By Katy Goodwin-Bates
I write this review in January, finding myself bombarded with movie trailers proclaiming things to be “the best movie of the year.” This is an annual source of irritation to me: “but how,” I indignantly proclaim, “can anything be the anything of the year when the year has only been happening for 3 weeks? This is a nonsense! An outrage, I say!” Nobody listens to these declarations, obviously, but they give me a sense of balance in an ever-changing world.
I am, however, about to become one of the very people I complain about, by announcing that Tiffany D. Jackson’s Allegedly is the best YA novel of the year. I might rethink this come December (although, given that nearly everything else in the YA field is a sequel, perhaps not), but, for now, I’m calling it: I won’t read a more shocking or impactful YA book in 2017.
Here’s why: Jackson’s protagonist and narrator is fifteen-year-old Mary, newly released from years in “baby jail” for murdering a baby when she was just nine. Vilified by the media and sold out by her own mother, Mary is now living in a group home with psychopathic girls who hate her. Eager to improve her prospects, Mary attempts to study for the SATs, an endeavour which isn’t helped by the sudden discovery that she’s pregnant by her secret boyfriend. But what chance does the black killer of a white baby really have?
Anyways, I’ve been in this home of seven girls for the past three months and not one birthday has ever been mentioned. Guess birthdays don’t mean nothing in a group home. I mean, it kind of makes sense. Hard to celebrate the day you were born when everybody seems to wish you were never born at all. Especially after you come into this world and fuck it all up.
I can name several people who wish I was never born.
Jackson’s premise is obviously bleak, and there’s a tangible sense of rage, resentment and fear running throughout Mary’s narrative. The ways in which Mary discusses her imprisonment, her treatment at the hands of the press and her mother alike, and the indifference of those on whose care she relies make it hard not to sympathize with her, and yet it’s so difficult to know whether her attempts to clear her name are justified, and there lies the masterfulness of Jackson’s book; Mary is such a gloriously unreliable narrator that I found myself tied in knots by the twists in the narrative. As Mary launched her appeal against her conviction, I wasn’t sure whether to root for her or not, and there was something tantalizing about that confusion. Mary’s narrative is interspersed with “real” reports, interviews and experts’ opinions on her case, so often contradicting Mary’s own viewpoint that the confusion is multiplied and I bloody loved it. This is unusual; I don’t generally enjoy not understanding something. It is why I don’t watch Homeland.
There is an ache inside when I think of Momma. The crushing look she gave me when I said she will never see me again. But just because I get to hurt Momma, doesn’t mean I want anyone else to. Even if every decision she ever made was self-serving, she is the woman who raised me. All that I am is what she has molded.
Mary’s relationship with her mother is fascinating; their every meeting is imbued with unbearable tension, and Mary’s recollections of her pre-prison childhood are invariably horrific, but there’s nothing clichéd about Jackson’s portrayal of this disturbing version of the mother-daughter dynamic. Jackson drip-feeds details to the reader, all filtered through Mary’s conflicted emotions, providing another aspect of confusion. When I read Gone Girl and couldn’t tell who was telling the truth, it annoyed me; I hated everyone in that book and wanted them all to end up in jail. But Mary’s inconsistency enthralled me, nowhere more so than in (mis)representing her mother.
So why am I prepared to expose my own levels of hypocrisy by declaring this to be the best young adult novel of the year? It’s political; it’s concerned with race and prejudice; it’s genuinely absorbing and shocking, eye-opening in more ways than one. Allegedly never allows you to relax, constantly throwing clues and surprises your way; even a couple of days after finishing it, I find myself flicking through the final chapters to fully absorb the tremendous denouement. Allegedly is really an excellent book, by the standards of adult or young adult writing.