Sisters Ginny & Penelope Skinner are, seemingly, a force to be reckoned with – with Penelope’s credits including writing for Channel’s 4’s Fresh Meat show, having her plays produced by the Royal Court and the National Theatre and playing a part in the recent excellent adaptation of Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now. They have worked together on a previous (self-published) book called The Art Room. Ginny is currently at work on a graphic novel of her own called The White Stag. Oh and a TV show the pair have written, Golden Hill, is in production as we speak. The Skinners are then very busy, the kinds of people with fingers in pies. There is a great deal to be said for industry. Hard work. Keeping busy. But one thing that is rarely said of such efforts is that it is surely conducive to the creation of good work. Briony Hatch is a case in point.
This is a graphic novel that tells the story of the aforementioned Briony, a chubby, out of place sort who would rather fantasise about life within the pages of her favourite fantasy character, Starling Black, that make a real change in her own life. School goes on around her as she tries to read from the latest instalment, her best friend is a good looking, tactless horror and her mum an endless carp. Life for Briony is not good. If only she could be more like Starling Black. If only she had powers. The power to exorcise ghosts. If only she was a force to be reckoned with. Then people would take her seriously. And then, after a particularly bad day, she somehow or other manages to resurrect her dead auntie Hope who sits in a chair in her bedroom and becomes something of a permanent fixture in Briony’s life – offering advice as Briony seeks to try and help Hope move to the other side.
Now. There are things to like about Briony Hatch, from the gentle exploration of the pressures placed on teenage girls (there is a great frame of Briony looking in the mirror and holding her belly fat in two hands – some writers would have got a book out of that alone) to the caustic dynamic between mother and daughter (which recalls Days of the Bagnold Summer by Joff Winterhart but the comparison doesn’t help Briony Hatch much). There are problems too – not least who the book is aimed at. When I first received the book, I thought ‘hmm, maybe this is something my 12 year old daughter can read’ – until I arrived at p33 and saw a page of imagined (if slightly pixelated) sex acts. I could be a prude and I could be out of touch with the world but as a parent I wouldn’t want my teenage daughter seeing these things. I would imagine that most responsible parents will feel the same way.
Not all parents are responsible though and of course some teenagers have the ability to buy books themselves. Teenagers with greater responsibility, though, and greater freedoms, are not likely to have experienced the same woes as poor Briony. Which creates, in my mind, something of a Catch 22 for poor Briony Hatch. This is undoubtedly a book for teenagers, and young teenagers at that. But p33 makes this a book that most parents would stop their young teenagers reading. And by the time those young teenagers reach 18 or so, the book would be a charming postcard from a younger time. Which means, finally, that the message of the book falls between two stools. Serving up a story that truly reflects how it is to be a teenager in a provocative way breaks its spell. It doesn’t work.
The art is also pretty divisive too. Scratchy black and white drawings that feel hurried. Probably an unfair comparison but think about Joe Sacco – another black and white graphic novel artist. You never look at Joe’s work and think, yeah, but I wish you’d spent more time on it. Arguably it’s one more example of the ways in which Briony Hatch feels dashed off and ill thought (as if the sisters aren’t asking themselves the right creative questions, as if the two of them are so close to their work that they can’t see outside of it, can’t see how it lands in the world).
Any Cop?: A book that falls between two stools for this reader, The Huffington Post said this was a book likely to be beloved of open-minded parents and teenagers. Obviously I’m not an open minded parent. So sue me.