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Fishtailing Wendy Phillips Essay

Reviewed by Joan Marshall

Can there be anything worse for a teenager than to be the new kid at high school? Natalie hides all her insecurity behind a raw, hard-edged look while she searches for victims to draw into her sphere. Japanese-Canadian good girl Tricia is sucked into Natalie’s whirlpool of unhappiness, learning how to reject her family and to cut her body to gain power.

While vacillating between a future in the trades and the intoxication of a career in music, Kyle falls totally in love with Tricia. Miguel, recently arrived from an unnamed war-torn country, has lost his parents to violence and learned how to be a counter-revolutionary, familiar with knives, guns and seething anger. Even he, however, is not immune to Natalie’s beauty. As Natalie says, “I can tell it will be like shooting fish in a barrel.” Hovering in the background is Mrs. Margaret Farr, their English teacher, and Janice Nishi, the school counsellor. Their notes back and forth to each other, Mrs. Farr’s marking comments to the students, the students’ poetry writing assignments and the students’ self-talk lead the reader through part of a school year. Tricia gradually withdraws from her concerned family, committing herself to Natalie’s friendship. Kyle develops his guitar skills, using his love for Tricia as a catalyst. And Miguel, who fights horrific memories of the slaughter of his village and the loss of his parents, slowly succumbs to Natalie’s seduction.

At a wild party, Natalie ratchets up the drama and pain by tricking Kyle and Tricia, and deliberately betraying Miguel. Although the battered and bruised Kyle and the horrified Tricia manage to salvage their relationship, Natalie is transferred to another school and Miguel commits suicide.

The characters reflect the multicultural Vancouver setting, where teenagers struggle not only with the tragedy of abusive childhoods, but also must cope with the eternal coming-of-age questions that puzzle all young people. Who am I?  What will I do with my life?  How can I integrate the past with my desires for the future?

Natalie is stalled in the present, sexually abused by her father’s friend, and shut out from her parents’ love by their alcoholism, their absence and their work. Hurting others more than she has herself been hurt is paramount. Physically cutting herself with razor blades dulls the ugly memories and generates excitement for her. Almost unaware of how she has hurt the others, she imagines herself with claws and fangs, and hides her tears.

Kyle’s blooming love for Tricia leads him to see himself differently, and allows him to develop and strengthen his writing and singing voice, while not losing his love for things mechanical. Initially smitten by Natalie’s rule-breaking coolness, Tricia comes to realize that she cannot bring herself to participate in hurting others. As Kyle says, the tongue stud will get in the way of their kissing, but also metaphorically, in the way of their love and commitment to each other. Miguel integrates by playing soccer and completing assignments but he is so overwhelmed by violent, vicious memories fuelled by his uncle’s cold-blooded revolutionary plans that he knows he has no future, and Natalie’s betrayal tips him over the edge. Mrs. Farr, the English teacher, clearly tries her best but is unable to connect with the students’ emotional lives. The counsellor Janice Nishi comes closer to helping the students but realizes that ultimately they control their own responses and their own lives. All she can do is nudge them toward new beginnings.

This book comes together as a novel, but it is written in verse. Images of water and blood wash through the story. Miguel sees himself “fishtailing” against the relentless tide of Canadian students in the hallways. Natalie’s look cuts through to his “cold fish heart.” His memories of his mother are all river-connected as he sees her as a dead fish, the river choked with bodies. Natalie reels in Miguel, preparing bait as she makes herself beautiful for him. They go together to the aquarium and she hooks “a finger in his gills.” Kyle and Tricia court in the rain and Kyle “catches the current.” Blood spurts everywhere:  Natalie’s and Tricia’s cutting of their own skin, the bodies in Miguel’s past that “float down a blood river on a raft of human bones,” Natalie’s delight in “the bloody beauty of wounds.”

The book is structured in four parts that introduce the characters, establish their situations, bring the couples together and finally tear them apart. The poems cut out everything extraneous to the characters’ relationships. The emotional draw of this poetry comes from both the horror of war and abuse, and the sweet delight of new love. All of this angst is lightened by the amusing disconnect between the English teacher and her students, and the teachers’ lack of knowledge about the students’ home lives. This theme of the failure to understand and connect with others runs throughout the book: Natalie and Miguel carry such pain that they cannot let others become truly close; Tricia’s parents are separated and her mother is focused on her new family, not her teenage daughter; Kyle’s father celebrates a way of life that doesn’t resonate with his son. In a happy ending, however, Tricia stays with Kyle and looks forward to spring. The classic theme of coming of age will appeal to the intended reader, too, as both Kyle and Tricia change and grow into more mature people, taking charge of their own lives in a positive way. Natalie’s sad reality and Miguel’s tragic suicide remind the reader that not all hurt can be undone easily.

Fishtailing won the 2010 Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature. Its compelling cover and stunning story will surely entice students into the powerful world of poetry. It’s April, poetry month. Run out immediately and buy a copy of Fishtailing.

Coteau Books | 196 pages |  $15 | paper | ISBN #978-1550504118

"The beauty of the free verse style is that readers are never overwhelmed with narrative description or ongoing dialogue...It works beautifully and gives a refreshing new perspective about the cruel games sometimes played in high schools and the resulting teenage angst, despair and emotional trauma. Fishtailing is a novel worth having in any collection – for the poignant characterization, for the gripping plot, for the ingenuity of the writing. Highly Recommended." (CM Magazine 2010-06-04)

"The poems are excellent and the author beautifully captures the complex emotions of the teens...Fast paced, and often heartbreaking, this novel offers the reader much to discuss and think about long after reading." (Canadian Children's Book News 2010-07-01)

"The free-verse voices are all nicely handled; the teens are engaging…characters; and Natalie's machinations are compelling." (Booklist 2010-10-15)

"Phillips adeptly spins complex, provocative, sharp-imaged lines of poetry in this first novel that is mostly told by the four main characters…Enough razor blades, lust, jealousy and revenge to keep readers breathlessly hooked until the very end." (Kirkus Reviews 2010-10-15)

"An eloquent story with an intriguing format...This book is recommended for literature study groups, poetry lovers, and for the study of relationships between friends and among parents and children." (Resource Links 2010-10-01)

"The poetry is touching, painful, and jarring as Phillips presents [the characters'] stories through their hesitations, hopes, pains, and fears. The plot constantly twists and turns, keeping the reader guessing what will happen next." (VOYA 2011-02-01)

"The novel leaves readers gripping their seats and begging for more...Reluctant readers will like the quick flow of the novel, and poetry lovers will enjoy the verse form. Students will be finishing the book the day they begin. Recommended." (Library Media Connection 2011-03-01)

"While the stories are ordinary enough, they become far more intriguing as the reader is forced to discover them in the intricate poems written by the four teenagers...An original read...[and] undeniably worth the extra energy it takes when compared to the average teen novel." (What If? Magazine 2011-04-01)

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