When I was a teenager, I was a bit of a weirdo. I didn’t read much, but what I generally did read was books of high literary merit – prizewinners, critically acclaimed novels, classics, that kinda thing. That and the occasional underground indie af book because I thought I was so cool whenever any of my well-read friends was like, ‘I haven’t heard of that one.’
Now that I’m in my twenties, I still don’t read much. I wish I did, but for the most part I don’t have the attention span for it – I find reading books hard and I’m very slow. But when I do read these days, it’s almost always crappy teen fiction. Which I love. Because it’s easy to read, it’s escapist, and I expect it to be Not Very Good, so when it does turn out to be badly written I’m not disappointed. But occasionally, a teen fiction book I’m reading turns out to be not just readable, but actually enjoyable. And relevant, and engaging, and touching. Am I Normal Yet? by Holly Bourne is one such book.
The cover, complete with ugly as fuck colour scheme and godawful generic tagline, does not do this book justice. Holly Bourne, I know that’s probably not on you. We’ll blame your publisher for that fuckup. I mean really though, there’s nothing about this cover that compels me to pick it up, and if future editions of this book are printed, I hope the front cover gets a drastic remake because really. But for some reason I picked it up anyway, and I’m so glad I did.
All Evie wants is to be normal. And now that she’s almost off her meds and at a new college where no one knows her as the-girl-who-went-nuts, there’s only one thing left to tick off her list…
It was this part of the blurb that got me, and I knew I was going to buy this book. I can’t remember the last time I read a YA novel that dealt primarily with mental illness (which doesn’t mean there are none! I’m sure there are plenty!), and I was curious to see how this author would handle it. My interest was piqued, and I ended up devouring the book in less than a week – incredibly quick for a girl who can take months to read a smallish novel.
SPOILERS ABOUND. CONSIDER YOURSELF WARNED.
Am I Normal Yet? is written in first person, from the perspective of Evie, a sixteen-year-old college student (college seems to be the English equivalent of year twelve and thirteen in New Zealand) who is in recovery from OCD and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Like me, she suffers from panic attacks, irrational thoughts, and constant fears of getting sick. She is younger than I was when my anxiety hit me hard, and so it affects her life in different ways and she deals with it differently. But she worries about a lot of the same things as me, and it was comforting to see that reflected in mainstream fiction. Or even just reflected at all.
Bourne succeeds in conveying the way utterly irrational thoughts are incredibly real and terrifying for sufferers of anxiety disorders and OCD, even if the sufferer themselves is aware of the irrationality of their thoughts – which they often are. She also succeeds in conveying the way ordinary everyday life is made near-impossible when suffering from severe mental illness. Complete non-issues become all-consuming and disabling: in Evie’s case, her need to be clean comes to override everything else in her life. She is terrified of germs and dirt, and despite having impeccable personal hygiene, she sees potential bugs everywhere and is compelled to constantly clean both herself and, when she can, her immediate surroundings.
I don’t suffer from OCD myself, but I know well the fear of germs, of getting sick, and that panicked certainty that I’ve already ingested something that will kill me. I thought Bourne did a very good job of writing Evie’s relapse – as the novel progresses her obsessive, anxious thoughts steadily become more frequent; her obsessive, anxious behaviour becomes more prominent. She worries constantly about “going crazy again” (a fear I too have). She wishes that her brain wasn’t so terrible at being a brain, and that she could just have an ordinary everyday life, free from her disorder (I want those things too). This was, I thought, an accurate portrayal of mental illness and the ways it affects those who suffer from it.
Don’t get me wrong, this book isn’t perfect. There were places where the writing could certainly have been tightened. I caught a few little errors that should have been picked up in editing. Some characters and relationships would have benefited from more development. But that’s okay. In spite of those things, it’s still a good read. It’s not trying to be the creme de la creme of all books ever. It’s YA fiction, not a friggin Man Booker winner.
I highly recommend Am I Normal Yet? to anyone who wants to understand more about what it’s like to have a mental disorder, because for the most part, Bourne hits the nail on the head. Also, if you’re a feminist and you like an easy read that’s also got feminist themes, you’ll probably like this. Thank you, Holly Bourne, for writing this story. I’m grateful that fiction like this exists.
Tl;dr: I read this book recently and I thought it was really good and it was about mental illness and stuff and I think you should probably read it too.