Sunday, 26 January 2014

Friends With Boys by Faith Erin Hicks Review

In Chuck Klosterman’s delightful book on villains, I Wear The Black Hat, the pop culture critic writes that he sometimes wishes he could just write “I LOVE THIS” or “I HATE THIS” when reviewing certain works of art and leave it at that, not (entirely) out of laziness but because teasing out the reasoning behind it dilutes the purity of his visceral reaction. I’m tempted to just say for this book “I LOVE THIS x 1000!” and it’d be true but probably not that informative!

Maggie is about to start her first day of high school after being home-schooled for years. She’s also the youngest of her siblings making her the last to start high school in her family – her twin brothers, Lloyd and Zander, and oldest brother Daniel, all having started years earlier. Her mother’s left the family for some reason, her dad’s been promoted to police chief of their small town and everything’s changing. Oh and she’s also haunted by a Victorian ghost…

Like a lot of First Second books, Friends With Boys is marketed as a young adult book and the high school subject matter is certainly appropriate for that demo, but, also like a lot of their books, this one can be enjoyed by adult readers as well. On the surface, it’s a wonderful coming-of-age story with loveable characters told in a compelling style, but there’s also layers to the story that can be appreciated.

Coming-of-age stories tend to focus on identity, which is the case here. Maggie is finding out what kind of person she is by moving away from the safety of her family home into the wider world of the public school and making friends outside of her brothers, while her twin brothers are struggling with establishing their separate identities from one another. When Maggie meets Lucy and Alistair, brother and sister with classic punk looks, Alistair is learning things about himself having recently split from the volleyball team because they mocked his sister’s different look to what is conventionally considered looking “normal” and is reconciling his past with who he is now and who he wants to be in the future.

Friends With Boys is such a captivating read because its story is character driven and Faith Erin Hicks has such a strong grasp of character that everyone in the book is fascinating, you can’t help but keep turning to pages to find out what happens next. Daniel, the wise and friendly older brother who’s already becoming an adult; Alistair, the handsome troubled young man and his quirky and charmingly guileless sister Lucy; and of course Maggie herself, our amazing heroine. Maggie makes friends, she learns about the complexities of friendship, and she learns something of the world and herself by the end. It’s a simple but elegant story that transcends labels like young adult.

Hicks captures the feel of being in high school with its regimented classes, various cliques, teen anxieties over appearance, and other aspects, though the absence of mobile phones and any mention of social media suggests the setting of the story is probably sometime in the 90s or earlier. Her drawing style is of the manga school, so it’ll appeal to fans of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim.

I would say stories about teenagers isn’t usually my bag and especially comic books about young adults drawn in a manga style. I’m thinking of O’Malley’s Lost At Sea which featured teenagers so twee and precious about everything they did and said that I just wanted to punch every single one of them each time they opened their hipster mouths! Hicks’ book is along similar lines superficially but vastly different in its treatment of the characters as much more realistic with the characters behaving in a way that wasn’t trying so hard to show them as cool but as people awkwardly revealing their personalities and worldview to others in a way that felt sweet and genuine.

Speaking of realism, yes there is a ghost in the book. It’s an interesting choice that gives the book a magical realist flavour but also acts as a metaphor for the absent mother (Maggie is “haunted” by her missing parent and doesn’t quite know how to deal with it). Part of Maggie’s character arc is realising why her mother left and coming to terms with how she feels about it. This aspect of the book is probably the most remarkable in how its handled. The reader is given barely any information and has to read between the lines to figure out why Maggie’s mum left them. It’s so subtle and yet asks the reader, presuming they are younger, to think for themselves and put themselves into an adult’s shoes - why do you think a grown up would to this? Hicks is asking the reader to think about the situation as much as she is making Maggie think about it.

I’ve seen some reviews which complain about how unresolved the ghost thread is, and I think those readers are missing the point. This book isn’t about the ghost, nor is it about tying up every story thread - it’s about Maggie completing her character arc, which she does. And if we continue with the theme of growing up, isn’t part of growing up realising that life isn’t like a story and that mysteries remain whether we want them to or not?

Friends With Boys is a heartfelt and compulsively readable story of growing up with a number of different emotions artfully woven into it. There’s stuff here that grown-up readers will appreciate as it gives us something more to think about while reading, but younger readers will find it gripping too. It also contains the most important quality a book should possess: it’s really, really fun to read. It’s got a great story, a wonderful cast of characters, and the writing and drawing are both first class.

I know I definitely read too many Marvel/DC books so I can get jaded about comics because so much of their output goes from crap to mediocre, but then I read comics like Friends With Boys and something clicks in my brain. Oooooooooh, I remember - THIS is why I love comics! If a book like this can pierce the cynical-but-ever-hopeful shell of this reader and - what’s that odd sensation? Oh it’s a feeling! How unexpected and pleasant! - yes, make me feel things while reading it, then it’s a special book that’s worth seeking out.

I LOVED THIS x 1000!

Friends with Boys

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