In my continuing project to read and review books based in the Downtown Eastside, I came across a very recent book called Anatomy of a Girl Gang by a newer author named Ashley Little. The point of these reviews in particular is to examine them from the perspective of someone who lives in the area. Most of the books I have read so far (not all of them reviewed yet) are written by outside observers. They have done their research, but do not live here or even spent much time here at all (at least as far as the bios are concerned). The first book I reviewed (Beggar’s Garden by Michael Christie) was written by someone who worked in the area with residents. It remains the most familiar to me. That is, when I read it, it felt the closest to the reality I witness. Others have been set in the past, so they don’t have much in common with the current DTES. One book I will review in the future, East Van, is from a true insider’s perspective (written by a former addict) and the one I learned the most from. Anatomy of a Girl Gang, by contrast, is the most misplaced. There is very little that rings true, even and especially the line that was apparently borrowed from a reputable news source—that Vancouver is the “gang capital of Canada.” I’ve noted over and over again that whenever I see a headline in the newspaper about gang-related violence, the story invariable takes place in the suburbs. And in fact, a little bit of research would show that the majority of gang related violence takes place in the suburbs, but national newspapers place Vancouver in the headlines, which almost invariably makes people think that the violence is occurring near the famous Main and Hastings intersection.
Anatomy of a Girl Gang will only exacerbate this problem. Consider that the titular girl gang (called the Black Roses) sets up their headquarters in a Vancouver Special on East Cordova. This house could only really be on the 600 block of East Cordova since there are no other blocks with anything resembling a Vancouver Special on East Cordova, and yet, the feel of the area in the book makes it seem like a dreary slum that all the characters are pining to escape. In reality, that block is home to several families, including two of my daughter’s best friends.
This past weekend, I, by chance, found myself eating lunch with one of Little’s first readers for the book and the person agreed with me that there may have been an insensitivity toward the area. We both noted that neither of us had ever heard of guns being pulled by dealers even if they carry. This person seemed even to have a little regret in not speaking out about it earlier in the process.
That being said, both of us liked the book for what it was. Speaking for myself, when I read these books I have a unique perspective. Most people do not know the area like those of us who sleep here and shop here and walk our kids to school here and so my perspective should be taken with a grain of salt when reading the book on its merits, which are substantial. I suspect that many people from Albuquerque felt the same way about how their city was presented in Breaking Bad. And yet the verisimilitude for residents don’t take away from the verisimilitude of the larger viewing audience. Verisimilitude aside, Breaking Bad also had a mythic quality that enhanced it rather than took away from its effectiveness.
Not to compare Anatomy of a Girl Gang to Breaking Bad, but there are some similarities, including the mythic feel of the book. In an interview, Little says that she plotted her novel with Romeo and Juliet in mind. Though she also says, “I wanted the novel to be set there so I could offer readers a window into that world,” I believe the book works better as an updated version of Westside Story than a true to life depiction of the Downtown Eastside.
So how does the book update Westside Story? Who are the Jets and who are the Sharks? Well, it is more original than that. The book tells the story of a group of teenage girls from different backgrounds (Indian princess, white girl from a wealthy family, rebellious girl from Chinatown, aboriginal from a reserve, and an orphan who had junkie parents) going over the daily happenings of a fledgling gang. Two members of the gang had been pimped by some men with no profits of their own and so decide to branch out on their own, starting their own gang. Each character, as they pick them up, has a different role in the running of the gang, hence the title—each member is like a body part: one is the head, one the hands, one the feet, etc. There are five girls, each with her own voice and role and perspective in the gang, which expands its territory in dealing, stealing, promoting, and dreaming of bigger things. Two of the girls end up as star-crossed lovers, causing conflict within the gang and with one of the girls’ family in Chinatown.
Occasionally (and unfortunately), there is another voice, which is that of Vancouver. Vancouver, it turns out, is a poseur who writes in highfalutin prose. Mercifully, Vancouver is also laconic.
I’ve seen Anatomy of a Girl Gang described as YA Fiction, which seems about right. The characters are young and their voices ring true in that regard. They are dramatic and often simplistic in their worldview, much like teenagers. There are also some clunky moments in the plotting (like an unnecessarily early revelation regarding who the father of one of the girl’s children is) as well as some expository dialogue. I don’t read much YA Fiction, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that these are normal features of the genre.
I am a harsh critic, I realize. I know what I like and seek books out that have what I like, so I’ll finish with this. Anatomy of a Girl Gang is good and very worthwhile reading. The characters, though simple, are well drawn and don’t bog down the narrative too much with telling over showing (even though I would have liked a bit more showing). The normal audience of the book (I suspect older teenage girls) would probably like it and yet might be horrified by the ending, which I won’t spoil other than to say that it ends well, which is almost accomplishment enough to forgive any of my other quibbles.