I was lucky enough to request and receive a copy of this free from the publishers in exchange for an honest review. All views and opinions are my own.
Whether or not this becomes any kind of regular thing depends both on
a) me reading some more YA like I keep saying I will
b) me posting anything on time or with any degree of reliability
There’s a double post today, with both this one and The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta, and after that I’d like this to be a fortnightly or, maybe more realistically, monthly post to review my YA reads.
The two books I’m kicking off with though are both brilliant ‘coming-of-age’ tales of finding out who you are and becoming comfortable with yourself.
Becoming Dinah by Kit de Waal, artwork by ?
Published as part of Hachette’s ‘Bellatrix’ YA range, all written by female authors and designed to tell the “untold, mistold or misheard” stories of women.
We’ve already seen Kiran Millwood-Hargrave tell the story of Dracula’s brides in The Deathless Girls and here Kit de Waal retells Moby Dick – a book with almost no female characters at all – with a female main character in a modern day, terra firma setting.
I haven’t read Moby Dick. I was inspired to after reading this and I tried with it but I just couldn’t get into it. However, from what I know of it and what I read before abandoning ship so to speak, I really liked what Kit did with Ahab in this telling and the way she uses Ishmael, in particular the way she plays on the famous “Call me Ishmael” line.
Becoming Dinah tells the story of Dinah/Ishmael essentially doing just that – finding out who she is and “becoming Dinah”.
I loved the way her story was told. We begin not knowing exactly what she’s running from, just that she’s done something terrible and has to leave. I really liked the way we begin to guess at what this is as the backstory takes shape, and at how the book builds up to it; in Dinah/Ishmael’s mind, it is calamitous, while we gradually get the sense it may not be and this helps to convey that.
We’re then witness to Dinah shaving off her long, thick hair – her ‘crowning glory’ – in a scene that is part reverse-Samson, as we see later on rather than losing her strength with this she gathers strength from it, and part re-invention as she sheds her most defining feature ready to flee as Ishmael.
Initially planning on walking and hitch-hiking, she ends up agreeing to drive (despite not having passed her test) an old camper van for a neighbour who, like her, we find is also running away though in a more metaphorical sense and who, like her, ends up on a more emotional than physical journey.
The story unfolds in a really effective way with chapters in the present, written as Ishmael, that feel like they’re on a collision course with something, though we know not what, alternating with chapters looking back at the events in Dinah’s life that have led us here.
Dinah grew up homeschooled on a commune and while this is mostly portrayed as a happy time, I did have some misgivings about elements of it. That said, for the most part I recognise that this was not really intended as a comment on her life, more so on the way her peers used it to mark her out as different.
After some upheavals at home, and as she is growing older and experiencing that teenage itch to spread her wings, rebel and be her own person, Dinah decides to enrol in the local high school. Life there is tough at first, but she is befriended by Queenie and things start to look up. I’ll be honest though, I’m glad Queenie had only a small role in the book as, while she was necessary, I found her a bit two dimensional.
Dinah/Ishmael herself I found much more credible and I really felt for her, as well as reliving so many pangs of my own teenage emotions – shame, anger, angst, confusion, desire, freedom… at various points of her story. There is one point at which Ishmael daydreams of moving to New York, where she’ll be cool and popular and life will be good and I had this dream almost so exactly in my late teens that reading it here was particularly emotive.
I also grew to really love the character of Ahab in the book – complex, layered and deep, there is more than meets the eye to the crotchety old bully of a man we meet in the first chapter or two.
I really liked the multi-generational aspect of the story, and the way we saw the effect of the journey not just on Dinah/Ishmael, but also on him. For Dinah/Ishmael, there is a real sense of growth, finding her identity and becoming more self-aware and self-confident.
Ahab is not lacking in self-confidence, or so it seems, but he is hurting and he too needs this journey to open up, grow emotionally and let go of his pride. For both of them, it is a journey of healing and of dealing with the past in order to move forwards.
The ending was for me a little too tidy, happy and predictable BUT I know this is just me. I’m a miserable old cynic who’s not a fan of happy endings and in a YA book of this style and on this theme it’d be ridiculous for it to have anything else! So, in this respect, it’s very much a case of “It’s not you, it’s me”.
Overall, I really enjoyed this. Despite not caring much for the smaller characters, I thought the main characters were complicated and credible, and I felt like I really got to know and care for them.
I really enjoyed how the story was told over the course of the road trip, and the way their encounters along the way all helped to move their journey along both physically and emotionally.
Telling Ahab’s story alongside Dinah/Ishmael’s really added depth and different perspectives to the themes the books addressed and was something I really enjoyed, especially as an older YA reader.
To summarise – with themes of relationships, family and identity, this is a warm, emotional and cleverly told road trip of self-discovery, facing your fears and growing up.