REVIEW: Say Her Name by James Dawson

Over the next ten weeks I will be reading and reviewing the shortlisted books for the inaugural YA Book Prize. I’m thrilled that the diverse and thriving UK YA scene is being celebrated. I’m also thrilled that the new Decemberists album is out, but that’s irrelevant.

SAY-HER-NAME-James-Dawson-Jacket

Say Her Name is one of the best horror movies I’ve never watched. Set in a creepy all girls’ boarding school perched ominously at the top of the cliffs, and centred around one of the most popular urban legends of all time, it couldn’t be more “scary story” if it tried. The opening scene takes place at Hallowe’en, during a storm, for goodness’ sake. Our main character, the usually shy Bobbie, is for some reason compelled to join in on a dare: she must, along with her friends, say Bloody Mary’s name five times into the mirror. It’s just a scary story, right?

Naturally, hauntings ensue. Bobbie starts having strange dreams. Bobbie starts seeing things – including a mysterious warning written on a bathroom mirror: “FIVE DAYS.” One of the things that sold me on Say Her Name was reading that it was so scary, someone at Hot Key had to hide it in the fridge. I’ve been after scares from my books ever since I read Gerald’s Game at a hugely inappropriate age, and Say Her Name certainly delivers the shivers. Dawson does an excellent job at generating a horror movie atmosphere with nothing but words on a page – perhaps for full effect, it’d be best to read in the dark. I never had to hide my copy in the fridge, but I did avoid looking in mirrors for a while…

As well as being spooky, the Bloody Mary plot is genuinely intriguing. Horror with sympathy for the monster is not a unique concept, but it’s a good way to explore identities and empathy, especially when your protagonist and the creature she is terrorised by are both teenage girls. Add in the twist that Mary is just-maybe an unreliable narrator, and I’m hooked.

It’s a shame then that I didn’t particularly care whether Bobbie or anybody else actually survived. The book has been touted as a “fresh and witty update” to the Bloody Mary story, and while it feels contemporary (…for a book set in an all girls’ boarding school where internet and phones are restricted) the sharp dialogue is all surface sheen. The ghost of Bloody Mary is the most nuanced and interesting character in the whole book. Naya’s main trait seems to be “from New York” and all we know about Bobbie is that she likes writing, has a mum, and is brave when the plot demands it. I was thrown by Bobbie’s “triumphant” character moment: quiet, brave, smart Bobbie overcomes Bloody Mary and as a reward she gets to… out-bitch the school bitch. It’s a little unsatisfying. I suppose, ultimately, I’m uncomfortable with a YA book that portrays almost all of its young characters as shallow and unkind to each other. As a ghost story, Say Her Name is excellent. As a movie, it would be even better. But as a contender for the YA Book Prize, it disappointed me.

(James Dawson seems to be a very cool dude, though, and I will be reading his other books!)

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