Moving slightly away from my recent thriller-themed binge, my latest read was more towards the ‘book-club’ type genre (I don’t know if there is industry lingo for this – if you do, please enlighten me!). I’ve liked Dorothy Koomson for a while now – she writes in a similar style to Jodi Picoult (who we know I adore!) – and she’s also a fairly standout example of a BAME* contemporary author.
I’m not going to make this post about issues of diversity and representation in literature – there are many others out there who write with much more knowledge and authority on this subject than I do – but it’s certainly worth a mention when considering Koomson as an author. She’s a bestselling author, she’s black, and she writes black main characters, which is awesome. Marshmallows For Breakfast (another Koomson) was probably the first book I remember reading with an explicitly black main character – and believe me, I was way too old to have only just come across this phenomenon in the wild, especially considering the sheer volume of books I was consuming. Koomson was the first author who made me realise that I simply wasn’t reading about an awful lot of different kinds of people (when it came to gender, sexuality, and ethnicity etc), not unless I picked out a book in which ‘otherness’ was the main point, and, well… that was weird. And the realisation of these weird absences was the beginning of my realisation that this lack of diversity was (and is), well… a bit rubbish.
A lot rubbish, actually.
So many people learn about the world through books – how are we supposed to learn about the world, empathy, and the other brilliant humans around us, when only a tiny proportion of it is represented in what we’re reading?
Anyway, Koomson writes black main characters, and as she is an excellent author, she writes black main characters whose ethnic identity (like in real life) is only one aspect of their identity. From my point of view, as a (very) white, middle-class, millennial woman, it’s awesome to read these engaging stories with these complex characters and learn more about cultures other than the one I grew up in, and picture characters whose faces look different to my own – just because I’m reading a great book.
Aaaaaanyway. Back to That Girl.
So, like I said, I already like Koomson as an author, and I really enjoyed TGFN. It kept me hooked, reading long after I should have been sleeping (oops) and left me absent-minded and vacant when I wasn’t reading it (like all the best books should) but BOY was this heavy going. The ‘that girl’ of the title is Clemency Smittson, a black woman who was adopted as a baby by white parents, and follows her as she begins to learn more about where she came from. When I read the blurb, I was interested enough to read a book about adoption – but the author doesn’t stop there! Alongside the already fairly hefty emotional material that comes from a book about an adopted person, the narrative also touches on infidelity, bereavement, promiscuity, family rifts, single parenthood, bullying, and assisted suicide.
I mean… this is a lot for one book. For me, it’s probably a little too much for one book, to be honest – I feel like we could have lost one of the threads and still had a really substantial plot. Ultimately, though, it’s a really well-written book – it doesn’t feel disjointed, and like I say, I was hooked. The main theme tying everything together is family: where – and who – a person is from, and I really enjoyed the ending (which isn’t falsely neat with perfect bows, but is satisfying and believable). But fair warning, folks – don’t read this when your emotional batteries are running low!