is in her senior year with one goal: to get out and start her life at college.
Jamie is a sports star on a scholarship; Fullbrook is his chance to escape his past.
Can they both stand together against Fullbrook’s most toxic traditions?
“To know right from wrong, and to know it so profoundly, was a gift.”
When I first read its synopsis, I expected Tradition to be like The Exact Opposite of Okay at lightest, or I Stop Somewhere at darkest. It’s not. It doesn’t have the humour that carried Laura Steven’s book or the soulful reflection woven through T.E. Carter’s writing, and I don’t know if I’m reading too much into it, but I found Tradition a lot harder to grasp. Even so, this book does a fine job taking on the muddied waters of consent and rape culture, diving right into the thick of the action at the sheltered, elitist Fullbrook Academy.
Let’s get it out of the way: Fullbrook is pretty damn awful. It’s somehow simultaneously better and worse than I expected it to be. Better, because there’s less overt bigotry than there could be, and worse, because all that sentiment is pushed into latent bias that manifests as an implicit but absolutely systemic prejudice. If Kiely’s goal with Fullbrook was to create a fictional environment more toxic than Chernobyl, he’s succeeded. Save the few main characters with whom we’re supposed to sympathise, everyone is a catty cog in the wheel.
That lack of nuance makes it rather hard to tell apart the many characters whose personalities offer no departures from the spoiled trust fund baby. It also becomes harder to connect with the story when characters are so two-dimensionally good or bad. There are exceptions, such as Shriya, one of the “bad” students who receives a little development, but they’re few and far between. Sometimes, the powerful social message behind Tradition even ends up distorted behind the grisly machinations of entitled private school kids. While the unacceptable nature of Fullbrook’s entitled attitude is an important plot point, there’s an extent to which it dominates the plot more than it ideally would.
The protagonists are, if not fully convincing leads, somewhat more thoughtfully developed than their cardboard peers, Jamie more so than Jules. It’s easy to see where Jamie is coming from. His backstory, simplistic as it may be, fills in the gaps enough to make him feel like a realistic person formed by realistic circumstances in the real world. His inner monologue sounds a bit too articulate for a guy who supposedly can’t do academics at all, but I suppose it wouldn’t be very interesting to read if Kiely lowered his chapters to the fictional character’s writing skill. Still, it feels off whenever a narrator whose personality is largely built on his lack of book intelligence starts spouting off metaphors that sound like they came right out of a creative writing class.
Jamie’s voice doesn’t sound much different from Jules’s. If it weren’t for their different storylines, I’d have a hard time telling who was talking. Jules, the uncompromising, brazen activist, is an awkward character. She’s excessive, and I find it hard to empathise with her. I appreciate her for trying, but at the same time I can see why people are hesitant to support her.
Yes, she’s in an extremely toxic environment, and yes, people have been awful to her. That’s written well. What’s written less well is that these things haven’t shaped her so much as they’ve made her into the stereotype of a radical feminist: When she’s asked to put away the tampon that she’s set on her desk, Jules calls for a campaign to normalise tampons by setting them out on desks in class (seriously) and recruits her buddies Jamie and Aileen to help. After a while people basically ignore them, and Jules is annoyed that people aren’t reacting.
Call me crazy, but I don’t know what she’s trying to get out of this campaign. Tampons look pretty normalised to me if nobody’s commenting on them, and a school like Fullbrook is never going to turn into a progressive paradise, especially not overnight. I get Jules’s frustration–it’s hard not to–but her methods of activism don’t seem particularly effective or perceptive.
In addition, Jules’s characterisation is largely limited to her activism. There are two other traits I can remember reading about her–she wants to get out of Fullbrook and go to university, and she likes photography. Is there anything else about her, and are these two traits developed beyond the cursory? Not really.
The writing can be confusing at times, with jarring scenes like the flashforward at the start of the novel. Much like Tradition as a whole, the scene is compelling when taken in isolation, but doesn’t stand up to scrutiny as one component of an extended narrative. For the most part, Tradition gets the central message and the plot/character details directly related to it right. Where it trips up is everywhere else.
*Thanks to Penguin Random House UK Children’s and NetGalley for providing a review copy of this book! All opinions represented remain my own.*