13 July 2010

by Wendy Phillips
Published by Coteau Books
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$14.95 ISBN 978-1-55050-411-8

Fishtailing, the new genre-hybridized book for teens by Richmond, BC writer Wendy Phillips, is 196 pages long but takes precious little time to read. A drama that reads like a novel written in poems, the book’s über-quick pacing, innovative structure, disparate adolescent characters and bold themes combine to create a literary experience highly-suited for teenagers.

The story braids the inner hopes, fears and traumas of four central characters: edgy Natalie, who’s been transferred to her new school due to “some difficulty with peer relationships” at her former school; Tricia, who feels invisible within a blended family, struggles with her Japanese\Canadian ethnicity, and is drawn toward friendship with Natalie; Miguel, who’s fled the violence of Central America with his uncle and cousin, reads Neruda, and is haunted by images of his mother’s murder; and Kyle – the most interesting of the four seniors – who works in his father’s garage, writes the best poetry, and plays his guitar with grease-stained fingers.

We also hear from Mrs. Farr, an overwhelmed English teacher who encourages the students to write poetry but challenges them over the merest hint of sex or violence in their work. (In other words, she dissuades the teens to address the issues most relevant to them). For example, when Miguel realistically writes of his village’s massacre, Farr responds “you dwell on blood and carnage excessively. Perhaps an uplifting moment of redemption is in order”. When Kyle, a motorcyclist, writes “I gun my engine till it roars\The pistons explode between my legs” – okay, that’s more than a hint – he is chastised for “overt sexual references.” Farr frequently e-mails the school counsellor, Janice Nishi, for advice.

The narrative’s revealed in e-mail like entries, poems (we know some are given as assignments); and in Farr’s comments on the assignments.

Natalie and Miguel have truly disturbing histories. Regarding the former, Phillips divulges just enough to explain Natalie’s compulsion for slashing herself. The girl “Starts a work of art\in blood\on [her] thigh,” and also teaches Tricia how to cut and arrive at the “river of forgetting”.

There are several “sweet” moments as the young couples become involved. Kyle, especially, is besotted by Tricia (“She’s welded on the inside\of my eyelids”), and even Natalie manages a pithy love note: “I’ll say this.\His hands know\how to heat up\my blood”. Readers witness how Kyle develops as a poet, and whether it’s straight ahead metaphors (“A poem is a bucket\of bolts”) or the self-aware line “My voice\is changing,” one can’t help cheering for this blue-collared character.

Tension abounds, and the plot snowballs toward an explosive ending.

Phillips, a first-time author, has worked as a journalist, high school English teacher, and a teacher-librarian, and she’s lived on either side of Canada and across the world (Southern Africa, Australia). She brings much knowledge and experience to this absorbing text, thus whether she’s writing in the voice of renegade Natalie or Mrs. Farr, Phillips gets it right.

Fishtailing was published by Coteau Books. A sequel may well be in order.


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