Is this a book review or a personal essay? Who knows! All I know is that I read this book and it shook me to my core- and now I’m desperate to talk about it.
I’ve been a Holly Bourne fan since I was a teenager. I started off reading her YA books and they always resonated strongly with me. The Manifesto On How To Be Interesting featured in my university dissertation, and We Are All Lemmings And Snowflakes was one of the most interesting yet unproblematic depictions of mental illness that I had read in a very long time. As soon as I was able I requested an advanced copy of her latest novel, Pretending. It’s her second book aimed at an older audience, and even though I haven’t read her first, I was very excited to get my hands on this book. I’d just finished reading All The Places I Cried In Public– a book that broke my heart and stitched it back up again, as it was something I wished my younger self could have read. Pretending turned out to be an important part two in the emotional journey Bourne’s writing had sent me on.
The blurb reads as follows:
“He said he was looking for a ‘partner in crime’ which everyone knows is shorthand for ‘a woman who isn’t real’.
April is kind, pretty, and relatively normal – yet she can’t seem to get past date five. Every time she thinks she’s found someone to trust, they reveal themselves to be awful, leaving her heartbroken. And angry.
If only April could be more like Gretel.
Gretel is exactly what men want – she’s a Regular Everyday Manic Pixie Dream Girl Next Door With No Problems.
The problem is, Gretel isn’t real. And April is now claiming to be her.
As soon as April starts ‘being’ Gretel, dating becomes much more fun – especially once she reels in the unsuspecting Joshua.
Finally, April is the one in control, but can she control her own feelings? And as she and Joshua grow closer, how long will she be able to keep pretending?– Holly Bourne, published by Hodder & Stoughton.
Don’t be fooled. This is not your average quirky romance book. It is so so so so SO MUCH more and I’m going to tell you why. Before I go on however, I must issue a trigger warning. This book discusses themes of sexual assault and abuse, and I will be discussing these things in depth in this post, so please read with caution.
Still with me? Good. I received my copy of the book whilst at work. I yelled in delight upon opening the box, and excitedly bounced around in anticipation until it was time for my lunch break. I ran up the stairs and flopped down with it in the staff room. Books, blankets, and a pillow- forget food, I was perfectly content for the next hour. I opened to page one and instantly laughed. My colleagues, of course, were curious.
“Let me read you the first sentence,” I told them, “You ready?”
They all lent forward in anticipation.
“I hate men.” I read.
They all laughed just as I did. My female colleagues all agreed that it was in fact a “big mood”, and I made many assurances that people could borrow the book once I was done with it. I went back to reading.
Bourne begins with our protagonist, April, relaying the many reasons why she hates the opposite sex. Reasons we can all relate to. Right off the bat Bourne pretty much grabs you by the shoulders and shouts LISTEN. The tone is incredibly realistic. It’s comedic where it needs to be-at all the parts we joke about ourselves. But it’s also dark at times. And frustrating. April, like many of us, hates men but also hates herself for still fancying them and seeking their approval. Big mood, am I right? But of course, this is only page one, so we’re not quite ready for the hard stuff yet. And besides, he finally messaged back.
April, we soon come to learn, is an attractive and seemingly normal woman in her thirties looking for love. She works hard at a job she loves- a charity that offers free and confidential advice to the public about all sorts of issues, similar to Bourne herself in her past. April loves her job and states often throughout the book that it is a very important part of her life. She loves to help people. As protagonists go, she’s a pretty likeable one. Bourne hints at a past incident and an ex named Ryan, but we pretty much dive into April’s story straight away. In her job, she deals often with victims of sexual assault- the frequency of which it is clear from the beginning frustrates her. But she perseveres. It’s hard, but she hasn’t completely lost faith in men. She has reached date five with Simon. According to all her obsessive googling, this is promising! It’s a milestone!
And this is where it first hit me. April is on date five and she talks about her job. Simon seems displeased by this. April is instantly an anxious mess and desperate to fix whatever error she has made by talking about herself. They go back to Simon’s.
“But sex… sex always grounds you again with them. I now want to have sex with him, not because I am horny, but to make things OK. Offer myself as an apology for being myself.”Pretending, p26,
Personally, I have a very complex relationship with sex. I thought it was just me. Apparently not. This quote was the first of many that really resonated with me. As a woman, I have often viewed sex not as a healthy act between two people to be enjoyed- but rather as something transactional. The sentence “Offer myself as an apology for being myself” shook me to my very core. I have felt that way. I have done that very act. It was both comforting and sad to know that I am not the only woman who has.
Much later in the book, when April is preparing herself to have sex with the main romantic interest of the book, Joshua, Bourne writes the following:
“I know it’s such an act of self-harm, but I’m going to do it anyway.”Pretending, p175
Never before had I read such a raw interpretation of sex. Consent is an issue that is talked about a lot in the media. But this? This is almost a… sexual apathy. I’ve had many a discussion with both therapists and friends about this kind of sex. You’re not saying no, but are you really saying yes? If you don’t really want to do it, is this then rape? I’m still unsure of the answer sometimes, but I fully agree with Bourne’s depiction of this being an act of self-harm. I believe that self-harm can be as much about the things that you allow to be done to you than the things you do to yourself.
This kind of liminal area of consent is one that I feel needs more discussion across all areas of media. April often receive’s multiple emails at her job that follow the vain of “Me and my boyfriend had sex. I didn’t really want to but he’s my boyfriend, and I didn’t say no. Was this rape? Should I be worried?”, sparking a great anger in her that spurs most of her actions in the book. It’s a subject matter that really made me think. Of course, I believe that the absence of “no” does not mean a resounding “yes”- when it comes to other people. But April’s internal monologue here is a great representation of how that viewpoint can become warped in your own head. What she’s doing is harmful, extremely so. But it is also something that I- and from the sounds of it many other women- have done before. We know by this point in the book that in the past, April has been raped. Violently so. Are we then to believe that, because she has experienced this, that passive sex should be much more bearable? Bourne links this whole scene to April’s sense of worth. If I could, I would quote the entirety of the chapter previous to this quote where she discusses the relationship a woman has with sex after rape. The shame, the worry, the confusion, the jealousy of people who have never experienced it, the constant, soul-deep intrusive thought that maybe, just maybe… you deserved it. All of this weighs heavily on April, and is why she carries this passive attitude towards sex.
“‘But this feeling of powerlessness pre-dates what Ryan did to me,” I tell her. I reach out and tickle the truth, burning my finger. ‘I’ve always felt like I’m on the backfoot, that I’m chasing a rainbow I don’t deserve, that I’m not worth anything.’ My throat’s smaller. Hands shakier. ‘In fact, when he did it,’ I say, hardly able to get the words out, ‘it wasn’t even a shock.’ I pause again. ‘More of a confirmation of the inevitable.'”Pretending, p235
Bourne also links these feelings of worthlessness with a feeling of powerlessness that I think is universal to all women. We are often shamed for showing any form of ambition. Any kind of want. For love, a successful career, or even just a big fat juicy hamburger. Yes, nowadays we have it so much better than the women of our past, but this feeling of powerlessness is almost ingrained in us. It is something that we have to actively unlearn- and I think that is one of the most important parts of April’s journey in the book. A lot of that powerlessness comes from fear, and how debilitating that can be, even if it’s just a niggling fear in the back of your brain that any random man can trigger. As April eloquently states:
“If only they’d listen rather than call me hysterical, I would scream, YES, I KNOW NOT ALL OF YOU DO IT, BUT ALL OF YOU CAN DO IT. THAT’S THE POINT, THAT’S THE FUCKING POINT.”Pretending, p247
The “it”, of course, is rape. She continues with the harrowing observation, “all he has to do is decide to do it and he’ll be able to”. At this point in my reading, I had to put the book down. Admittedly, a lot of the parts in this book were hard for me to read as a victim of sexual assault, but this part in particular got to me. For me, it hit the nail on the head. This is a feeling that we- people, not just women- never acknowledge. That someone else can feel entitled to your body. It’s scary, and even if we couldn’t possibly imagine feeling that way, some people do. Some people even fantasise about it- and that’s why we walk home with keys between our fingers at night. That’s why we avoid eye contact with a stranger on the street. That’s why we move to a different part of the train when a large group of men climb aboard. That’s why we feel uneasy being the only person like us in a room. Fear. Powerlessness. The undeniable pressure of “these people matter more than you”.
April’s journey in Pretending is a great balance of how to live with this feeling as well as how to overcome it. As part of her recovery, she joins a boxing class for rape survivors- a place where she finds a very moving sense of catharsis and comradery. As readers, we want April to achieve that sense of relief. We want her to find a healthy way of dealing with that anger we all can feel. But, as in real life when this happens, I always find it incredibly sad to find that someone else knows exactly what you’re going through. Bourne articulates this perfectly. The relief of knowing you’re not alone mixed with the rage that this has happened to someone else. Most likely someone you love. On a recent episode of the podcast The High Low, Bourne stated that statistically, 1 in 3 women have experienced some form of sexual violence.
Let’s sit with that for a second.
Part of the reason I am writing this post is because I feel as though this book will help people who have been through something similar- but I also hate that there is such a wide market for that. This book is very important, both for people who have knowledge of sexual violence and those who don’t. For me, this book felt at times as though Bourne was holding my hand and telling me it was going to be okay. But it also brought forward that simmering rage that sits down inside all of us. The disbelief that someone could commit such an act of violence against another person.
In recent interviews, Bourne expressed a worry that parts of the book would be considered hate speech. I can see where she’s coming from- “i hate men” is a pretty bold opening line for a novel. I say “i hate men” all the time. Most women do. Does this apply to my male friends whom I love very much? Well no, but also yes. Thankfully, most of my male friends are very open to these kinds of discussions. If I have a problem with the way they treat women- I bring it up. Most have thanked me for offering a new perspective. Those that don’t listen- well, we’re no longer friends. Just as women have to unlearn centuries of misogyny- so do men. In the book, Joshua is not perfect- but he’s willing to learn, unlike any of April’s other previous romantic choices. Their relationship is at its best when they simply listen to each other.
“I want to be known, all of me known. All of me loved. All of me accepted. I want to have someone in my life who completely and utterly knows me, and has earned the knowing of me by their unwavering willingness to stick around while I slowly reveal it all. It only grows with time and commitment and dedication, and that only comes with someone deciding you are worth the investment to become knowable.Pretending, p337
I think all of us have that desperate yearning within us. And almost all of us believe that it can only be achieved via a romantic means. April learns that, while romantic love is important, so is platonic love and the love that we give ourselves. I enjoyed that Bourne left April and Joshua’s relationship quite open-ended, because really whether or not April gets the guy isn’t important. What’s important is her internal journey and how she processes her past and how it will affect her future. Bourne reminds us how important healing is, no matter when you get around to doing it. Know your worth, and remind yourself of it every day.
I will definitely be putting this book into as many hands as possible as soon as I can. Pretending is raw, honest, and important- and I look forward to hopefully seeing an increase of books like it on the shelves. Though it was hard to read at times, it also felt very necessary, and I truly believe that myself and others will be better for it. So thank you Holly Bourne and thank you to everyone that takes something away with them after reading this book. The conversation has to start somehow, and this is it.
Pretending by Holly Bourne is available now in hardback.