CM, Volume XV Number 4, October 10, 2008
The Perfect Cut.
Vancouver, BC: Raincoast Books, 2008.
308 pp., pbk., $11.95.
Self – mutilation – Juvenile fiction.
Teenagers and death – Juvenile fiction.
Grades 10-12 / Ages 15-17.
Review by Myra Junyk.
*** ½ /4
Bryan had been in enough of his friends’ houses to realize that he had a lot more stuff than most kids his age. No one could ever accuse Dad of not being a hard worker – the guy never stopped. Money made their world turn, yet nobody ever talked about it in their house, just like nobody wore their shoes inside, or drank straight out of the milk jug or left the toilet seat up. Dad made the rules, and they followed them. In exchange, Bryan had all the privacy in the world, and that meant he could pretty much do as he pleased without having to explain himself.
And he had secrets – stuff he’d rather keep to himself. Who didn’t? Secrets – even the good ones – set you apart from others. And the bad ones? They ate away at your core. Bryan knew this from experience. In fact, sometimes he imagined his insides being gnawed away by the things he couldn’t tell anybody – the dark snippets of information that set him apart from others – from Mom and Dad.
Not that they cared enough to ask. An invisible border divided the house into two countries: the upstairs belonged to Bryan, the downstairs to his parents. Bryan knew there were times when his mother ventured into his territory to visit The Michelle Shrine and every couple of days, Stella, their housekeeper, climbed the stairs to the second floor with bucket and mop, broom and dustpan in hand.
Bryan has a dangerous secret. In order to deal with the pain of his grief for his older sister Michelle, Bryan has become totally withdrawn, abuses alcohol and uses a razor blade to cut himself. His high grades in grade 12 have deteriorated; he no longer communicates with his parents; he has broken up with his brilliant girlfriend Jessie. The relationship between his controlling father and submissive mother is also deteriorating quickly as they, too, try to deal with their grief. Although Burtinshaw tackles a very difficult subject – self-mutilation – her novel is not cloying or depressing. At the beginning of the novel, Bryan is wallowing in his grief. The graphic descriptions of his cutting episodes are not for the weak stomach. Readers will be strongly affected by these descriptions – particularly if they know someone who engages in this kind of behaviour. However, Bryan does try to get help. He has had several therapists, but none of them have helped him until he meets Dr. Spahic. He makes a connection with her and seems to start living again! He befriends a young runaway, Chris, who lives on the streets and is addicted to crystal meth. His ex-girlfriend, Jessie, even comes back into his life to try to help him work through his issues. By the end of the novel, Bryan has survived a suicide attempt brought on by his anti-depressant medication. Will he learn to cope with his grief? Will his parents’ marriage survive? What is the terrible secret he is keeping about the night that Michelle died?
The writer’s narrative technique is very interesting. Chapters vary in length depending on the need for detail. Some chapters are as short as a paragraph while others go on for several pages. Many paragraphs have only one or two word sentences. This choppy style is very effective to portray the agitation and anxiety felt by Bryan as he tries to cope with his life. The writer also uses italics to give the reader insight into Bryan’s innermost thoughts. As well, the two pivotal letters at the end of the novel – from Michelle and Bryan – are written in italics. This kind of font differentiation indicates crucial information for readers. Readers may want to re-read these sections and think carefully about them if they are to truly understand Bryan’s feelings and emotions.
Bryan is a complex, moody but realistic young man. His struggles to deal with his grief for his older sister will resonate with readers. Michelle was also a cutter, and she becomes a very real presence for readers. According to the information that Burtinshaw provides at the end of the novel, Bryan and Michelle’s self-destructive behaviour is more common than we think. She estimates that between 1 – 10 % of the teenage population is/are engaged in cutting behaviour. This novel brings this kind of behaviour out into the open. Burtinshaw lists several websites which would be useful, “If you self-injure, or you know someone who does…” Dealing with these complex mental health issues should not be secretive. We all need to know the indicators of this behaviour so that we can help those engaging in it!
Myra Junyk is the former Program Co-ordinator of Language Arts and Library Services at the Toronto Catholic District School Board. Currently, she is working as a literacy advocate and author.
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