Book: The Leaving
Author: Gabriella West
Publisher: Self-Published at Smashwords
As an intelligent, slightly quirky, baby dyke with a cowlick, coming of age in small town, rural America in the mid-eighties was a confusing, awkward, lonely experience. I didn’t read the same books, listen to the same music, or wear the same clothes as my peers; and whenever I tried to engage anyone in conversation, they tended to look at me like I was asking them, in a little-used dialect of isiXhosa, to conjegate a sentence with multiple verbs.
And, as hard as it may be to believe, I never actually did that – with “that” being the operative word.
Because friendships of any depth were fleeting, at best, I tended to focus my teenage energies inward, and spent a lot of time thinking about travelling to places like Marrakesh and the Heart of Darkness, and meeting people just a little more like me.
Or even totally not like me, but at least able to conjugate a sentence with multiple verbs.
In The Leaving, by Gabriella West, we are introduced to teenager Cathy Quinn, a smart, quirky, social misfit growing up in the dreary and depressed 1980’s Dublin. Her gay brother, Stevie, begins a new relationship with the one boy she thinks she likes only to discover she really doesn’t. Stevie is sometimes her friend and sometimes her antagonist, but always her older brother. Cathy understands that she’s not like anyone else, but isn’t going to be coerced by her parents, her brother, or her schoolmates into fitting in to their definition of ‘normal’.
After Christmas break, she meets Jeanette, another misfit, and begins her first in-depth friendship. Quickly, the friendship grows stronger and deeper, and Cathy soon realizes she’s fallen in love. But, being gay is strictly verboten in this society, and Jeanette is more concerned with starting to fit in with the kids at school than in exploring and pursuing her feelings for her best friend. Cathy is faced with changing herself to fit in with Jeanette, or staying true to herself and being alone again. She chooses to focus inward to cope with the separation, loss, and pain; and looks outward as she starts to plan her escape from school, home, Dublin, and Ireland.
“California, here we come . . .”
When I first read the synopsis of The Leaving, I thought I’d be reading a YA novel. And, while some young adults might pick it up and learn a thing or two, the book transcends the boundaries of that genre’. Yes, it’s about a teenager dealing with school, friends, family, sexuality, and first love; but it also explores complex themes like sibling rivalry, gender bias, social bullying, and raw emotional default.
Cathy is described as chubby, homely, standoffish, and weird, but you get the sense that at some level she understands that she’s biding her time, keeping the plates spinning, and waiting for the time to spread her wings and fly. This is portrayed beautifully during the section of the book where Cathy and Jeanette spend several weeks on the farm in County Meath. Cathy flourishes socially, emotionally, and physically before it all falls apart and the downward spiral of her relationship with Jeanette begins. But still, she has the brief, sweet taste of things to come.
While Cathy’s relationship with her parents is almost non-existent, her relationship with Stevie is complicated and central to the book – he’s everything she isn’t – strong, popular, bold, and good-looking. He looks after her, tells her things, and shares part of the burden of home life with her. But, he senses her inner strength and capabilities lurking deep inside. Surprisingly, and sometimes not, it appears that Stevie senses her gifts, and tries to sabotage her through passive and not-so-passive aggressive behavior. As the book progresses, however, we start to see a shift in each of them and their relationship – Cathy, for all her faults and insecurities, begins to come into herself, and makes decisions that change the course of her life and moves her beyond Stevie’s shadow.
Overall, I thought the book started out very slowly, but came to understand that this is Cathy’s journey, not that of the reader. The book is written in first person narrative, and we follow her pace, her thoughts, her decisions, and her directions. She treats herself not so differently than she treats everyone around her, and the reader often times feels so close to breaking through, only to be pushed back slightly. At times, we’re invited inside, much like Stevie and Jeanette, but not much more. I sense that this takes an amazing amount of discipline by the author to tell Cathy’s story without stepping outside her carefully guarded emotional façade. While it can be trying for the reader, it makes perfect sense.
One of the near constants of any coming of age story is that there is something that each of us identifies with, and this story stays true to form. The Leaving is a powerful book, but it’s not emotionally easy to read. We want to be closer to Cathy, but she won’t let us. We want her to meet the perfect woman, but we don’t know if she ever will. And, we want to her be happy, but there’s no guarantee where life will lead her.
If you’re looking for something with a little bite, something that will challenge you, something that will take you back to those not-always-so-halcyon days of your teens as you assess where you’ve come and how you got here; then The Leaving is the perfect catalyst. I’m giving this book a 4.8 out of 6 on the Rainbow Scale.
Gabriella West isn’t afraid to be different, and she isn’t afraid to stay true to herself - for a little more info on her and how the book came to be, don't hesitate to check her out at either of the following sites: